What does the Bible say about Autism? If one looks for Autism within the Bible, there are no easy answers, as the biblical writers did not have a concept of Autism. How this question is answered impacts how Autistics understand themselves in relationship to their faith and how Christian communities engage them. In Autism and the Church: Bible, Theology, and Community, New Testament scholar Grant Macaskill explores what it means to think of Autism biblically. The purpose of this book is to begin the initial steps towards a theology of Autism. Macaskill centers this in Paul's beliefs on weakness found in his letters to the Corinthians in the New Testament. This theology of Autism strongly argues for the dignity and worth of Autistics and a critique of churches that exclude them based upon social norms and valuations.

Macaskill arrives at this theology of Autism through a particular approach to the Bible. In Chapter 2, he lays out his biblical framework for approaching the question of Autism and the Bible. Macaskill rejects several approaches, such as attempting to diagnose biblical figures as Autistic, reading Autism as demon possession, and healing for Autism because disabled people are healed by Jesus in the Gospels. In rejecting these approaches, Macaskill seeks to appeal to the biblical text to build a theology that relates to Autism, rather than searching for Autism in the Bible. In this way, to think of Autism biblically is to find a biblical theology that relates to Autism.

Macaskill argues in Chapters 3 and 4 for a theology of weakness and gift found in Paul as a way of thinking biblically about Autism. In Paul's letters, weakness challenges human valuation of one another based upon normality and reciprocity. God chooses the marginalized and weak to challenge the strong and powerful, demonstrating that God's values are different from human values. Autistics are marginalized by society and churches, but chosen by God. The church's treatment of Autistics demonstrates the failures of the church to value what God values by valuing individuals based upon their social capital. A theology of weakness understands Autistics as gifts of God to the community. This gift represents the goodness of God as the giver of the gift. The value of Autistics like all others is in being made in the likeness of the image of God and not in their utility to church and society. Locating the dignity of individuals in their inherent worth disrupts the valuation of individuals based upon their utility to another individual, group, or community.

This inherent worth not only impacts how individuals are viewed, but how the community views itself. Macaskill turns to the image of the church as the body of Christ in Paul to critique churches' social practices that misunderstand the unity of the church. In 1 Corinthians the image of the church is of one body, where one part of the body cannot go without another. Their unity is their relationality to Christ or union with Christ. Macaskill notes that "Paul's logic does not represent the oneness of the body as the goal of Christian practice, but at its basis" (113). For Macaskill, if the unity of the church is assumed and not the goal, then it is misguided to demand certain social practices, such as hugging, handshaking, and eye contact, as demonstrating the unity of the community (112). Churches operate upon the valuation of social capital when they ask Autistics to conform to neurotypical social practices to demonstrate their belonging to the church.

Macaskill makes an argument for sensory accommodations by turning to an example where Paul applies these principles of value and unity. Macaskill stresses that churches are not perfect communities, but rather the arena in which these values are lived out and fought against. Macaskill says plainly: "The church is not a safe place just because it is the church" (97). One of the ways churches are not safe spaces for Autistics and their families is that they are sensory overloads. To make a biblical case for making sensory accommodations, Macaskill turns to Roman 14 and 15. Here Paul asks those stronger in the faith to forego eating meat sacrificed to idols because it troubles those weaker in the faith, so as not to put a stumbling block in their way. As Macaskill notes, in Paul's logic of the weak and the strong, God favors the weak, even as weakness here refers to weakness of faith and not those marginalized (120). Macaskill considers foregoing a freedom to accommodate another member of the body of Christ to be a principle that can be applied to sensory accommodations for the church. Members of churches should limit their freedom to create sensory friendly spaces.

Macaskill succeeds in providing an initial step towards a theology of Autism that deserves reading and engagement. This theology of Autism strongly argues for the dignity and worth of Autistics and a critique of churches that exclude them based upon social norms and valuations. Macaskill explores the implications of this theology for pastoral care in Chapters 5 and 6. In the discussions throughout the book, Macaskill speaks directly to those harmed by Christian communities. He writes, "Having been asked to leave the church does not mean that you have ceased to be part of the body of Christ. Those who have asked you to leave, in fact, are the ones whose actions contradict the basic realities of the gospel" (109). To challenge neuro-ableism within certain Christian communities requires a biblical theology to frame the issue. Macaskill provides a theology of Autism that can speak to these communities about where they have fallen short and how to redress these wrongs.

As this theology of Autism is exploratory, there are growing edges. One area is the relationship between Autism and disability. Macaskill takes a neurodiversity perspective, albeit with some caveats. He uses neurodiversity to argue for neurological variation as a difference rather than a disability. His caveat on this perspective is that Autism as a difference may be "less easily applied to the person with profound autism" whose "experiences may be dramatically impaired by the condition" (25). Macaskill notes his preference for the term condition rather than disability, but never clearly states why this is his preference (24). He writes that disability may be an appropriate label and "if embraced" it can allow for a linking up with the aims of disability advocacy against ableism (26). This makes a disability lens optional. Neurodiversity is not in opposition to disability in claiming neurological difference as a valuable form of diversity. A neurodiversity perspective is compatible with the social model(s) and other attempts to rethink this model. This would allow for the speaking of impairment and the disabling practices that are critiqued throughout the book. A full embrace of neurodiversity within a disability studies frame would only strengthen a theology of Autism.

Autism and the Church provides a robust theological reflection and practical application to think biblically about Autism for Autistics, neurodivergent folks, neurotypicals, Christian communities, and academics. This book leaves the reader with a question not of whether one has a theology of Autism, but rather: what kind of theology of Autism it is?

Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2021 Rudolph Reyes II

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)