Autism and the Image of God: How to be a welcoming community?

(Photo: Unsplash/Andrew Ebrahim)

Our son Sam was the long-awaited answer to Jane's prayers, fulfilling her desire for a brother. Born prematurely, Sam faced health challenges in his early days, spending several days in the intensive care unit as an infant. Despite doctors losing hope, continuous prayers from Sam's sister and family granted him a new life. As Sam grew, we noticed developmental differences compared to other children his age. Even his sister started complaining that Daddy, "Sam isn't playing with me," and "he isn't even listening to my instructions." After consulting doctors and psychologists, Sam was diagnosed with autism. This news shocked us, and Sam began to live in his own world as he started to grow. The term "autism" was new to us as parents. Different people gave their views with limited understanding, but we, as parents, started to grapple with questions such as: How would he manage his life? When would he become independent? When would he begin socialising with other children of his age? How would society accept him? Why has God made him like this?

Prevalence of Autism

As per a recent report by ETHealthWorld, approximately 18 million (1 in 68 children) individuals in India have received a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Moreover, it is estimated that autism affects around 1%-1.5% of children aged between two and nine years. Additionally, boys are believed to be four times more susceptible to autism than girls. Challenges in communication, social interaction, and repetitive behaviours characterise ASD. It also impacts individuals' ability to function effectively in society and other areas of life.

In India, many people are unaware of the term autism and its symptoms. Once, an elderly lady visited our home and was quite disturbed to see Sam in his hyperactive state. She felt that we were not disciplining our child, and he was almost spoilt for her. Such an attitude happens because of our people's lack of education and awareness. Bollywood films like 'Taare Zameen Par,' 'Barfi,' 'Koi Mil Gaya' do raise awareness in our Indian society, but much more needs to be done. A holistic approach is required to address these children's physical, spiritual, and emotional needs. Individuals diagnosed with autism perceive the world differently and communicate in various ways. Community acceptance and identifying their talents is a challenge. Unfortunately, numerous people fail to recognise the importance of adapting themselves to accommodate individuals with autism. Instead, they often attempt to enforce changes on those with autism, neglecting their needs. This lack of consideration hinders the process of making individuals with autism feel comfortable and accepted within their communities. We miss the opportunity to foster genuine inclusion and understanding by neglecting the necessity for mutual adaptation.

Demeaning the Image of God

During my recent visit to Lucknow, I talked with a retired Christian teacher from a prestigious school. After sharing about Sam, she recalled her interaction with the mother of a boy in her class who was also diagnosed with autism. Hearing about the mother's disparaging remarks about her son - labelling him as mentally retarded, useless, idiot and mad - brought tears to my eyes. Despite this, the teacher consistently emphasised the unique qualities of the boy and gave her best to support him.

In his article “Does Darwinism Devalue Human Life?,” Richard Weikart explores the historical connection between Darwinism and the devaluation of human life. He shares that Darwinism undermines the Judeo-Christian belief in the sanctity of human life. Weikart traces the historical roots of Darwinism's impact on ethics, highlighting how German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel proposed killing disabled infants in the late 19th century. For Haeckel, newborn infants have no soul, 'so killing them is no different than killing other animals and cannot be equated with murder.' About a physically or mentally disabled infant, he wrote, "a small dose of morphine or cyanide would not only free this pitiable creature itself, but also its relatives from the burden of a long, worthless and painful existence." The only reason we do not kill "defective" children at birth, according to Haeckel, is because we are following emotion rather than reason.

In 1833, Charles Darwin embarked on a journey to the South Sea Islands in search of the presumed "missing link." Observing the inhabitants, whom he deemed primitive, particularly the cannibals, he believed them to represent a lower stratum of humanity, seemingly confirming his evolutionary theory. However, thirty-four years later, upon his return to the same islands, Darwin was astonished to find churches, schools, and civilised homes inhabited by the once-perceived primitive inhabitants. This remarkable transformation was attributed to the missionary efforts of John G. Paton, who had spread the truths of salvation among them. Witnessing their upliftment and spiritual growth moved Darwin profoundly, leading him to support the London Missionary Society generously. This experience challenged Darwin's notion of the "missing link," highlighting the transformative power of faith and the image of God within humanity.

Some scientists may question the rationality of autistic children because they failed to recognise the unique qualities which these children contribute to our society. Unfortunately, "the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" (2 Corinthians 4:4). Hence there are people who are not able to see the image of God and the glory of Christ in such children. Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects individuals in various ways, but it does not diminish their worth as human beings created in the image of God. Therefore, any suggestion of devaluing or harming individuals with disabilities, including autism, contradicts the fundamental teachings of Christianity regarding the sanctity of human life.

In His Image

Genesis chapter one affirms that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. To be in God's image, humans share His character, nature, attributes, and moral, ethical and intellectual abilities. In other words, it refers to the mental and spiritual faculties and His persona that humans share with Him. When Christians encounter questions about disability, they often look to the idea of the image of God. This concept is the perfect fit for affirming the value and importance of every person. Brian Brock in his article, 'Autism and the Image of God: On Becoming A Mobile And Reproductive Church' mentions that there are three main ways that Christians have understood the image of God over the centuries:

(a) The Substantive View: This view explains that despite having many capabilities, humans are different from the rest of creation by giving them abilities that no other creatures have. Some argue that what sets humans apart from all other beings is their capacity for rationality, while others argue it is their moral sense.

(b) The Functionalist View: This view of the image of God focuses on another aspect mentioned in Genesis 1, where God assigns humans a task i.e. to have 'dominion' (Genesis 1:26). According to this perspective, the concept of the image of God is not automatically present in every human being but is seen as a royal responsibility.

(c) Relational View: In this perspective, humans are designed for relationships—with each other and with God. By fostering life-giving connections despite differences, humans reflect Christ to one another. This view emphasises the uniqueness of humans, as they alone are tasked with representing God in the world. The birth of every human from Adam and Eve signifies their humanity, and their primary role is not to dominate the earth but to live in ways that resemble Christ in their interactions with others. After going through the above views, it is essential to know that every human, whether regular or autistic, is created in the image and likeness of God. We might initially separate individuals with autism from our understanding, but from a divine perspective, they hold immense value.

After the Fall, sin took control of our lives, and we forgot that we were created in the image of God. We do share His persona, but our image is tarnished due to sin. Since then, we have become confused about our image. We have only one way to regain our tarnished image, and it is only through God's Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the image of the invisible God, the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature. When we accept Jesus as our personal Saviour, He begins restoration work and transforms us into His image. In this, we recognise that we are created in God's image and acknowledge others to be created in His image.

Fostering Relationship

The life stories of Albert Einstein, Thomas Alva Edison, Benjamin Franklin, etc., are eye-openers that enable us to understand the potential of autistic children. In John 9:1-3 Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him." Like the disciples, we also close our eyes and fail to understand the real purpose of God. The challenge before us is how we accommodate and value individuals with autism within the context of their abilities. By doing this, we not only acknowledge that they are created in the image of God but also develop a relationship with them. For Sheila George, Director of the Ashish Foundation for the Differently Abled (AFDA): "Our ultimate goal is to help these children and adults lead fulfilling and productive lives, and to be accepted and included in the mainstream of society." The vision of AFDA is to "enhance the image and competencies of each child to take up valued social roles." This foundation sensitises and equips families, communities, and organisations to respond and engage productively so that children and adults with autism can lead fulfilling lives. In our experience, relationship matters a lot. Sam is a very loving child. The more we pour our love into his life, the more we experience love from him. We feel privileged that God has chosen us to be Sam's parents. Like Sam, other children are desperately waiting for our love and care.

Embrace: Role of the Church  

A church, whose head is Jesus Christ, is called to play an active role in the lives of such children. The Church must uphold the dignity and value of all human life, including individuals diagnosed with autism. The Church's response is rooted in compassion, understanding, and respect for the inherent worth of every person, regardless of their abilities or differences. There are four steps which believers should take with those who are diagnosed with autism:

(a) Availability: How can we make ourselves available to others? By approaching them with openness and compassion. As a community belonging to Christ, we must reach out to children like these. To do so, we must identify such children in our neighbourhood or church community. In Matthew 25:42-45, Jesus speaks of those who neglect to care for others in need, highlighting hunger, thirst, lack of hospitality, clothing, sickness, and imprisonment. By not visiting them, we fail to recognise the presence of Jesus in them. Jesus further said in verse 45, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." How important is it to come close to those who are differently abled? Often, we notice their absence from our regular gatherings. How should we respond to such scenarios?

(b) Acquaintance: By coming close to them, we get acquainted with them. Through this, we will discover their likes and dislikes, strengths and abilities, hobbies and talents, and communication and social skills. What do they enjoy? (food, activities, objects, places, people); What do they find distressing? (food, activities, objects, places, people). By doing so, we can create supportive environments that cater to their needs and interests. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:11: "Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing." Further, he states in Romans 12:10, "Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves."

(c) Adjustments: By getting acquainted with them, we are called to adjust ourselves according to them. Through adjustments, we can meet their needs. Can we change anything so that they may get what they need? By inviting families into our homes and churches and making them feel comfortable, we can create inclusive spaces where autistic children can thrive and receive the support they need. This may involve modifying routines, providing sensory-friendly spaces, and offering understanding and acceptance. Ultimately, by adjusting ourselves and our environments, we can ensure that autistic children receive the care and support they require to flourish in both home and church settings.

(d) Acceptance: As believers, it's crucial for the Church to embrace and support such children and their families. We must ensure that they may get opportunities to participate in church activities tailored to their needs, valuing their unique gifts and talents. By adapting programmes and providing support, we can enrich the entire church community while fostering their sense of belonging. Christian schools should be ready to accept them on par with others. Paul writes in Galatians 6:2, "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ."

Sufficient Grace

April is recognised as International Autism Acceptance Month, during which I had the opportunity to address the Caleb Institute Community about autism. To my surprise, many students and faculty members were unaware of the details of autism, and for some, autism was a new concept. I felt a need to raise awareness about this within our community. Initially, it was quite a harrowing experience for my wife Delicia and me to share about Sam. However, after much prayer, we felt peace in our hearts, and now Sam has become an example through which we can share insights about autism and God's love with others. Only through the grace, love, and compassion of Jesus Christ we care for Sam and his sister Jane.  

Ashish Foundation for the Differently Abled (AFDA) Charitable Trust, situated in Dwarka, New Delhi, is an institution where Sam goes for his studies. The vision of this foundation is to empower children and adults with autism to reach their God-given potential in inclusive communities. This foundation sensitises and equips families, communities, and organisations to respond and engage productively so that children and adults with autism can lead fulfilling lives. Geeta Mondol, Founder of AFDA, states, "We are all created in God's image to achieve our potential and contribute to the building of our nation. Ashish vows to assist and facilitate the creation of an inclusive society where there is room for everyone." 

Rev. Dr. Samuel Richmond is currently the Director of the Centre for Advanced Religious Studies at North East Christian University, Dimapur-Nagaland, and an Academic Consultant at Caleb Institute in Gurugram, Haryana. He also serves as the honorary secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India's Theological Commission. He is married to Delicia and has two children, Jane and Sam.