Sensory Overload: A Reflection for the Inclusive Church Conference “Transforming Vision”

One of the most common experiences among autists is, “sensory overload.” When one or more of your body’s senses encounters overstimulation from the environment. Triggers can range from noisy rooms to flickering lights, from statically charged surfaces to sherbet dibdabs. You can feel it coming, like a wave in the sea, first sucking and pulling and building, then breaking with a power that can knock you off your feet, leave you breathless and speechless, and swallow you up in an overwhelming flow. When it comes, you’d better find something to hold onto, or get out of the water as quickly as possible.

Churches for me have always been oceans of overstimulation. Richly decorated walls, floors and ceilings; coloured glass, silverware, and embroidery; and images, so many images! Such is the visual cacophony of the average church. Complicated music, dense mixtures of voices, tricksy liturgical language, rustling robes and readers. Such is the tangle of auditory threads in an average church service. Add strange tastes of bread and wine, maybe strange smells of incense. I should be flopped on the floor gasping for air within five minutes of entering any church service.

But the more people I’ve talked to about making churches less sensually busy, the more I have come across supposedly ‘neurotypical’ people who have a similar sense of overload as I do. For them it’s not just sensory overload, but theological, doctrinal, and ritual overload too. There lives are so full and so cluttered, and they up attending full and cluttered churches too.

The fact that I am able to attend church without curling up on the floor in a foetal position is mainly down to a series of coping strategies I have in place: I bow my head as much as is seemly to do to keep the visual stimulation to a minimum, I apply deep pressure to points on my skin which calm my nervous system, I establish a safe space I can run to. But where are the coping strategies for the poor neurotypical Christians?

The wonderfully Sunday School answer is “Jesus.” But more specifically, “my Jesus”. More people need to meet the Jesus that I’ve met. Not the cluttered, neurotypical Jesus that the church seems to want to portray, but the obsessive, autistic Jesus that I know from the Bible. That Jesus speaks like this:

“They have never understood me.
It get’s so frustrating.
If they could just step inside my head they would get it, but they can’t.

You see there are things that are important to them that just don’t matter. They twitter away about so much that is obvious in the world. Propriety. Sobriety. Money. Madness. Clean, Unclean. So much white noise in the song of My Obsession. 

Authority. Why should it matter to me? You might have decided that you’re important. I haven’t. You might have decided that what you’re saying carries weight. I haven’t.
Can you not see it? How can you not understand my obsession?

What are these social norms but ties that bind the expression of my identity? I stand too close. I talk too much. I talk too little. I laugh at jokes only I understand. I talk to the wrong people. I talk too loud. I argue. I patronise. I’m arrogant. I’m annoying. 

Do I have friends? I have people who gather round me and listen to me. They don’t usually understand me but they do listen to me. It’s so hard to tell whether I can trust them though, they understand so little. 

The truth is, I feel sorry for them. They’re so blind to My Obsession. They can’t see the beauty, the pure, delicious, wonder of it. They drown it out with waves of noise. Theory, counter-theory, dogma, doctrine, he says, she says, noise, noise, noise.

They’re not like me. They want me to be like them. But I pity them in their distraction. In their rules and regulations. In their values. In their lies.

My pity has never turned to derision. But when they realised they could not change me, they did turn. 

I had to come into the city to complete my work, but the noise on the way was deafening. The crowds. The dust. The branches they waved cutting through the air. The stink of the donkey. I didn’t want any of it. Visual noise. Olfactory noise. Aural noise.

We hid away from the noise, my friends and me. First in a room that was dark and close. We ate. I looked at the food. I realised right then and there the delicious significance of it. I recognised My Obsession. I spoke. They did not understand. All except the one who would betray me.

Finally we hid away in the garden. The coolness and the darkness felt good. But despair was with me that night. I realised that they would never understand me. That my suffering would continue, would increase. There would be more noise, more mess, more busyness drowning the senses. Drowning my obsession. I wept. They slept.

Eventually the noise came and found us. With steel and flame and shouting it found us. When they took me away, I knew that the noise meant to overwhelm me.
Then more words, more suffering, more misunderstanding. And then nothing.”

If the church could just be a little bit more autistic. A bit more single-minded. A bit more obsessive. A bit less cluttered. A bit less overwhelming. Then not only would people like me feel a bit more at home there, but so would everyone else. Everyone would like a bit less clutter in their journey through life. Inclusive church will come from travelling light, not piling on more baggage. Our senses, our vision, not overloaded but transformed and filled with the single light, the single note, the single touch of Christ.

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