I live in a very multi-cultural neighborhood. Families from every corner of the globe live on my street.
Nearly everyone speaks English, or at least enough to get by. Smiles and waves suffice when we don’t know each others’ words.
When my children were growing up, if one of them made an unkind comment about a neighbor’s accent, I reminded my kids how far our neighbor had travelled, and how difficult it would be to learn a totally new language and way of life. In more spiritual moments I’d weave in a brief Bible lesson about God calling Abraham to leave his home and move to an unfamiliar place. I also mentioned the incredible courage required to move to a location where nothing is solid and constant, not even the ability to communicate with others.
Communication from one person to another is so fundamental that we assume all but the youngest children can understand what we say—and even what we mean—in our own language. But mental health conditions and high functioning autism often interfere with a person’s ability to communicate with others, much like living as a stranger in a strange land, speaking a foreign tongue.
Here’s an example to show what I mean: “Marcia” has high functioning autism and anxiety and finds it difficult to speak comfortably when anxious. Whenever she meets someone new, she feels at least a little anxious, and her words sound forced. At times, Marcia puts emphasis on certain words in a way that other people don’t. Sometimes her voice is high-pitched.
It’s not unusual for Marcia’s new acquaintances to think she sounds guarded. Sometimes people even think Marcia is being dishonest or deceitful.
Marcia desperately tries to hide her anxiety. It is an intense struggle to contain her fear and emotional control when meeting someone new. People sense that she is hiding something, but fail to realize she is trying hard to hide her fear—nothing else.
Marcia doesn’t say or do anything inappropriate, yet the default assumption is that whatever Marcia is hiding must be something wrong.
“Sin” is the religious word to describe wrongdoing. The dictionary definition of sin is "any act regarded as a transgression of divine law, especially a willful or deliberate violation of some religious or moral principle."
Marcia doesn’t do anything wrong, but her communication disorder resulting from her mental health condition and high functioning autism makes it seem like she is deceiving others and probably not trustworthy.
Scientific studies are increasingly confirming what Key Ministry has observed: kids with mental health issues and high functioning autism are less likely to attend church than their neurotypical peers. And when they do attend, they often experience rejection. Statistics say that people with high functioning autism are nine times more likely to be suicidal or attempt suicide than their same-age peers, in part because communication difficulties make them strangers in their own communities.
In my post last month I mentioned that Christian communities can be very good at the subtle, socially acceptable exclusion of the people who don’t fit in.
If Marcia visits or attends a local church and gets rejected by church people, and it happens more than once or twice, why would she want to continue trying church? Why would she believe God loves her if His people don’t want to?
Isn’t that a willful violation of the religious principle to be kind to the stranger in your land?
The stranger might not be a person new to your church, but a person who doesn’t seem to fit in well.
Next Steps for Youth Ministry Leaders and Pastors
- Youth pastors and youth ministry workers need to get educated on mental illness and high functioning autism. They need to train themselves to think differently about the difficult and weird kids. Instead of assuming certain kids are bad, youth pastors instead should assume teens are desperate to communicate and connect with others, but are unskilled in knowing how. All people start out with an inability to communicate effectively, but for some, difficulties with communication and connection persist. Key Ministry has training videos and other resources that can help.
- Youth pastors and youth ministry workers should communicate to the lonely and the misfits that they are strong and courageous. Carrying on when no one stands with you is often what teens with mental health diagnoses and high functioning autism have to do. Much like my neighbors for whom home is the other side of the world, this is the very definition of courage.