I’m in the British Library, surrounded by theology books debating autism, and I’m shaking.
This is a story about those who get to speak, and those who are spoken about.
This is the story of a Tuesday and a Friday.
On Tuesday, we launched our book ‘At the Gates: Disability, Justice and the Churches’, surrounded and supported by established and up-and-coming disabled Christian thinkers, leaders and friends. Kt Tupling told us why perspective matters, in the stories we tell. Jemma Brown claimed disability as part of her identity in Christ. Zoe Heming reminded us that stories have the power to change the world and the church. Hannah Lewis told us how this book fits into disability liberation theology, which cries out for justice and against powers and principalities. And Fiona MacMillan told us the story of one disabled-led conference in the UK, where we are speaking for ourselves.
That night, I felt safe. That’s a very rare thing, for me, in Christian spaces. I was with other disabled Christians, who have cheerled Emily and me on through all the lows and highs as we’ve been writing this book. I’m not alone, I thought, as I looked around at all the faces on the screen. If this isn’t community, I don’t what is.
It’s been hard to feel safe while writing this book. As much as it’s been an incredible privilege, I’ve also felt exposed, vulnerable and scared. I’ve shared my own story – something I find very intimidating. Emily and I have written some things that we haven’t seen many others saying in disability theology or religious studies, and I’m on edge, waiting for the reactions.
I’ve been asked a lot of frustrating questions over the years I’ve been researching disability and churches. By now, I can predict them. Questions like “How can you say there’s any such thing as a disabled person? You’re just like me – we’re all the same in the sight of God.” (Can you get through the church door? I ask back. Can you get through a service without a panic attack? Then we’re not the same.)
And perhaps the question I’ve heard most often is, “What difference does it make whether disabled people tell their own stories?” Because, since the beginning, I’ve been saying we need more disabled voices in theology. We need to hear from more neurodivergent, Deaf and disabled theologians, and we need non-disabled theologians to listen to – and share – the stories of many more disabled Christians. That’s one reason Emily and I wrote ‘At the Gates’: to share some of those stories with a church that has spoken for us – and over us – and without us.
At the book launch, I heard stories like mine, and I was reminded once again why that matters. I did this research because I needed to hear these stories.
Stories that, in all their diversity, resonate with mine.
Friday: Spoken About
Three days later, and here I am at the British Library, still feeling upbeat from the fabulous book launch. I collect a pile of heavy books from the counter. I’m reading theology of autism today. It’s been a while since I’ve been brave enough to attempt this.
(For anyone who doesn’t know: I’m autistic. I’m also an ADHDer and dyspraxic. That positionality is important, in this story.)
As I work through book after book by neurotypical theologians, my light heart starts feeling heavier… and heavier… and heavier. Many of these books share narratives of autistic people, some of whom the writers clearly love – but nonetheless telling their stories for them. Other authors are not even bothering to try to share stories – they’re just speaking for us. (For me.) Some are beginning to ask themselves questions about who speaks and who is silenced. Many are not.
Assuming the voice of God, some theologians say I am the result of a Fallen world.
(It’s an echo of all the times I’ve heard this, when I tried to raise my voice: no, I’m diversity incarnate… but no one was listening.)
Some tell me to celebrate, because I will be cured in Heaven!
(What do you want me to do for you? they forget to ask. If they were listening, the answer would not be “make me neurotypical.”)
Some books debate whether I am human. For hundreds of pages.
(In my fragile bones, I feel the weight of history, of all the times people like me didn’t count as human, from mass institutionalisation to eugenics.)
I’m told that autism is a mis-naming. That it is not my true identity.
(I remember that powerful moment, on Tuesday, when Jemma said Disability is part of our identity in Christ, and that’s something to be celebrated.)
Some of these writers want theology to engage with medical and psychological autism research. They don’t mention the harm so much medical research has done to autistic people, nor how we are speaking back through critical neurodiversity studies.
All the books, even the most well-meaning ones, discuss me as a problem to be solved. They toss me back and forth like a football – a political football, a theological football, a pastoral football – till I’m battered and bruised. They write for neurotypical people, not for me.
I want to scream at the writers to listen to me, but there’s no way to speak back. I can only keep reading, as these theologians define me, without me.
(Also, I’m in a library. I wouldn’t want to disturb anyone.)
After five hours of this, I’m shaking.
But I have to keep pushing myself through this pile of unsafe books, no matter how traumatised it leaves me feeling, so I can write my article. There are books I put down because I can’t bear to keep reading – but if I don’t finish them, I might be accused of not engaging with the literature.
I use the word ‘trauma’ there consciously. Many autistic people carry trauma from a hostile world that is not designed for us, where others have power over us. When I left the church for seven years during my PhD studies, my alienation started in my literature reviewing year. I dragged myself through piles of theology of disability and autism where I became “them” – where I was the object of study, as well as the subject (Fiona Kumari Campbell). I couldn’t speak back to those with the power to define me. I could only listen, in silence. It was traumatic.
This is why I was reluctant to revisit these books, especially after the safety and celebration of Tuesday’s book launch.
This is not the awakening to reality that I wanted.
Friday Afternoon: Speaking With
There’s a book in my bag that I have higher hopes for. It’s about trauma and theology. I bought it because one contributor, Claire Williams, is autistic. Unlike the theology volumes in the library, full of red flags, this book greets me with the green lights I’ve been looking for. Chapters by trans theologians and Black activists. Stories of intersectional oppression. Stories from lived experience.
I leave the reading room and its heavy tomes, and go to the cafe. (There are fewer seats for wheelchair users here now, ever since the British Library replaced most of its cafe seating with long, unmovable benches. I think that might be a metaphor for something.) I find a corner and open the book to Williams’ chapter, still hoping.
The book is called ‘Bearing Witness,’ and it does. Williams has written a powerful autoethnography here – a personal narrative about how churches can traumatise her, as a neurodivergent person. It’s her story. She never tries to speak for me.
She is speaking with me.
Her story resonates into my shaken, fragile bones, through a body and mind that carry trauma like hers. It’s not exactly the same trauma, of course. But it’s more resonant than any of the other ‘autism theology’ I’ve read today.
Here is an echo of community, where there is healing. Williams calls it the healing of Holy Saturday – the healing of crip time. I spend a lot of my life in crip time, and I love and hate it in equal measure. It’s a paradoxical space of forced isolation and transformative healing, where disabled and neurodivergent people become “involuntary hermits” (to quote Sarah’s story, from the Living Edge disability conference).
Sometimes, when I have been silenced beyond what I can stand, God is in the silence.
Claire Williams’ chapter is one of very few academic theology papers I’ve read where an autistic writer shares their own experience. I can count them on the stimming fingers of one hand (tap tap tap). Here’s one other. When I read autistic theologians and disabled theologians, I’m more likely to trust that I’m safe in their hands, safe among their words. Naive? Maybe. Hearing “I am like you” doesn’t guarantee that their writing won’t traumatise me. Nor does neurotypicality or nondisability mean other theologians will traumatise me. There are allies in theology who are reflexive about their power, who draw on disability theory, who centre disabled voices. But this is a numbers game. And so far, my lived experience has been reflected most often in the theologies of other Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people. That’s no surprise, when they share so much of my story – the ableism we meet with in churches; the trauma waiting for us inside the gates; the exclusion, when churches close those heavy gates to us.
This personal and communal history of trauma – this longing for safety in numbers – is one reason why some of us ask if a Christian event on disability is disabled-led, or how many disabled speakers and organisers they have. It’s not an accusation. I think we just want to know if we’ll be safe. Please, give us grace, and tell us we will be. Once or twice, I’ve ended up at a disabled-led event almost by accident, and wondered why on earth the organisers aren’t shouting about it from the rooftops. Maybe they don’t know what a rare thing it is. Maybe they don’t how much we need to see those green lights. We’re like you. We will listen to your story. You’re safe.
This is only one reason why we need more Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent theologians and church leaders (and social researchers and memoirists and artists and storytellers and TikTokkers). But it’s an important reason. We need non-disabled and neurotypical allies, too, showing they are listening and amplifying our voices. Until there are so many of us that everyone else has to sit up and take notice when we ask, Where are the stories like mine?
One day, I want to wake up in a world where there are more people like me at the table. A more just world, yes.
But also a safer world.
“What are you doing here?” is God’s question to Elijah and perhaps to everyone. To which my reply is, “To whom else shall I go?”claire williams, from ‘autism: an autoethnography of a peculiar trauma’, in bearing witness (p.200)
P.S. There’s much more I could say about disabled academics and disclosure, in this often-unsafe field, and the work we need non-disabled academics to do to make it safer for us to be at the table… But that’s for another time.
Here’s one conference I went to last week, where there was safety in numbers, and stories like mine were centred. Thanks to New Leaf for a brilliantly hybrid conference. I’ll share video when it’s up.
Some further reading on trauma and marginalised researchers
- Disability scholar Fiona Kumari Campbell talks about disabled academics working in disability studies as “both the subjects and objects” of our research and teaching, which has personal consequences for us.
- A Methodology for the Marginalised: Surviving Oppression and Traumatic Fieldwork in the Neoliberal Academy. Article on how researchers can be traumatised through our research with the marginalised groups we belong to, and how we often stay ‘outsiders’ to the academic world which turns its gaze on us. Content warning for discussions of suicide and trauma.
- Ann Memmott has been writing from an autistic perspective about autism research and autism theology for a long time – her blog is a great resource.