Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Sunglasses in church

I am a member of the last “invisible generation” of people on the autism spectrum, who missed out on diagnosis in childhood because of at-the-time rigid criteria.

Church is largely a positive experience among people who accept me as I am. One glaring exception concerns a Sunday when my husband Jonathan was approached after the service by a man whom neither of us had encountered at church before. I decided to write about, to share, this experience with a group I encountered on Facebook: a supportive community for people touched by autism, who also have in-common the religious affiliation of which I am part.

To foster understanding, I am sharing it here but want to make clear that I am not singling out a congregation or group. Unwanted criticism can come from any source, in any situation. This just happened to take place at church.

This man, this stranger, began criticizing me to Jonathan — specifically the fact that I’d been wearing sunglasses while in the church’s worship hall. By wearing sunglasses, I was “cutting myself off” from the people around me, this man proclaimed.

I’d like to state at this point that I’d been bothered for years with eyes that hurt or felt tired, and when I learned about sensory-processing aspects of being on the autism spectrum, I began to explore cause and effect.

I tested the possible correlation between my eyes hurting or feeling tired and an uncomfortably-bright room. I found that my eye fatigue and strain were lessened if I wore sunglasses as-needed.

This particular Sunday was one such occasion when tolerating bright light was difficult. It was too bright in church, so I wore dark glasses. For me, at least, “problem solved.” But this stranger would have none of it.

This man didn’t know us. But he decided he had the “right” to express his disapproval of me.

When the man learned from Jonathan that I’m on the autism spectrum, he apparently decided it was “OK” for me to be an exception, but continued to express his disapproving views about people who wear sunglasses indoors.

I want to make clear that when the subject comes up, I am open about my experience as an adult on the autism spectrum. Heck, I write about it on my blog! But I do not believe that I am obligated to justify myself to anyone and everyone, and the fact that while at church my behavior needed to be explained makes me feel less safe, less assured of welcome.

Our society needs greater awareness and acceptance of atypical populations’ challenges. Please don’t be so quick to judge a person based on briefly observing her behavior, and also please consider whether it’s necessary or appropriate to express your criticism.

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