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Autistic people are part of the church jigsaw, say guidelines

by Bill Bowder

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Part of the Church: Charin Corea, who is autistic, and his mother Charika, at a service to mark the International Day of Prayer for Autism and Asperger's Syndrome, at All Saints', Woodford Wells, London, in February      PA

CLERGY should regard learning disabilities and autism as a political, not just a medical issue, says a new report, Opening the Doors, to be discussed at General Synod next month.

The report, which has the backing of the Archbishop of York, urges clergy to look at the “social model of disability — a model which encourages us to recognise that people are disabled by society, as the context in which they live with any impairment of their physical or mental functions”.

The social model uses politics and social change to get society to adjust to disabled people, rather than expect them to adjust to society, say the guidelines in the report. They were prepared by a working party comprising members of the Archbishops’ Council, Canon Bob Brooke, Chaplain for people with learning disabilities, and others with relevant experi­ence.

The report would “help equip churches to develop their own approach”, the Archbishop of York writes in his commendation of the report. “With the watchword ‘nothing about us without us’, thinking and planning will, from the start, look to the gifting of all members of Christ’s body.”

The guidelines remind readers that those with learning disabilities are full members of the Church, and should be baptised, confirmed, married, encouraged to attend services, and not be left out of friends’ funerals because people think that they will not be able to cope.

Many children are “defined” by the medical model even before they born, the report says. Their parents may have struggled with “the issue of termination and the ethics relating to the treatment (or otherwise) of babies born with major impairments”. Medical advice was not always without bias.

“It is very important for the parents to know that the Church and God have always loved and accepted their child, both before and after diagnosis, as the local church community may quickly become the only consistent group of people or institution that that family can experience throughout the child’s lifetime.”

People with a disability are “complete persons before God, and their impairments and disabilities are part of their human identity”. They do not need special prayers for healing, and leaders and congregations should beware of the “spiritual abuse” of praying for them without their permission. The guidelines warn of “imposed prayer” that is “oppressive, with emotional pleas for cures to take place”.

People with a disability can help their church. One exhausted volunteer said of a teenage girl with Down syndrome who came to cuddle her: “I suddenly realised that she was ministering to me. After I had given every­thing to others, she came along, regular as clock­work, and filled me back up with God’s love and comfort.”

In another church, a boy with autism “ran up to everyone he saw with an order of service and a radiant smile. Through his min­istry of welcome, people felt accepted and loved before the service had even begun.”

April Cherry, “an autistic person living in a non-autistic world”, says in the report that her faith helped her in a world that felt “com­pletely disordered, a jigsaw thrown into the air. It’s fragmented and bewildering.

“But Jesus steps into the chaos with me. I find great joy and light when I talk to him. . . He makes the jigsaw pieces into a whole picture. . . His peace and love are like white stepping stones across the swirling, rushing river of my life.”

Opening the Doors: Ministry with people with learning disabilities and people on the autism spectrum is published by the General Synod and available from Church House Bookshop, £11.

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