Question: "What effects do conditions like autism have on the Christian life?"
Answer: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder. As a spectrum disorder, the experience and severity of symptoms of those affected varies. The primary symptoms associated with ASD are impairments in communication and social interaction as well as restrictive or repetitive behaviors and interests. Often, those with ASD struggle with sensory issues, gastrointestinal disruptions, sleep disorders, and mental health issues like anxiety. The struggles associated with autism can have an effect on the Christian life.
First, let us clarify that it is not a sin to have ASD. Various theories, including a genetic link, have been proposed as to the cause of autism, but there is no one, specific, agreed-upon cause. If we consider autism to be a “disease,” then we would say that it is generally a result of the fall of humanity. That is to say, when Adam and Eve sinned, death and its effects entered the world. This means that the human body is subject to illness and disease. The common cold is a result of the fall, but it is not sinful to have a cold. People experience physical and psychological abnormalities, many of which make life extra challenging. But, again, it is not a sin to have a developmental disorder or abnormality.
In fact, if we simply think of autism as being in the category of “neuroatypical” as opposed to “neurotypical,” we might even see the possible benefits it can have. For example, the restrictive focus of those with ASD could be directed to develop helpful remedies to global issues like poverty and hunger. Or the fact that people with autism tend to think differently than those who are “neurotypical” could lead them to come up with creative solutions to challenging problems or to brand-new ideas that benefit all involved.
That being said, there are, of course, myriad challenges associated with autism. Being a spectrum disorder, the specific challenges will vary from person to person. For example, many with autism are unable to live on their own, but that is not true of everyone who has ASD. Some of the challenges associated with autism might make certain things about the Christian life feel harder. For example, Jesus told His disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35; cf. John 15:12, 17; 1 John 4:7). The New Testament is replete with instructions as to how we specifically love one another. We are to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15, 25), be kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32), forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32), regularly meet together (Hebrews 10:25), and stir one another up to love and good works (Hebrews 10:25). The command to love is not restricted only to loving other believers in Jesus. We are also called to love all people, including our enemies (Matthew 5:43–48), do good to everyone (Galatians 6:10; cf. Matthew 5:16), care for the outcasts of society (James 1:27), and submit to our authorities (Romans 13:1–7). Since those with ASD tend to struggle with social interaction, some wonder if they are able to follow these commands.
There is no reason why a person who struggles with social interaction cannot demonstrate love. For each believer in Christ, loving others with God’s love is ultimately an act of the Holy Spirit (1 John 4:8–12; Philippians 2:12–13). Godly love is agape love—a disposition toward the other that acts on the other’s behalf, even when it involves personal sacrifice, as demonstrated most clearly in Jesus (Romans 5:8). Those who have put their faith in Jesus can love others as Jesus loved them because they have received Jesus’ love and because the Holy Spirit lives inside them. These are realities for all believers regardless of any brain abnormalities or other diseases.
Christians are also called to put off sin (Ephesians 4:17–32; Colossians 3:1–17). The struggle against the desires of our sinful flesh is a reality for all believers. Again, victory over sin is ultimately made possible through the Holy Spirit. Paul told the Philippians, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12–13). We are called to yield to the work of the Spirit and are to willingly “put to death” (Colossians 3:5) those things that are part of our sinful nature. Hebrews 12:1–2 encourages, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Though people with autism might have a more difficult time letting go of certain thoughts or patterns of behavior, there is no reason they cannot experience victory over sin.
Of course, part of the Christian life is our personal relationship with God. For every believer, this is a relationship that grows throughout a lifetime. Just as our relationships with others look different in different seasons of our lives, so, too, does our relationship with God. And, just as our relationships with others are unique, so is our relationship with God. For example, one person might feel especially close to God in nature whereas another is profoundly impacted by traditional liturgy. That a person with autism might struggle in interacting with other people does not necessarily mean he or she will struggle in interacting with God. Again, the precise relationship every believer has with God is different. As Creator, God is certainly capable of connecting with every human being. Each of us can know God through His creation, His Word, and His Spirit (Romans 1:18–20; Hebrews 1:2–3; 2 Timothy 3:16–17; 1 Corinthians 2:10–16). Those with ASD can know God by looking at Jesus, studying Scripture, communicating with Him through prayer, obeying Him, and being part of a local church. Their struggles do not preclude them from living a full Christian life that honors and glorifies the Lord (John 10:10; 1 Corinthians 10:31).
Hebrews 10:23–25 encourages all believers, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The body of Christ is filled with a variety of personalities, people at various levels of Christian maturity, and people with various struggles. No matter our personal struggle, we are called to love one another and build one another up (Ephesians 4:29). There is a place in the body of Christ for every type of person who has put his or faith in Jesus (1 Corinthians 12:7–27; Galatians 3:28).