Do conditions like autism affect the Christian life?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological developmental disorder characterized by struggles with social interaction and communication as well as restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. Often those with autism also experience sensory issues, gastrointestinal issues, sleep disorders, and mental health issues like anxiety. As a spectrum disorder, the symptoms and individual experiences of those with autism vary broadly. Some are able to live alone and have relatively few difficulties with communication, whereas many others are unable to live independently. Regardless of severity, the common thread of impaired social interaction and communication, as well as restricted interests, cause people to wonder how those symptoms might impact living the Christian life.
To be clear, having autism is not a sin. The precise cause for autism is unknown, though some think there might be a genetic component. If we consider autism a "disease," we would say that it is a general result of the fall of humanity. Through their sin, Adam and Eve introduced death and all its effects to our world (Genesis 3). We now live in a fallen world where things like diseases, physical disabilities, and illnesses are realities. Every human is affected by these things, very often through no personal sin of their own. For example, the stomach flu is a result of the fall, but it is not sinful to have the stomach flu, nor does one usually get infected with the stomach flu through sin. Similarly, it is not sinful to have ASD (John 9:1–3).
In fact, if we think of those with autism and similar developmental disorders or brain abnormalities as "neuroatypical" as opposed to "neurotypical," we can more easily see the benefit such abnormalities might have. The restricted interests of those with autism could lead them to focus deeply and intentionally on helpful solutions to world problems like poverty and hunger. Or their thinking differently than others could lead them to come up with new ideas or creative ways to resolve problems. We can even see how this different thought process might be an asset to those with autism in Bible study or in helping others see aspects of God's character through different lenses.
That being said, we should not minimize the challenges of those with ASD. It is a difficult disorder that can make many aspects of life much harder, including aspects of the Christian life. For example, Christians often talk about having a personal relationship with God. We sometimes compare what that relationship looks like to what human relationships look like. For those who struggle with social interaction and communication, those comparisons might not make sense. However, just as each human is unique and the way each of us relates to others is unique, so, too, is the way each of us relates with God. Some believers might be particularly enraptured by the physical beauty of nature and feel closest to God when spending time outside. Others might feel closest to God when alone in an empty room. Still others might feel closest to God when singing worship anthems with their local church. God is Creator of the entire universe. He knows our hearts and is certainly capable of connecting with every human being (1 Samuel 16:7; Psalm 139). Each of us can know God through His creation, His Word, His Spirit, prayer, and time with other believers (Psalm 19; Romans 1:19–20; 1 Corinthians 2:10–16; 2 Timothy 3:16–17; Hebrews 1:1–3; 10:19–25). Those with ASD are not excluded from knowing God and having a personal relationship with Him.
Given that social interaction and communication are difficult for those with ASD, some wonder about following the command to love one another (John 13:34–35; 1 John 4:7–8). True, godly love is agape love—an attitude toward others that seeks their best, even at personal cost. Such love is enabled by the Holy Spirit. "We love because [God] first loved us" (1 John 4:19). There is no reason a person with autism cannot love others. Those with ASD are able to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15, 25), be kind (Ephesians 4:32), forgive (Ephesians 5:32), do good to others (Galatians 6:10), and the like. The "one another" commands are not for a certain type of believer, but for the entire body of Christ both individually and communally. Each of us is able to fulfill these commands ultimately only through the power of the Holy Spirit (Philippians 2:12–13).
Since those with autism tend to struggle with repetitive behaviors and restricted interests, some also wonder about the command to put off sin (Romans 6:1–14; Ephesians 4:17–32; Colossians 3:5–17). If someone with ASD has an interest in something sinful or has a repetitive behavior that is sinful, it could seem impossible to set aside. Again, putting sin to death is enabled by the Holy Spirit. It is a struggle for every believer. Each of us can make use of Scripture, prayer, and the encouragement of others in our battle against sin. Often others have helpful practical suggestions about fleeing temptation and replacing sinful habits or thought patterns with those that honor God (Galatians 6:1; James 5:16; Philippians 4:8). God is faithful to provide a way out of our temptations (1 Corinthians 10:13), and He is faithful to cleanse us when we fall (1 John 1:8–10; Jude 1:24–25). These biblical truths apply to those with ASD just as much as to believers who do not have autism.
The body of Christ is diverse (1 Corinthians 12:12–27; Revelation 7:9). There is a place for every type of person who has put his or her faith in Jesus (Galatians 3:28). No matter our individual struggles, physical or psychological abnormalities, intellectual capacity, age, ethnicity, or anything else by which society might differentiate us, those who have put their trust in Christ are His body and are one in Him (Ephesians 4:4–7). We should bear with one another in love and compassion (Galatians 6:2), demonstrating the love and truth of Christ to each other and to the watching world.
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