Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

Are you a barrier?

A close friend confessed to me this week that she had read my blog and really liked it. Then she said “It’s so admirable what you do…I couldn’t do it…I wouldn’t know how to talk to them.”

Nurse Holding Elderly Patient's Hand

This really made me think, and I appreciated her honesty.  I asked her why she thought she couldn’t talk to people with learning disabilities and she was humble enough to give me these reasons:

  • Sometimes you don’t get any response from your greetings or attempts to converse – this makes me feel really awkward and I don’t know what to do next.
  • I’m afraid of feeling foolish and making mistakes.
  • I don’t know where to look – if they are physically different, should I ask them about it or not?
  • I might patronise them, they might not want me helping them.

After discussing around this for a while we agreed – As in all things that we avoid – it is FEAR that prevents us doing something. We ASSUME we’re going to make a mess of it or fail and so we decide we’d better not try, just in case we make matters worse.  We make assumptions about all kinds of things…and disabiltity is a big area for assumptions!

I occasionally do a disability awareness lesson for high school classes. I start by asking the kids what they assume it is like to have a sensory, physical or learning disability.  When I teach about autism we examine commonly held assumptions. Often they are inaccurate. People have picked up assumptions from the media, hearsay or have no idea at all, because they don’t have meningful contact with people with learning and other disabilties.

I wondered what made me feel so comfortable with these amazing people and it’s nothing special or magic. I haven’t been given a special ‘gift’ from God that helps me understand when someone is babbling to me or looks at me blankly when I ask them something.  I can only put it down to practice. I have been invloved with children and adults with learning disabilities since I was a child and so am ‘used’ to all different kinds of people.  My friend agreed, “If I gave it a go,” she said, “I’m sure it would be easier after a few times.”

The only answer whether we are assuming something about the person with a disability or assuming something about our own performance in relating to them is to put those assumptions aside and try to relate to each other anyway.

If people with learning and other disabilities are to feel welcomed and supported in our churches we must ourselves not be one of the barriers.  If we are too worried about our own performance we neglect the fact that the other person needs people to communicate with them, getting to know them and building relationships.  It starts with a smile and a greeting, simple questions that show interest in them as a person, and the ability to be patient, listen and ask God for help in our understanding. If a person cannot talk, we can still communicate and in the next few posts I will explore some of the ways we can begin to welcome people with learning disabilities into our churches and make them feel noticed, welcome and accepted in God’s family.

The last word should go to people with learning disabilities themselves. One lady I know said recently “Just talk to me you know, I can understand you if you talk sense.”

Comments on: "Are you a barrier?" (19)

  1. Thanks for this … reminds me of a quote I saw today which said, “If you don’t understand my silence, how will you understand my words?”


  2. I think you’re right that many of us fear what is unfamiliar or unknown and I’m glad you reminded me I can ask God for help when I feel inadequate with someone. The comments system on your blog looks well set up. Hope this gets through!


    • Thanks Dorothy – I had to mess about a bit to get your comment showing but it’s here! As Christians we are never alone and need not fear when we are in situations where we feel inadequate…where we are weak He is strong.


  3. Maureen Chapman said:

    I enjoyed this blog and am so pleased you are writing about these things. Disabled people are people, who have a particular difficulty, but they are human. i awlays start by looking them in the eyes and smiling while saying hello. It works.


  4. This is an informative and perceptive post that challenges our assumptions about disabilities and how to deal with those who may be different from ourselves. The bottom line is we are all human, weak and ‘disabled’ in some ways. Only some disabilities are more obvious than others. As a person with a largely ‘invisible’ chronic illness myself, I am very aware of the need to take people as they are and treat them as we would want them to treat us – with warmth, compassion, understanding, grace and love. In fact, just as God cares for each and every one of us.


  5. I’ve had plenty of contact and done quite a bit of work with people who have learning difficulties and disabilities, and though I have loved most of it, I still find it a challenge to approach a new person and talk to them. I think my problem, which used to be fear due to ignorance, is now fear due to too much knowledge of the unpredictable and complex nature of the experiences these people may be suffering. I’m second-guessing myself from the start: is my eye contact going to be welcomed, or make this person uncomfortable? Is a handshake sought after, or do they intensely dislike physical touch? If I speak clearly and slowly, will I be offending them by being patronising, or helping them to understand me? Are they hoping that someone will make conversation, or are they (like me!) already struggling with sensory overload in this bright room full of noise?
    I do have a lot of respect for people like you who seem able to take all of this in their stride!


  6. These are very useful ideas we can all learn from. Thanks.


  7. Hi I am tryng to see if the comment is accepted as you ask! Maybe it won’t be! So I’ll keep it short! You say a lot of wise things here. I do wish you every blessing in your contacts and reaching out, and, I think, encouraging others to try and spread the word/work. Interesting you don’t say you have a ‘gift from God’, which is a nice humble thing to say – though I think you may have, our daughter is the same – I see this in my ‘caring professions’ friends, who have an enormous capacity for enjoying being alive coupled with compassion, & people respond.


    • The reason i say that Clare is because if we think we need a ‘gift from God’ before we start to do something it can mean that we leave the job only to those who we perceive to have the gift. I know God has given us different gifts but communicating the Gospel was his command to all of us who believe.


      • Well, I do not think like that and wait for a gift!!!!! What a shame some people do – bit of a get-out clause really… I honestly saw your comment simply as being a bit self-depreciating and thus encouraging people to make an effort to overcome any shyness.


      • Sorry Clare I didn’t mean to imply you did! I have come across it and am mindful that I can think like that about other things sometimes. Thanks for your support.


  8. Fear stops us doing so many things in life particularly fear of the unknown. Thank you for your wisdom and your gentle challenge 🙂


  9. Found this encouraging and helpful, thanks. Looking forward to future blogs.


  10. Thank you for reminding us that our fears are barriers; I think a lot of this is about our own negative “self-talk”. We need to know we can change our self-talk through an act of the will. It’s very helpful to be able to name things, so we can see them for what we are, and make better decisions, become more compassionate, and let go of our self-imposed limitations.


  11. i get your blog. i am a adult with asperger syndrome.married 13 years.we have 3 children.2,boys and 1.girl. i all so have m.e. i can not work but do take part in a lot lot research.i have the results.if you would like to ask me any thing please do.if you would like to e.mail me please do mark


    • Thank you Mark – I know you have commented on my blog before. I would like to ask you if you have been to church in your life and what was the experience like for you?


  12. […] We are farmers of God’s word, in this ministry and in all ministries.  We are sowing the seeds of the gospel to EVERYONE and we are harvesting the souls who receive it in faith.  But let’s not forget that God is the gardener, it is he who brings the water and the sunshine to nurture and grow those seeds and it not for us to exclude any people because we think they can’t understand it.   Let’s not be a barrier to God’s power and transforming Spirit. read this […]


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