Autism: A Gift God Can (and Will) Use

The day on which I’m writing this piece, April 2, 2024, has been designated by the United Nations General Assembly as World Autism Awareness Day. It’s also the start of an annual campaign, called #CelebrateDifferences, sponsored by the Autism Society of America, to highlight April as Autism Awareness Month. What better day for me to write about a subject so close to me as a person “on the Spectrum,” as the saying goes. 

Last year I wrote an article on autism titled, Why Did God Create a World with Autism? In that article, I described my experience of autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I proposed that ASD should not be labeled as a disorder, a handicap, or a genetic defect, and that a better word would be neuroatypical (or neurodivergent). For autistic people, some neurological functions are more challenging than for neurotypical people, while several others may be easier. This distinction is evident as well for other neurodivergent people, such as those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In making this proposal, I illustrated one of the challenges autistic people face: difficulty with social interaction and social communication skills. My words inadvertently offended many parents and others who deal with the daily struggles of autistic children who have additional diagnoses and special needs. Please accept my apology for any unintended offense. 

Autism as a Set and a Spectrum
Where autistic people tend to excel is in their ability to focus on a specialized subject or skill and, within that specialization, to achieve a degree of success (or with a degree of ease) beyond that of most neurotypical people. Some are considered geniuses, as a result. However, they typically achieve at an unusually high level in that one specialty only, while performing poorly in many others. Although the autistic population is as diverse as any population of individuals, an unusually high proportion of us experience a rare capacity to gain the trust of birds and mammals, both tamed and wild.

Where autistic people tend to struggle is in their ability to detect emotion via others’ facial expressions, body language, social cues, and verbal expressions (words and tone of voice). In fact, they struggle to identify and express their own emotions. They cannot readily anticipate what others may be thinking, and they tend to miss what others are saying until their focus shifts from what they’re pondering to what they’re hearing. In last year’s article, I listed fifteen social challenges that ASD people seem to share.

Nevertheless, autism is a spectrum in that every one of us with autistic characteristics also differs from everyone else on the spectrum in that we have our individual personalities and families, cultural backgrounds, likes, and dislikes. That is, although we share a set of social challenges, we have a widely diverse set of strengths and capacities.

That autism is manifested as a spectrum should come as no surprise. God created every human being with unique characteristics, features, and behaviors that are manifested in no other human. Even identical twins are distinct from one another in many discernible ways. From a biblical perspective, we discern that God created and designed every human being to fulfill a unique purpose that has eternal significance. Therefore, he made each one of us distinct from the rest of humanity. 

Biblical Perspective
Paul points out in 2 Corinthians 4 that every human being is like a clay jar. We all have weaknesses, deficits, and challenges. Our human tendency is to patch over these “cracks” in our jars so that no one can see them. However, Paul explains that God’s intent for those who have received forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ and have surrendered to him as the master of their life is that the Holy Spirit would shine through the cracks. In this way, nonbelievers would recognize that what radiates from the life of his followers is not mere human goodness but, rather, God’s glory.

Allowing God’s Spirit to shine through our weaknesses and disabilities is one way we can witness to a world of lost humans that God is alive and active, and that he willingly offers his grace and blessings to whoever is open to receiving them. In this context, our imperfections can be regarded as a blessing.

The fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23) can grow wherever he takes root, not just in neurotypical followers of Jesus. God can and does bring healing and wholeness as needed for the fulfillment of his plans and purposes for each one of us. He loves to show his power as we embrace his will for our lives. God’s goal is that his work in and through each of us would be so dramatic that those around will recognize it for what it is: his supernatural presence within.

The Lord specifically calls his disciples to serve him by loving others in tangible, practical ways. His love calls us to become a blessing to those around us, whoever they may be. Two of the ways emphasized more clearly than many others include prayer and hospitality, callings that anyone, regardless of special gifting or skill, can fulfill.

Hospitality and Prayer
I Thessalonians 5:16–18 exhorts all followers of Jesus Christ to “be joyful always,” to “pray continually,” and to “give thanks in all circumstances” because “this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” This passage reminds us that God is always at work in our lives. We are to be ready all the time to pray at any time. Even without great social skills or emotional sensitivity, we know how to pray for other people as they face challenging circumstances or momentous opportunities.

Peter urges all followers of Jesus Christ to “Love each other deeply” and to “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:8–9). That last phrase reminds us that hospitality involves effort and expense, though not always money. Paul’s letter to the Romans says, “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13). The author of Hebrews commands, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2).

One reason for the strong emphasis on prayer and hospitality is that these practices are the means by which God can benefit us—even more, perhaps, than those we seek to bless. As we seek to show his care to them, he works in us to “remediate,” or shore up some of the weaknesses autistic people typically struggle with. I can testify that this has been the case in my own life.

My Journey with Autism
I relate some of my early struggles with ASD in Always Be Ready.1 Because of my verbal and communication inabilities and my lack of fine motor dexterity, I earned across-the-board failing marks in all my first-grade subjects at school. Just six weeks before that school year ended, my family moved to a house in a different school district. 

As the end of that year approached, my new teacher, Miss Lila Campbell, held me after class one day. She let me know I was not in trouble, but that she simply wanted to ask me questions about some books from the back of the room, books now sitting on her desk. 

“You don’t need to speak,” she said, “just nod your head for yes and shake your head for no.” By this means, she was able to determine that I had read and understood the content of that stack of books on her desk. With considerable effort, she convinced the principal to let me advance into second grade.

Over the summer break, I practiced with my pencil daily to make legible numbers and letters. I pushed myself to speak, even though my “overly honest” speaking sometimes got me into trouble. Entering second grade, I ranked last in the class, academically. My classmates called me the class dummy. However, by the end of second grade, I’d become first in my class. I was reading four or five books on astronomy and physics per week, having determined that astrophysics would be my future career.

I had no further contact with Miss Campbell till many years later. I was 34, and she was in her 90s when we met in her Vancouver home over tea. (My parents located her thanks to a newspaper article about her laudable teaching career.) That’s when I learned that she had been praying for me for the past 27 years and had followed my academic progress. She prayed that I would use my science training for the glory of God. I will never forget the joy on her face when she heard that I was doing just that! 

Her faithful prayers on my behalf played a significant part, I am sure, in helping me overcome my deficits and setting my trajectory toward becoming a follower of Christ, committed to using my studies in science to point others to him.

Although my parents were not Christians during my growing up years, they practiced many Christian virtues, including hospitality. Our neighborhood was filled with refugees from war-torn Europe and Asia. Despite our own poverty, Mom and Dad often invited neighbors to join our family for meals and conversation. They especially reached out to those who were lonely and struggling. They made it a point to teach me and my sisters the value of hospitality and to train us in the art of gracious hospitality.

When at age sixteen I was appointed the director of observations for Vancouver’s chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, I asked my parents if I could host a chapter meeting in our home. They agreed on one condition: I had to clean the house, prepare refreshments, and greet everyone who came (the hardest part, for me!)—in other words, play host. Everything went well, that evening, and the only help I received, at least knowingly, came from my pet parrot, Pedro. He assisted me with hospitality by happily greeting and spending a few minutes on the shoulder of everyone who came. 

During my years as a graduate student at the University of Toronto, I made it a point to invite fellow graduate students and other people I met on campus for meals and conversation. At the time, autism was not a widely acknowledged condition. Decades later, I realized that some of my fellow students were also on the spectrum, but I now see, also, that some of my social deficits were ameliorated as I interacted with neurotypical people.

I continued to practice hospitality when I arrived at Caltech for postdoctoral research. During that time, I finally found and began attending a Bible-believing church (where I still serve as a member of the ministry team). There I noticed that young single men in the church were often enjoying home-cooked meals in the homes of families and older couples. So, I invited them to my apartment for a little talk. I pointed out that they had more time and disposable income than most families in our church. I showed them how to cook and serve simple meals so that they could host families and/or offer free childcare so that parents could enjoy an evening out. I especially encouraged them to invite church newcomers. 

Before long I discovered that providing hospitality for church families differed considerably from hosting university faculty and students. Most of the latter were too much like me and did not help me much with my social and verbal awkwardness. It was through showing hospitality to neurotypical people, observing them and listening to their polite suggestions about relating to “normal people” that I began to experience some breakthroughs.

Greater progress came through partnering with neurotypical people in Christian ministry and outreach. One young woman, in particular, boldly but graciously offered suggestions as to how I could become more effective in ministering to others. I remember her telling me that people would be more willing to listen to my words if I would look them in the eye instead of staring at the floor. It was not easy for me to put this advice into practice, but I was amazed at how much more effective my ministry became when I did. 

Now that Kathy is my wife, I continue to receive help and encouragement from her. When autistic people ask me for advice, I encourage them to spend time with neurotypical people, to be open and transparent, to humbly receive and put into practice, as much as possible, the suggestions they offer, with patience and persistence.

My point in telling this personal story of overcoming—at least to some degree—a few of my autistic tendencies is to remind you that we all need significant social interaction, both in terms of quality and quantity. We were made for community. We especially need it with people who are different from us. We especially need it today.   

Loneliness Epidemic
On May 2, 2023, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivel Murthy called attention to a public health crisis: “loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection.” The United States Department of Health and Human Services issued this statement:

The physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Additionally, lacking social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60%. . . . With more than one in five adults and more than one in three young adults living with a mental illness in the U.S., addressing loneliness and isolation is critical in order to fully address the mental health crisis in America.2

The United States is not the only nation suffering from a loneliness epidemic. It is worldwide and particularly rampant in large cities. Suggested causes of the epidemic (beyond Covid-19) include the Internet, social media, and broken families. I agree that these causes are contributing factors. However, I am suggesting that as Christians, God has specially called and equipped us, wherever we may be in our life journey and whatever challenges we may be facing, to make a significant difference, for now and for eternity. He has given us the capacity to show his supernatural love through prayer and hospitality.


  1. Hugh Ross with Kathy Ross, Always Be Ready: A Call to Adventurous Faith (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2018), 42–46.
  2. U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, “New Surgeon General Advisory Raises Alarm about the Devastating Impact of the Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in the United States,” (May 3, 2023).