Reflections from the Roundtable: Why autistic individuals need to be leading the way
The 'Attentiveness to Autism' project (or in English, Pru, my minister and I!) got invited up to the SEND Methodist Roundtable as part of the planning team for SEND and autism and increasing accessibility in the Methodist Church. I have to admit, this was a surprise being invited up as we only received our invitation early April just after our service. I had no idea what we would be discussing, and the outcome of the session is still under wraps until passed by connexion (central head office) so this post will not be reflecting on the outcome. Rather, this post will be picking out some of the key points that are crucial to a successful implementation of pushing boundaries and opening up the church. There are many who I have spoken to who keep their cards to their chest and just say 'it is difficult'. This is not inspiring or innovating and keeps them as the stakeholders of the change. This winds me up no end. We should be inspiring in the face of adversity to keep change alive.
This is something I feel so strongly about and that I want to do, so when I say 'autistic individuals have to be involved and leading this', I speak not only of myself. In services and in churches, we like to think we know what is needed to help others, especially if we can either see it or have experience of helping someone else. We need to be moving away from this, using the example of autism in churches, there are some things that only autistic individuals are going to notice and place heavy priority on. This is not to be supremacist in the slightest, but there is going to be parts of the world that different people are going to pick up. In the true human form of diversity, we need to accept there is such richness of lived experience that different people will be impacted by differing stimuli, events and circumstances. Every opinion is valid and in a faith based environment, giving a voice to those who in the past have been sidelined or devalued is so important: the church should be leading the way in emancipatory work. Jesus after all would have been leading this, so we should be too. In fact, more than 'should', it is a 'must' when looking at the future of the church.
Regarding in a non-faith environment, we are at a crossroads where many of the first generation of children who were diagnosed in the 1990s (myself in 1995 the first time, 2005 the second) and adults diagnosed are starting to reach an age and position in their life where they can speak up. When I started my first degree in 2010, there was just not the airtime for the autism spectrum. I have been reading a book from 2008 for my current MA, and even some of the advice in that is outdated (in particular regarding the developmental nature of autism and that 'it can be outgrown'.) So much has happened with so much coming from individuals, that in fact observatory and objective outsider research can only take us so far. Improvement and growth comes from working with in a non-tokenistic fashion. We are in need of relational teaching. This is something positive that came out of the roundtable that is a real possibility - positions for these individuals with their expertise helping to improve the quality of what we do. The real pioneers will be those who have equal footing of autistic and non-autistic individuals in their midst with autism expertise coming from those with the lived experience in all shades.
I was really heartened that the group who met on Wednesday were so forward thinking and also that I was not the only autistic woman represented in the group. For one third of the group to be the individuals who would be affected by the implemented change, I found this number to be an encouragement. It validates that I am not alone, as many of my peers, autistic or not, do not share the same faith as me. I have often felt since starting the Attentiveness to Autism project that I am rather serving my own purpose. However every time I feel this, I experience such thirst for knowledge, desire to learn and actually that there are so many others like parents, siblings, individuals, church members, pastoral workers, stewards, ministers, lay workers, etc who have questions or who express this untapped need in the church. I believe this is part of the future of the church. I also believe God is fully involved in this: my beaky nose and my big gob can only get me so far and the fact that opportunities are opening up and aligned with my degree and other work I'm doing (coincidences seem to occur quite a bit!). My nose may not be beaky I add, but I am nosey and do ask awkward questions, inside and outside the church (including in my study and workplace), and it certainly feels beaky going where few have gone before.