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Spectral vision

An interview with Libby Hawkness-Smith, who heads up Journey On, a community-in-mission for people with learning differences such as autism and anxiety

What is Journey On and how did it start?

I think the embryo was created when I was a teenager and then at university. I had a bunch of friends who I later realised were probably on the autistic spectrum but at the time I just thought were different and fun. I formed a group called the Random Fun Club. We made jam, played music and did quiz nights.

Journey On started in 2011, when I first got involved in a local nursing home for young disabled adults. My church in Reading has been going there regularly for 20 years, which is fantastic. However, I noticed that they weren’t really challenging residents to think theologically or to engage with more meaty stuff in the Bible. So I started a discipleship group which evolved over the years.

A little while later, I realised there were people in church who weren’t connecting; they went to church but didn’t really have friendships there. So I started a social group that meets once a month in a pub; people come for food and drink and to share stories and be themselves. Most who come are on the autistic spectrum. Then I formed another group where we go for a monthly walk in the woods and have food and time together. Then a friend in Sweden helped me found an internet-based group for people who want to connect more with others but due to physical or emotional reasons find it hard to be out much.

So basically Journey On is a network of friends. People usually come to a group via word of mouth or personal invitation. There are currently about 45 of us altogether, many of whom would just say they’re part of “Libby’s groups”. People can take what they want or need from Journey On. It’s not a structured church but a series of supported meetings.

What are some of the challenges people with autism have faced in a traditional church setting?

People with learning differences like autism or social anxiety find certain things difficult; it’s hard to be in a big group of people, to meet strangers, to handle coursework, to sit and write. They may have sensory struggles.

It can take a while to realise you have autism. I know a number of people who were diagnosed in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, who spent their whole life thinking, “I’m different, I’m unusual and that’s not allowed,” even in church. Among the people I work with, some found church patronising, some found church antagonistic, exclusive or judgmental.

Many well-meaning people assume that those with learning differences have life hard enough as it is and therefore don’t want to give them challenges, like what was happening in the nursing home. But a lot of people with autism or Asperger’s want to be challenged; they just need incremental support, someone to help them build up to a challenge. One man with autism once told me: “I love how you challenge me to be the best I can be. Too many people say, ‘It’s too hard for you, don’t bother.’”

So like much of society, church can be unintentionally patronising or it can demand adherence to one common model, which the majority are comfortable with. So if for example, someone with sensory struggles finds church music too loud, often the person in charge doesn’t say, “Oh, how can we soften it? Or is there a place we can reserve for you that’s more comfortable?” So that discourages people with learning differences.

Do you think it’s better to encourage the formation of special groups like Journey On or to encourage traditional church to change?

There’s a somewhat well-known saying: “If you’ve met one autistic person you’ve met one autistic person.” Everyone is different. So I would encourage all churches to move forward by seeing if they can identify who in their church might be on the autistic spectrum and being more inclusive: talking to them in appropriate ways, asking what they need and responding.

I have a friend who works in youth ministry and there’s an autistic boy in her group. She said to me one day how sad it was that he didn’t want to talk or get involved. “If he doesn’t enjoy it, why does he come?” she asked. I said he might be enjoying it but not showing his enjoyment in ways you would expect. I suggested she sit and talk with him, asking him direct questions, which she did. It turns out he thinks youth group is brilliant. He doesn’t like to put himself forward for things, but when she asks him if he’d like to make the tea or lead in prayer, he loves helping.

Churches might need to pay more attention. Some support groups might be helpful. And bear in mind things like if your church is going through lots of changes, this can unsettle an autistic person.

Do you have any particular advice for people leading children’s church?

Many children on the autistic spectrum feel more comfortable with rules. Various people have pointed out that people with autism respond well to rules, but much of society is based on unwritten or un-communicated expectations. People won’t share what the rules are but they will react when the rules are broken. So for children’s church, I’d say be explicit: say, “We will start with 10 minutes of singing, the words on the screen, then we’ll pray. If you want some quiet, there is an art space in the corner. We will finish at 11.”

Why do you think you’ve developed such an affinity and ability to connect with people with learning differences?

I think it’s partly because I grew up in lots of different cultures. My parents were mission pioneers. I was born in Singapore. Then we went to Laos, Ukraine and China. I joke that I had five worldviews before age 10. I think this has given me an ability to not pre-judge people and to be okay outside my comfort zone.

How have you seen people you work with grow as disciples?

There is a woman in the home I visit. She didn’t know much about the Bible or her Christian identity. Then she joined our two-year confirmation group, where we adapted some materials, simplifying them and taking more time over some topics that might be hard to grasp. She was later confirmed and continues to grow in faith.

There’s another group, made up of people who are not necessarily Christian. We go for walks together and have a short time of reflection using poetry and prayers written by pioneers. We also contemplate nature. When I take people into the wilderness, you can almost see them breathing sighs of relief. It’s beautiful to watch people start out stressed and hunched over with clenched fists, and in a few hours they are relaxed, walking and talking together.

Anyway, a number of people in this group initially told me, “I hate God, I don’t like Christianity.” Now when we get together they often say, “I was reading such and such in the Bible and I don’t understand, can you explain?” Or, “So what is grace?” There’s much to be gained from giving people space to reflect and respond together.

Do you think there are any biblical examples that people with learning differences can especially relate to?

I’ve been told Nicodemus had autism, because he came to Jesus at night when nobody else was around and had a specific question about something abstract Jesus had said. He needed Jesus to explain in detail what he was talking about. I’ve also been told that Zacchaeus might have had social anxiety.

What do you think is the biggest mistake people make when trying to connect with those on the autistic spectrum?

To borrow a well-used image, people with learning differences are like Apple users and Microsoft users. People are just on different operating systems. We need to find ways to work together and celebrate each other’s operating systems. People with autism have many unique gifts to contribute to church.

If you’re among people with social anxiety or autism, you need to be aware of two things: inertia and meltdowns. Inertia means that however hard they try, people struggle to do things; it’s easier to not do things. So no matter how much they want to, picking up a phone or going out can be difficult. As for meltdowns, people on the autistic spectrum tend to be very angry, upset, stressed, happy, excited; they struggle with mild emotion.

I’m personally challenged by this: isn’t it more authentic to have stronger feelings and show them? Anyway, they might snap your head off because they can’t cope with their intense feelings at the moment. And I’m now very familiar with last-minute cancellations because the person I was meeting just couldn’t bear it. You can’t let behaviour you aren’t used to stop you from being there for people. People might say hurtful things, but they are often reacting out of stress and will do so with the people they trust most.

Probably the biggest mistake people make is approaching autistic people with their own agenda, assuming people will behave a certain way and judging them when they don’t. A lot of people with autism have left church because they felt they couldn’t measure up. They already feel judged by society; it’s a shame to have a church reinforce that. Especially since church is one place where people should feel loved and free to be themselves.

The Call in Action: LEARN

Libby has just completed a three-year diploma on the CMS Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course. To join this dynamic learning community: pioneer.churchmissionsociety.org