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Autism Hour: for the sake of others

The National Autistic Society’s annual campaign encourages us to bear each other’s burdens

This week, the National Autistic Society (NAS) has been encouraging businesses to participate in their Autism Hour initiative. In the course of this hour, shops turn down any music and lights, avoid any sudden announcements, and distribute information about autism to employees and customers. 

Autism is a lifelong condition that affects around one per cent of the population. It can range from mild to severe and has an impact on how people with the condition relate to others and experience and process sensory information. For example, bright lights and loud sudden noises can be overwhelming to a person with autism, hence the awareness campaign this week. 

Autism Hour is connected with a wider NAS campaign called Too Much Information, which includes some short films on the impact of sensory overload or sudden change on people with autism. One video depicts a child with autism going to the shops, and the overload caused by a series of – to most people – innocuous sights and sounds. It concludes with what happens when these anxieties become too much – with the child having what the NAS terms a meltdown’. The untrained observer may mistake this for a temper tantrum in a child, or for threatening behaviour in an adult. 

Of all the awareness campaigns out there, this one really hit home for me. My brother has severe autism and growing up I had some experience of the scenes depicted in the NAS video. Going to the shops as a family required a great deal of planning. Noises that everyone else ignored could have a dramatic effect on us. And the looks of fear and disapproval from passers-by in the video are all too familiar. 

In that context, just one person who seems to understand what’s going on is a huge relief. I still remember the time when one member of staff at a swimming pool responded to us by saying that she had a relative with autism and that she knew what was happening. Such empathy and understanding can be like a cold drink on a hot day. 

Once I’d grown up a little as a Christian, I realised how much my brother’s experience had taught me about the biblical command to bear with each other and how to give and receive that forbearance. Galatians 6:2 reads: Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” Later Paul urges the Ephesians to be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love”. 

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes of the importance of learning to bear with each other in our differences: 

All that we mean by human nature, individuality, and talent is part of the other person’s freedom, as are the other’s weaknesses and peculiarities that so sorely try our patience, and everything that produces the plethora of clashes, differences and arguments between me and the other. Here, bearing the burden of the other means tolerating the reality of the other’s creation by God – affirming it and in bearing with it, breaking through to delight in it.” 

Bonhoeffer correctly identifies this as one of the difficult but foundational tasks of Christian community. This forbearance is to bear with and to be borne with. I don’t have autism, but these days I can’t hear a loud sudden noise without thinking about how my brother would react. But it is also to be borne with, as the one act of understanding and helpfulness from a passer-by or person in charge can make all the difference. 

This is the kind of mutual dependence which I think Paul is getting at when he describes the church. In this context, what we bear with may not be a disability but may encompass all the ways in which someone may differ from us and have different needs. 

And we bear with others as God bears with us. Psalm 103:14 reads: He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust.” God bears with all our weakness, all our not-God-ness, with patience, and then commands us to witness to this by bearing with the not-us-ness of others, whatever that might be. 

There are conversations to be had about how the church accommodates people with disabilities and how wider society can become more aware. For Christians, there are few better starting points than this law of Christ, to share in the burdens of others as God has shared in ours.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

About the author

John began working at the Evangelical Alliance in 2016, focusing on issues of debate in parliament that are relevant to evangelical Christians in the UK. Before this he worked as a research assistant for the Church of England Bishop of Coventry, supporting his work in the House of Lords and his focus on freedom of religion or belief and global reconciliation. He holds a BA in Theology and an MPhil in Judaism and Christianity in the Graeco-Roman world, and he remains very interested in biblical studies and inter-religious dialogue. He also teaches English to speakers of other languages at a class run by his church.

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