I’m grateful to Lamar Hardwick for sharing his experience with autism. Lamar blogs at The Autistic Pastor.
Could you share a little about yourself and what you do?
My name is Lamar Hardwick. I am a husband, father of three boys, and the pastor of New Community Church located in Lagrange Georgia. I have been in Christian ministry for nearly 17 years and I have served as a youth pastor, young adult pastor, football coach, as well as a hospice chaplain. In addition to pastoring my church, I am also a blogger and author of two books, as well as an autism advocate.
How did you find out that you had autism?
I’ve always known that I was different from my peers my age while growing up. My father was in the military so we moved around quite a bit when I was younger so my parents and teachers thought my struggles were due to the constant relocating. Eventually I learned to blend in and excel at things that I found interest in, but it did not happen without my fair share of struggles. In 2013, our church went through a transition in pastors and I found myself really struggling with having to spend more time preaching in the adult service (I was the youth pastor at the time).
During that transition I was made aware of my inability to discern social cues and other issues that pointed to the possibility of Aspergers. After doing my own research, I realized that what I had been wrestling with since childhood was actually an autism spectrum disorder called Aspergers Syndrome. In 2014 I was officially diagnosed by a professor psychologist. I was 36 years old at the time.
How does autism affect how you minister in your church?
It has caused me to learn to depend more on my strengths and to ask for assistance with things that I am not so good with. We have been able to educate and train my staff and the congregation on the best ways to support my ministry so that the church can maximize the use of my gifts rather than expecting me to do things that I am not necessarily gifted to do. I also have to manage my time and energy in unique ways so that I can perform my duties to the best of my ability. In other ways I have been able to leverage certain characteristics often associated with autism to my advantage.
What are some of the challenges of having autism?
Some of my challenges are related to sensory processing and social anxiety. Church is often a very active social environment and the sights and sounds can be somewhat overwhelming for a church our size. While I enjoy preaching each week, there are times that meeting new people in my church can be anxiety provoking, but I have learned some ways to work through this.
What are some of the benefits of having autism?
One of the major benefits for me is that I can process large amount a of written information and I often think in terms of patterns. I am an avid reader and this in turn has made my written and verbal communication very strong which makes me a good public speaker. I have been told that I have a gift for putting words together that create images that capture people’s interest in the subject matter. I spend literally dozens of hours a week researching, writing, and practicing my sermons with a tremendous amount of focus. I attribute my ability to do this to my autism.
What misconceptions about autism do you encounter?
As a pastor one of the major misconceptions I face regularly is that I am “extremely smart” to be a person with autism. On one hand it assumes that I should not be smart because of autism, and on the other is assumes that autism impacts everyone the same way. I try very hard not to be seen as a representative of what all people with autism are like because those two assumptions about autism are not only not true, they are also really uneducated misconceptions.
How can churches become better at welcoming people with autism on all ends of the spectrum?
I have found the number one issue is to have a culture of acceptance. Of the many families that attend our church who are impacted by autism, the number one thing they cite as the most comforting aspect of our church is that they do not feel judged. I’ve found that families and individuals will be willing to work with the church on helping them create proper accommodations as long as the church has the proper attitude. The culture of the church matters and being a place where everyone is truly welcome, not just in theory but in practice, will go a long way in welcoming people with autism or any disabilities into the church. In order for the culture to be correct however, it must be communicated by the pastor. If the pastor communicates the vision for being an autism friendly church, the congregation will follow.
What word of encouragement can you give to other people with autism?
I would encourage them to know that they are valuable and that their voice is needed not only in the church but in their communities. The world needs all different types of people to lend their voice to the conversations surrounding change. The autism community has some of the most gifted and inspirational voices that the world could ever hear. Find your voice and use it to move the world closer to what it should be for all people.