Centre for Autism and Theology

REF 2021

1st in the UK

Divinity at the University of Aberdeen was ranked 1st in the UK for overall quality of research

Centre for Autism and Theology

Resourcing Christian Communities

The Centre for Autism and Theology (formerly the Centre for the Study of Autism and Christian Community) aims to be an international hub for autism and theology research, with an interdisciplinary component and in connection with the third sector and more widely, any interested individuals or parties.

To this end, the Centre hosts interdisciplinary research into autism in Christian faith communities. The Centre aims to encourage research of the highest standards and to engage in dialogue with various faith communities. The Centre aspires to actively work together with autistic people and faith communities.

The Centre envisions a theological and interdisciplinary discourse around autism that has the potential to contribute to the wider discourse around autism, linked to the religious experience of autism, emphasising the God-given value of those on the autism spectrum. 

About the Centre


Autism is now recognized to be common, and most Christian communities or families will include autistic people. It is easy to assume that autism can be considered in isolation from our faith commitments, and that those who have a diagnosis of autism can process it without reference to faith. Communities and persons of faith, however, always process and understand their experiences in ways that are shaped by that faith, which is itself formed by their traditions and sacred texts. Where those texts and traditions shape their lives in healthy ways, their response to the opportunities and challenges constituted by conditions such as autism will be enriched, and may facilitate a kind of care from which our society more widely may learn and may derive blessing. Where the texts and traditions are used in less healthy ways, however, the effects can be destructive and distressing. The nature and reality of autism will always be interpreted and understood through the prism of shared and embodied faith, and this must be recognized.

The Centre intends to host research that will help to foster positive Christian understandings of autism, drawing on Scripture and theological traditions, and sometimes challenging the misuse of these. In the first instance, this is intended to help churches to respond well to the lived reality of autism. Beyond this, however, the Centre intends to facilitate the sharing of research into the experience of autistic Christians with other communities of faith, associated with other religions and traditions, and with the medical world itself, as its own engagement with persons of faith develops. Thus the Centre has a triple focus: 1) it engages in rigorous theological research, informed and often led by autistic researchers; 2) it seeks to serve and work with autistic people and Christian communities; and 3) it interacts with other faith communities and academic disciplines.

The Centre for Autism and Theology is embedded in the School of Divinity, History, Philosophy and Art History and is closely linked to three other works in the University of Aberdeen: The Centre for Spirituality, Health and DisabilityThe Centre for Ministry Studies, and the Friendship House Initiative.

The Centre's characteristic features

The Centre has three core characteristics that, we believe, enable it to make a leading contribution to the contemporary study of autism, including other theological research.

First, we recognize that Christian faith is always shaped and informed by the biblical writings that are regarded as Scripture by the church, even if this relationship is conceived in different ways by different traditions. This means that theological and pastoral reflection on autism must always engage with the Bible, as it functions in the life of Christian community. Because autism is not named, as such, within the Bible, all such engagement requires careful reflection on how to read the Scriptural material properly and a willingness to challenge the misuse of Scripture, which can be destructive and alienating. These considerations also apply to the acknowledgement that the Christian faith is shaped and form by the Christian tradition(s). We recognise the need to ground our work firmly and critically in the traditions, whilst applying the same careful reflection on the proper reading of traditions and the potential misuse of them as we do when engaging Scripture.

Second, we affirm that autistic people in the church are to be considered a gift and blessing to Christian communities, contributing to the diversity of the “body of Christ.” Much theological discussion of autism treats those with the condition simply as a point of comparison with “normality,” using their perceived “deficiencies” as a means to cast light on what properly functioning humanity should look like. We consider such approaches to be theologically problematic, and to entail a lack of proper affirmation of the value of autistic people. Working with autistic people and ensuring their leadership/representation in the development of research is therefore a priority for us.

Third, we are keen to support communities to overcome barriers of misunderstanding and unawareness of the needs and gifts of each member. It is not uncommon for autistic people to feel that they are not seen and heard, and to feel they need to adjust to social expectations in order to belong fully to the community. On the other hand, non-autistic people may feel they do not know how or feel unable to accommodate the gifts and needs of autistic members. We realise that churches and other communities need reconciliation, so they will reflect the multifaceted beauty that Christ intended the community to be, with all its strengths and weaknesses. The Centre is keen to collaborate with other individuals and organisations that may share this goal, while recognizing the sensitivity around the values that some may currently or historically represent.

Our Partnership with the Koinonia Inclusion Network

Memorandum of Understanding between

Centre for Autism and Theology and the Koinonia Inclusion Network

The Centre for Autism and Theology (Aberdeen) and the Koinonia Inclusion Network (Singapore) are delighted to have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).

The Koinonia Inclusion Network (KIN) is a Singapore-based Christian organisation that partners with churches to help them include people with disabilities. KIN offers a wide range of services for churches in the area of disability ministry, including consultancy, training, and ministry resources. Through its research arm, the Centre for Disability Ministry in Asia (CDMA), KIN produces “context-relevant research that enables disability ministry in Asia.”

Theological research in autism is an underdeveloped area of research. This MOU between CAT and KIN will allow the two centres to partner together to further study in the theology of autism and to contextualise it for an Asian context, with the ultimate goal of strengthening the belonging of persons with autism in churches in Singapore and beyond. At the same time, KIN’s experience in developing practical resources will strengthen public knowledge exchange and impact activities of CAT in the UK and beyond.

Dr Léon van Ommen, Co-Director of the Centre for Autism and Theology, commented:

“The MOU between the Centre for Autism and Theology (CAT) and the Koinonia Inclusion Network (KIN) is an exciting development for CAT. Launched in 2018, CAT’s mission is to resource Christian communities through robust theological research. Therefore, listening to what is happening ‘on the ground’ is all-important for our research. KIN brings that invaluable grassroots input. Moreover, the collaboration between KIN and CAT allows for intercultural enrichment and learning from one another through our diverse contexts. This MOU will enable CAT and KIN to bring together the best of both theological research and practical engagement with the Church.”

Mr Wen Pin Leow, President of the Koinonia Inclusion Network, said:

“KIN is very pleased to collaborate with the Centre for Autism and Theology (CAT) through this MOU. Based at the University of Aberdeen, which is internationally renowned for scholarship in disability theology, the CAT comprises a dynamic group of scholars and students who are producing excellent research in autism and theology. Through this collaboration, KIN hopes to bring world-class theological scholarship to bear on the practical and pastoral issues inherent in disability ministry and missions. This is an excellent space for collaboration, and we know that this MOU will produce significant dividends for the Church and persons with autism in Singapore and Asia.”

To mark the signing of the MOU, KIN invited Dr van Ommen to deliver a keynote lecture on the inclusion of people on the autism spectrum in churches, followed by a Q&A which was moderated by Mr Leow. More than 150 Singaporean church leaders, pastoral workers, and church members attended the live event in Singapore, which took place on Saturday 2 July. The keynote can be found here.

Giving to the Centre

To support the work of the Centre, please click on the link below. Funds raised will be used at the discretion of the Director, in consultation with associated staff, to subsidise public events and research activities. If sufficient funds are raised, the Centre will be able to provide doctoral scholarships for students interested in researching particular aspects of autism and Christian community.

If you would like to make a larger donation to the work of the Centre, please contact The Development Trust or email the Director of the Centre, Professor Grant Macaskill to discuss further details. You may be keen for us to research a particular theme, or may even want to endow a Chair in this important and pioneering area of scholarship. Our colleagues in The Development Trust will be able to discuss options and facilitate the process of giving. Potential donors based in North America will be interested in supporting our work through The University of Aberdeen Foundation.

About our logo

The logo of the Centre for Autism and Theology is based on two features of King’s College at the University of Aberdeen. Firstly, the shape of the logo and the light colours around the central feature, the lamp, are reminiscent of the rose window that can be found in the Divinity Library. This library is where most Divinity and Religious Studies research seminars take place. The Centre is part of the vibrant research culture of the Divinity and Religious Studies Department. Rose windows are also often found in church buildings, which is a subtle hint to the Centre’s focus on Christian communities. Moreover, rose windows are typically made up of many different parts, often colourful. The richness in display of colour, shapes, and images within many rose windows reflects the ambition of the Centre to display that richness in the work we do and the people who are and will be involved. Furthermore, the colours reflect the rich variety in which autism is expressed and the beauty of all people.

The second feature is the lamp itself, reminiscent of the quire lamps in the King’s College Chapel, next to the Divinity Library. This is where daily morning prayer takes place. In reference to ‘Christian’ in the Centre’s title, the designer wanted to represent the light that the lamp spreads, as the light of Christ. The light is refracted through the rose window, which again points to the manifold shapes and colours of autism.

The logo was designed by Holly Russell. You can find more of her art and design work here.



Professor Grant Macaskill, Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis, University of Aberdeen

Dr Léon van Ommen, Lecturer in Practical Theology, University of Aberdeen

We are keen to build links with non-academic organisations and partners who may be interested in co-hosting events, both in Scotland and around the world. Please feel free to contact Professor Macaskill or Dr van Ommen if you have ideas for such events.

Associated Staff
Professor John Swinton, Chair of Practical Theology, University of Aberdeen
Professor Brian Brock, Reader in Theological Ethics, University of Aberdeen
Professor Pete Stollery, Professor of Electroacoustic Music and Composition, University of Aberdeen

We are grateful to Holly Russell for designing the images on these webpages. You can find more of her work here.

Advisory Group

The Centre is advised by an Advisory Board, that functions as a sounding board and supports the Centre’s personnel, especially the co-directors, to achieve their aims. The Advisory Board strives to have a balanced representation of autistic and non-autistic members, of theological and interdisciplinary perspectives, and of academic and non-academic members, including partners from other organisations.

Current members

Lisa Collinson

Dr Lisa Collinson
University of Aberdeen

Stewart Rapley

Mr Stewart Rapley
National Autistic Society

Wen-Pin Leow

Mr Wen-Pin Leow
President of Koinonia Inclusion Network, Singapore

David Simmons

Dr David Simmons
University of Glasgow

Katherine Bale

Ms Katherine Bale