Welcoming Neurodivergent Folx to Our Congregations

Neurodivergence Series

This week's post is by the team of Darrick Jackson, Alex Sherwood, Sarah Gettie McNeil, Jennica Davis-Hockett, and Evin Carvill Ziemer.

The five of us have all known for some time that we, collectively, need to learn how to do a better job welcoming and fully including neurodivergent people in our congregations. As UUA and UUMA staff, we haven’t known how to do this or how we should help. Then, last winter we got on zoom to dream--what if we centered neurodivergent voices? What if we let go of the need to have the answers? What if we just tried something?

So, we are starting our “Skill Up” series this August. This is an invitation into a deeper journey. This series is not just for people who are neurotypical! This is also, or just as much, for people who are neurodivergent or are even trying to figure out where they themselves fit.

Neurodivergence is an large category for all the ways people’s brains can be different from “typical”: ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, Tourette syndrome, C-PTSD, anxiety, traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, and more. We are not operating from a medical model or the assumption that the gatekeepers of diagnosis define who is neurodivergent. You live inside your own brain and body and are the expert on you!

We expect this journey will be messy. Maybe even that we’ll screw up something in this blog post and need to learn more, apologize, and repair. We expect dissonance and disagreement and even welcome it. We welcome the invitation to more deeply untangle our internalized abelism and to more clearly perceive the abelism in our communities.

Foundational to this series is the need for us to learn more about and internalize disability liberation including “nothing about us, without us.” We won’t be able to transform our congregations and communities alone. This will not be about absorbing “best practices” or simply “fixing” our programs to make them accessible. There are no “best practices”. There is only hard won wisdom which people can share. Each of us is constantly learning more and the best of what we know now may not be the best we will know tomorrow.

No one is an expert on all neurotypes. Like we seek multicultural humility rather than competence, we seek humility rather than competence in understanding and serving different neurotypes including people whose neurotypes are similar to ours but differ in their identities and needs. In this, we are all learners and we will fall short, cause harm, and have the opportunity to repair, grow, and build again.

And we know neurotype is but one identity that impacts how one moves in the world. The intersections of race, class, gender, socioeconomic status, national origin and more deeply impact expression, needs, beliefs, lived experience, and how safe it is or is not to move as one’s authentic neurodivergent self in this world.

We believe that serving the deepest needs of our whole community, including neurodivergent people, will mean questioning how our programs are currently structured and who they serve. It will mean collaborating with UUs and our religious professionals who hold neurodivergent identities, and have been working on this for a long time. Re-designing these to center needs of neurodivergent people will, with Universal Design, give us the opportunity to serve all better. Our congregations are filled with many different kinds of neurodivergence; and many of those people are not aware they are neurodivergent or have not disclosed this to us. Changes we make in meeting the access and support needs of everyone--will help everyone. Because many people, including neurotypical people, have unmet access and support needs.

We know there is not a simple model to implement because neurodivergent people have different individual support and access needs. These needs are not set, but change based on context, stress, and more. Meeting people’s support needs is not a one time puzzle to be solved, but an invitation into an ever shifting dance of communication and collective care.

We expect as we move into deeper relationship with neurodivergent people and communities we will be invited to be present to deep and painful disagreements. There are deep disagreements about language for identities and even debates about which interventions are helpful and which are oppressive or abusive.

As we journey farther down this path as communities, we expect we will need to question the social norms and assumptions underlying our covenants and culture. Where are we reinforcing neurotypical social norms and excluding behavior which makes neurotypical people uncomfortable and where are we truly looking at what behavior harms? Can we make room for the tension of noticing the hypocrisy in our covenants and communities? Hypocrisy such as tolerating polite meanness but setting boundaries on direct or blunt honesty. Are we able to make space for everyone in our congregations to approach neurotype differences in communication the way we seek to do for culture? And move away from centering a mono-cultural set of cultural norms?

As we have imagined this way forward and met with our speakers we have found that our faith in just “doing something” was right on. We are already learning, about ourselves, our colleagues, and even our families. And we are excited to invite you to come along with us for the personal, professional, and community learning.

We will begin with speakers who will help us all join this conversation no matter where our starting place. Future speakers and panels will explore different parts of congregational life, different neurodivergent identities, and intersecting identities. We don’t have it all mapped out, we look forward to the emergence of new possibilities and directions as we travel. If you have ideas to add, please reach out.

Please join us on this journey. For yourself, for those we serve, in service of untangling and unweaving all the oppressions which bind us.

Our first event is August 19th at 1pm ET/10am PT with Heather Petit. But we have designed it so you can participate even if you can’t attend live. Future events will be posted on in the LeaderLab on the UUA website as we confirm speakers and dates.

About the Authors

Evin Carvill Ziemer

Evin serves as the Developmental Lead for the New England Region. Evin holds a Masters of Divinity from Earlham School of Religion and Bachelor of Arts from Carleton College.

Darrick Jackson

The Rev. Darrick Jackson is the Ministerial Credentialing Director at the UUA. He previously served as the Director of Ministries for Lifelong Learning of the UU Ministers Association (UUMA). Darrick is one of the authors in the book Centering: Navigating Race, Authenticity and Power in Ministry.

Jennica Davis-Hockett

Jennica has worked in UU religious education and youth ministry since 2008....

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