Supporting Spirituality Amoung People with Autism
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 By     Rick Newton


Definition of "Spirit" (Webster):

1. a) the life principle in humans, originally regarded as animating vapor infused by the breath or as bestowed by a deity.
b) the soul

2. the thinking, motivating, feeling part of man, often as distinguished from the body, mind, intelligence.

3. life, will, conscious thought, etc.. regarded as separate from matter.

"We must explore the loftier issues of life because they are relevant to daily practice with clients.  In the spiritual realm we face the larger view and the meaning of life itself in a way that is difficult to explain and comprehend.  The questions that are shrouded in mystery remain a challenge to our clients and  ourselves."
C. Jung

"The development of sensitivity and comfort in discussing a client’s' spiritual issues will help practitioners facilitate spiritual solutions in keeping with the clients belief system. A spiritual value or belief may connect to, or be, a powerful resource in the clients life that can be used in problem solving, coping, or the process of recovery or emotional healing.  The practitioner who respects the clients spiritual values and beliefs may discover that therapeutic benefits can be accomplished through them."  (Sermabeikian,  1994)

"Faith or religion should not be equated with knowledge, though it's partly that, of course.  Faith also involves the elements of trust, loyalty and commitment to someone or something.  It is a matter of both head and heart.  It is part idea, part feeling, part commitment, and part action.  It is something known and it is also something experienced."  (Hoeksema,  1995)

"Enabling individuals with mental retardation to engage in typical forms of religious expression and to participate in the life of a faith community may provide them with: (A)  an opportunity to worship, (B)  a sense of belonging and fellowship, (C)  a sense of comfort, and (D)  opportunity to serve others. These are important dimensions of religious life for many people; they  should not be forced on anyone nor should they be denied." (Gaventa  1986)


1. Understand the influence of personal life experiences.

--We need to be self aware so that we may support the choices of people in our system based on their needs and preferences, not our own.

--We are all learners.  We will give but we will also receive if we are open to learn.

--We help others to identify their belief systems and make use of the supports they offer.  Do not impose your personal beliefs on consumers.

--The key to spiritual care is willingness to listen to another's personal story in order to affirm the value of a life and to acknowledge and support a spiritual journey until death.

--You don't have to answer.  "I don't know" is an appropriate response.

2. Religious practices are allowable.

--This is an issue of constitutional rights from the Bill of Rights)

--No one may be coerced to participate.

(First amendment)

--No single form of expression may be favored over another.

3. Consider the past practices and current preferences of individuals.

--People who can not verbalize may be able to indicate their preferences nonverbally through facial expressions, body language and behavioral changes.

--It may be useful to talk to family members about such issues as whether an individual has attended church services in the past and if they participated in any activities at home of a religious nature.

--It is as legitimate to find out if someone would like to go to church as any item on a RLI.

--Staff must be willing to think not only about how to respond to faith that is already established but about how to expose people to faith opportunities in order to determine whether there is an interest.

4. Teach self advocacy and conflict resolution skills.

--When religious conflict exists, teach people to acknowledge and respect differences in religious preferences and help them to negotiate compromises.

--Respect the consumer's "no."

--Caring for others as you care for yourself, and as you yourself want to be cared for, is a value that can be readily applied.

5. Use natural support systems whenever possible.

--See handout for practical tips for integrating persons into community churches. (not available here)

"When through one person a little more love and goodness, a little more light and truth comes into the world, then that person's life has had meaning."
Fr. Alfred Delp


STRESS The Alameda County Study, which trails nearly 7,000 Californians, showed that worshippers who participate in church sponsored activities are markedly less stressed over finances, health and other daily concerns than non-spiritual types (Journal of (;Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 1998).

BLOOD PRESSURE Elderly folks in a Duke University study who attended religious services, prayed, or read the Bible regularly, had lower blood pressure than non-practicing peers. ('International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 1998).

RECOVERY In a Duke University study, devout patients recovering from surgery spent an average of 11 days in the hospital compared with non-religious patients who spent 25 days (Southern Medical Journal,

MORTALITY Research on 1,931 older adults indicates that those who attended religious services regularly have a lower mortality rate. (American Journal of Public Health, 1998).

IMMUNITY Research on 1,700 adults found that those who attended religious services were less likely to have elevated levels of interleukin-6, an immune substance prevalent in people with chronic diseases.
('International Journal of Medicine, 1997).

LIFESTYLE A recent review of several studies suggests that spirituality is linked with low suicide rates, less alcohol and drug abuse, less criminal behavior, fewer divorces and higher marital satisfaction.
(Religion and Clinical Practice, 1996).

DEPRESSION Women with pious moms are 60% less likely to be depressed in 10 years than women whose mothers aren't so reverent, according to a Columbia University study. Daughters belonging to the same religious denomination as their mothers are even less likely (71%) to suffer the blues; sons were 84% less likely. (Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry).

A Duke University study of 577 men and women hospitalized for physical illness showed that the more patients used positive religious coping strategies (seeking spiritual support from friends and religious leaders, having faith in God, praying), the lower the level of their depressive symptoms. (Journal of
Mental and Nervous Disorders).

Information compiled by: David N Elkins, Ph. D.

©2000 Kind Tree Productions, Inc.                     
2440 Haig St.
Eugene, OR 97402                                     [Back to Home Page

Further Reading

The Healing Power of Faith; Science Explores Medicine's Last Great Frontier, Harold G. Koenig MD
(Simon & Schuster, 1999)

The Souls Code, James Hillman (Random House, 1996)

VIDEO: ';Welcome one, Welcome all," through interviews and personal stories key techniques for improving
religious education programs are demonstrated for persons with special needs. Available from the Center for Ministry
with Disabled People, University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio, 45469-0317. ($30)

VIDEO: "Give it Away" (17 mm) Available from Friendship Ministries., 2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE, Grand Rapids,
MI, ($10)

MANUAL: That All May Worship. National organization on Disability, 920 16th St. NW  Suite 600, Washington DC
20006 ($10)

RESOURCE LIST: Dimensions OF Faith and Congregational Ministries with Persons with Developmental
Disabilities and Their Families. Available from Rev. Bill Gaventa  AAMR Religion Division, 31 Alexander St.,
Princeton NJ, 08540

PR0GRA~I PIT: "Welcome to My World," a simulation workshop designed to raise awareness of the needs and
potential of persons with disabilities, available from Special Pastoral Services, Archdiocese of Portland, 2838 E.
Burnside St. Portland  OR, 97214-1895. (503) 234-5334

BOOK:  And Show Steadfast Love", a theological look at grace, hospitality, and disabilities. Presbyterian publishing
Corp., 100 Witherspoon St., Louiville, Kentucky, 40202

BOOK: Special People. A Resource for Ministry with people who have disabilities Pierson and Korth (eds) 1989

NEWSLETTER: AAMR Religion Division Newsletter, quarterly publication with
new resources, conferences, inquiries, and ideas. Religion Division, 31
Alexander St., Princeton, NJ 08540. 1-800-424-3688 ($10 yr.)

NEWSLETTER   ER: Bethesda Messenger. Published by Bethesda Lutheran Homes and Services, TOO Hoffmann Drive,
Watertown, WI, 53094-6294


Supportive Care in the Congregation, Bartel and Neufeldt, Mennonite DD
Services, 2106 Lincoln Highway, E., Box#6, Lancaster, PA 17602-1150.  (717)
2 9 3 - T

Support FOR Families of People with Disabilities, Human Service Research Institute, 2336 Massachusetts Ave.,
Cambridge, MA 02140

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