Exploring spiritual dimensions in the lives of youth with intellectual disability or autism

Three teen girls gathered outdoors to pray.

Though little has been documented about the prominence of religion and spirituality for adolescents and young adults with intellectual disability and/or autism, a recently published VKC study identifies key spiritual expressions and themes that indicate its influence and importance.

As part of the VKC Disabilities, Religion, and Spirituality Program and with funding from the Martin McCoy-Jespersen Discovery Grant in Positive Psychology, a 2-year statewide study was conducted to investigate the strengths, supports, spiritual expressions, and well-being of youth with intellectual disability or autism. Erik Carter, Ph.D., associate professor of Special Education and VKC investigator, served as PI on the study, working with a multidisciplinary team that included VKC staff and trainees with expertise in the areas of special education, counseling, biblical studies, and/or pastoral ministry.

“In Their Own Words: The Place of Faith in the Lives of Young People With Autism and Intellectual Disability,” includes the first published data from the study and is now available in the October 2014 issue of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, a journal of the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

While the study included almost 500 participants and had a broader focus, the data reported focuses on a qualitative portion of the study involving 20 young people with disabilities, ages 13-21. The youth participated in in-person interviews and answered about 15 questions with 12 follow-up probes designed to elicit the young people’s perceptions and experiences of spirituality and religion.

In terms of how their spirituality is expressed, participating youth shared stories about personal prayer, religious beliefs and behaviors, and involvement in congregational activities. They upheld experiences on specific rites of passages like baptisms or confirmations, and affirmed the importance of social connections within the faith community. Ministry to others in the form of volunteerism through congregational activities also recurred during interviews.

While many themes stood out in the discussions, 15 of the 20 youth spoke specifically about ways that involvement in a faith community benefitted them. They mentioned that their faith communities were places where they belonged and where people were good to them. They spoke about how their faith was a source of help, friendship and love, healing, and protection.

The data reveal that many of the young people with intellectual disability and autism who participated have active and satisfying spiritual lives that may add to their flourishing. It also confirms that the ways in which these youth express their spirituality are more similar than different to those without disabilities. This emphasizes the importance for those in professional and religious circles to ensure that opportunities for spiritual expression exist for youth who view faith as an important element in their lives, yet too often barriers prevent participation.

In response to these barriers, Carter’s team, with input from research participants (parents), has developed a set of recommendations to equip congregations with ideas and steps to strengthen the invitation, supports, and hospitality offered to people with disabilities and their families. Welcoming People with Developmental Disabilities and Their Families: A Practical Guide for Congregations is now available for download at vkc.mc.vanderbilt.edu/assets/files/resources/CongregationPracticeGuide.pdf.

For more information, contact courtney.taylor@vanderbilt.edu.

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