Neurodiversity and the Church

I was diagnosed with ADHD less than a week after graduating from seminary. The diagnosis was a kind of grace, permission to forgive myself for what I’d thought were moral failures. That’s why my room and desk were a perpetual mess. That’s why I’d started writing my forty-page thesis three days before it was due. That’s why I could spend all afternoon attempting to read an assignment without getting through five pages.

That’s why, after three years in the ordination process, as my friends from seminary were celebrating their first calls and planning their ordination services, I still hadn’t made it past the first step.

Even with a diagnosis in hand, it took me an additional two and a half years to finally be ordained in the PC(USA). My diagnosis helped me unpack the shame I’d felt throughout the process, my repeated failure to identify next steps and follow through. And I’m not alone; I’ve watched many brilliant neurodivergent seminarians, passionate about ministry and the work of the church, struggle to navigate a process that our neurotypical peers were able to navigate with comparative ease.[1] We’d hit roadblock after roadblock – especially when those struggles were compounded by gender, sexuality, class, and race – until we’d either get pushed out of the process altogether or burn out on ministry before we had a chance to begin.[2] I watched this dynamic play out enough times to understand that this wasn’t a result of our own moral failures. The ordination process itself simply wasn’t designed for minds like ours.

In the late 90s, journalist Harvey Blume wrote: “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general.” Just as a monoculture threatens the health and resilience of an ecosystem, the homogeneity of thought stifles the creative capacity of our communities. When potential church leaders are compelled to conform to neurotypical standards of thought and behavior, the vitality of the church suffers.

The ordination process reflects the culture and priorities of the larger institutional church. This is cause for concern; how many neurodivergent congregants, children and adults alike, have felt forced to suppress their neurodivergent tendencies to adapt to the norms of the congregation? This is known as masking: mirroring neurotypical behavior, however unnatural it may feel or uncomfortable they may be.[3] Prolonged masking takes a cognitive and emotional toll on neurodivergent people, including exhaustion, anxiety, depression, poor self-image, identity loss, and burnout. But if neurodivergent folks don’t adequately mask in public, they risk discrimination with potentially devastating consequences. And if neurodivergent folks are already exhausted from masking at work and school, why would they come to church if they have to keep masking there, too?

Even for congregations that proudly proclaim “all are welcome,” their community may be more difficult for neurodivergent folks to navigate than they realize. Every community has unwritten rules – norms and standards of behavior thought to be so obvious they don’t need to be made explicit. Unwritten rules during worship may include: respond to the greeters’ “How are you?” with “I’m fine” rather than a full, honest answer; sit with your back straight, hands in your lap, eyes directed to the front of the sanctuary, even if it’s much easier to pay attention when you’re able to move, fidget, bounce your leg, stand up and stretch, or lie down; hug during the passing of the peace, even if physical touch makes you uncomfortable; make eye contact with the people serving you communion, no matter how unnatural it feels.

Some may look at these examples and be tempted to call these examples just “being polite,” or “good manners.” However, good manners is itself a social construct. I grew up in a part of the South where several of my peers participated in cotillion, or etiquette classes where young people (especially women) learned how to comport themselves in “polite” society through proper table manners, formal place settings, suitable small talk, knowing the dress code for all occasions, and paying and receiving complements. The good manners taught in these classes were intended to be exclusionary practices that separated insiders and outsiders based on the refinement of their behavior. The rules are only revealed to an elite few, and are therefore obfuscated by design, propping up the norms of cultures of power. Being polite means adhering to the standards of the dominant culture: white, wealthy, patriarchal, and, yes, neurotypical.

It’s laudable for congregations to proclaim, “all are welcome,” but the work of the community can’t end there. To welcome someone into your community is to assume the role of host. Hosts have power to shape the norms of a community while guests are expected to figure out the unwritten rules on their own and abide by them so long as they’re in someone else’s space. There’s a significant power imbalance in the host/guest dynamic, as there’s no mutual expectation that the host adapt to the guest.

Welcome is the first step toward building belonging. When you belong, you not only know the unwritten rules and norms of a community, but you also have the power to contest them. You feel at ease moving around the space and interacting with others. The expectations for engagement are clearly communicated (e.g. during the passing of the peace: “Share a sign of peace through a fist bump, hug, or wave” or stating at the beginning of the service, “If you need to step out for any reason, there’s a quiet room through the back of the sanctuary to your left where you’ll find comfortable chairs and blankets.”). Opportunities for engagement beyond Sunday morning are shared in multiple ways: through announcements, in the bulletin and on social media. If you have an idea for how to improve the space, you know what committee to speak with. You’re coached on Robert’s Rules of Order so you know when you arrive at the table where decisions are made, your voice will be heard. You learn how to join the committee yourself.

Making unwritten rules explicit is the first step in democratizing communities by leveling power differentials, ensuring everyone understands and consents to abide by the rules of a community. The next step is building more on-ramps for people to access the tools needed to shape their communities into spaces where they can bring their full selves without needing to mask or adapt to norms that make them uncomfortable.

This isn’t only a matter of making our houses of worship more neurodivergent-friendly. Clearer communication about unwritten rules and providing multiple on-ramps for people to shape their community benefits everyone, particularly minoritized groups traditionally excluded from positions of power in the church. The levers of change in the Presbyterian Church (USA) – navigating the ordination process, participating in session meetings, engaging at General Assembly – are all steeped in exclusionary processes. We may say that all are invited to the table, but only a few have the tools necessary to participate in change-making conversations.

What would it look like to dismantle the roadblocks and build more on-ramps so every person, no matter their cognitive makeup, could bring their full selves, gifts, and passions to the church? Instead of neurodivergent folks accommodating to neurotypical norms (which are often rooted in unspoken patriarchal, classist, and racist ideals), we could build a church with on-ramps for the many diverse ways of being and experiencing the world. Our churches, like thriving ecosystems, depend upon this diversity to be vital, flourishing communities.

[1] The term “neurodivergent,” developed by Kassiane Asasumasu as an alternative to deficit-based language, includes anyone with a neurologically based difference that affects how someone experiences and interacts with the world. ADHD, autism, Tourette syndrome, OCD, bipolar disorder, PTSD, epilepsy, dyslexia, and traumatic brain injuries are all encompassed under the neurodivergent umbrella. The term “neurodiversity” refers to the diversity of human minds, in the same way “biodiversity” refers to the diversity of life on earth. The term “neurotypical” refers to anyone whose cognitive functioning and ways of processing information are seen to be standard for that particular culture. For more information, see this helpful primer and this article.

[2] Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, was the first to use the term neurodiversity in her sociology honors thesis in 1999. She advocated for the “neurologically different” [later coined “neurodivergent” by Kassiane Asasumasu] to be considered a distinct political category alongside class, gender, and race.

[3] Some examples of masking include: copying a person’s tone of voice or body language, pretending to understand and follow a conversation, forcing or faking eye contact, hiding your special interests for fear of embarrassment and rejection, forcing yourself through sensory discomfort, and hiding stimming behaviors (fidgeting, humming, rocking back and forth, drumming your fingers, etc.). For more information, see this article

Rev. Emily Wilkes serves as the Associate Pastor for Public Witness at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, North Carolina. A native of South Carolina, she received degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary (Master of Divinity) and Davidson College (Bachelor of Arts in Sociology). She enjoys reading, creative writing, practicing yoga, theater, and spending time outside with her spouse and rescue dog.

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