Have you ever had a friendship that started out, at first, on the worst possible footing—and yet, somehow—it grew anyway? I have an autistic friend who can testify that is exactly how our relationship lurched forward. When we first met, while I was leading a national disability ministry, my “wheelhouse” was primarily in the area of intellectual disability. At that time, I did not have any close personal connections with adults who have “high functioning autism” (a misnomer in and of itself). Lori was the first woman I had ever encountered who carried this descriptor.
We met in 2013 at our denomination’s annual General Assembly. While working the booth for our ministry, Lori circled by several times and then finally came up and talked to me for a bit. She mentioned that she had a son with autism. I’d had those conversations with lots of folks before. Then she said, “I have autism too.” Now she had my attention.
When “typical” folks meet people with disabilities, we can often fall into one of three categories of unhelpful responses: condescension, complacency, or consumerism. In my experience, the most common response is one of condescension—a revealing of our own biases of superiority towards people with differing abilities whom we presume to be inferior to us. It’s an ugly disclosure when it happens. And it happens frequently. Condescension says much more about us and our distorted views of ourselves than it says about people with disabilities.
The second category is complacency. Complacency is indifferent to the difficulties associated with disability and deeply rooted in our postmodern cultural context. Complacency can mask as acceptance—but it refuses to acknowledge (or feel any responsibility toward) the ways that some degree of suffering always accompanies disability in how the body works differently than we expect it to. For people with autism, the differences in neurological functioning create very challenging sensory, communication, relational, and executive functioning hurdles. When we are complacent or indifferent toward those realities, we communicate to people with autism that we expect them to bear these challenges in silence.
The third trap is a consumer mindset—one that sees the person with autism, in this case, as a commodity. Wow—you inspire me. Wow—you’re not what I expected. Wow—you could be really useful to me. I fell into this latter pitfall in my first encounter with Lori. Acknowledging that I did not know nearly as much about autism as I really needed to, I was thrilled to meet someone who was not only a parent of a child with autism but also autistic herself. What a gold mine! That’s when the unfiltered speech started on my part. “Will you be my (ministry’s) Temple Grandin?” Yes. I actually said that. I know. It’s mortifying for me even now, just to type it, let alone acknowledge that I blurted it out. (In case you don’t know who Temple Grandin is, she is a woman with autism who is a world-renowned speaker on the subject and also a brilliant, accomplished researcher in the topic area of animal husbandry.)
What I Am Still Learning
I thought it might be helpful to share a few things I’ve learned (and am still learning) along the way about becoming friends with someone who is autistic. I’ve asked Lori to interact with me on this post as well, so this post is only Part 1 of 2, as Lori’s voice in this conversation is, of course, crucial.
In my experience, I think those of us who would describe our interactions with the world around us as “neurotypical” will benefit from recognizing that we subconsciously settle into several things in our friendships, without even being aware of them. “Easy” neurotypical friendships are often based on commonality, comfort, competence, and conformity. We find it easiest to relate to those with whom we share things in common, whose presence doesn’t require us to be uncomfortable in any way, where our knowledge of the world and how it works feels competent, and where there is some mutually agreed upon level of conformity.
Christ-like relationships, on the other hand, are not focused on “ease” but on “intentionality.” There was nothing “easy” about the incarnation for Jesus. He took on an entirely foreign existence in his humanity, gave up the comforts of heaven, patiently interacted with the incompetence of his followers and the religious leaders of the day, and gave up his very life that we might be conformed to his character. Jesus models for us in the Gospels—over and over again—what it looks like when people pursue life-giving, other-centered, intentional friendships with those who experience the world differently than you or I do.
A Few Places to Start
Here are a few tips on where to start:
- Shift from COMMONALITY to LISTENING. When our starting point is based on our commonality with others, we can end up pursuing a mission that seeks to understand just enough of the other person so that we might be understood. For example, I may ask you just enough questions to find something to latch onto that I feel like we have in common. That gives me some comfort (see the next point). But what if, instead of pursuing my own comfort by seeking commonality, I just simply listened to truly understand—even if I cannot find much common ground in interests or in life experiences? While we often think of Jesus in his teaching mode, take another look at the Gospels. Jesus asked a lot of questions of others—and he genuinely listened to their responses.
- Shift from COMFORT to LEANING IN. Comfort has a certain type of inertia associated with it. It’s like being settled into the pillows on a big, comfortable sofa. Think: “couch potato.” Comfort and complacency can feed on each other. We really don’t want to be nudged from our cozy spot. We want to settle back, not lean in. Being friends with someone who is autistic—who experiences the world differently in their senses, their relationships, and their communication—requires leaning into their reality. It means shifting your relational weight forward instead of settling into your own gravitational pull towards comfort. Jesus didn’t just lean into our world—he actually left his home entirely in order to enter into ours. We’re not being asked to do that. We’re simply being asked to shift our weight from the self-centered comfort of inertia to the other-centered leaning in of intentional identification with the experiences of another.
- Shift from COMPETENCE to LEARNING. Both commonality and comfort can contribute to a sense of competence. “I’ve got this.” When we feel competent, we tend to feel more powerful and less vulnerable. If we are finding our complete confidence in Christ, however, we can actually own the degrees to which we are sinfully selfish, frighteningly finite, and catastrophically clueless. When we find our identity in Christ—and his sufficiency for all that we need—it makes it utterly safe for us to be humble learners in his world. In engaging people with autism, we need to lose our love for the power of competence and be willing to be vulnerable learners in this world. We need to be lifelong learners of what it is like to navigate a world that is experienced by others very differently neurologically than what you or I might experience.
- Shift from CONFORMITY to LIBERTY. This last one is important, and yet, has the potential to be misunderstood. One of the most damaging things to people with autism is the expectation that they must conform to neurotypical expectations of how they handle sensory input, how they operate in relationships, and how they communicate at all times. I am not talking about conformity to the image of Christ—which is what ought to be growing by the power of the Spirit in every believer. This type of conformity I’m referring to is to what is culturally deemed “normal.” The Scriptures demonstrate that disability, however, is a “normal part of life in an abnormal world.” It is to be expected. We should not be shocked or surprised that people with autism live in our communities, attend our schools, and (hopefully) join our churches. In addition, as Jesus demonstrated in his encounter with the man born blind in John 9, God sovereignly ordains disability “so that the work of God might be displayed” in the lives of people with disabling conditions. God has good purposes in life for the people who he has created with autism. As such, they need the liberty to actually be autistic—not constantly expected to conform at all times to “normal” standards of sensory processing, relating, and communicating. Be a safe place where the person you know who has autism can exercise the liberty to be autistic—while also being appropriately accountable to and considerate of others, as every Christian is called to be.
So, this week, keep your eyes open for someone in your world who may be wired differently than you—literally—and ask God to give you the grace to listen, lean in, learn, and respect their liberty. Trust me on this—it is you who will be blessed!
For further reading on autism, from Lori Sealy’s perspective, you can find some great articles on her website at www.lorisealy.com.
About the Author:
Steph served as Director of Mission to North America’s (MNA) Special Needs Ministries from 2007 to 2016. She currently works as a Research Fellow in Disability Ministry in partnership with Covenant Theological Seminary. She also serves on the Lancaster Christian Council on Disability (LCCD). Steph is the author of Same Lake, Different Boat: Coming Alongside People Touched by Disability and All Things Possible: Calling Your Church Leadership to Disability Ministry. She has been published in ByFaith magazine, Focus on the Family magazine, and Breakpoint online magazine and has produced a Christian Education DVD series based on Same Lake, Different Boat. Steph and her husband, Fred, have been married for 34 years. They have two deeply loved adult sons: Fred and Tim, the younger of whom has Down syndrome.