Dr Léon van Ommen and Dr Katy Unwin: The Effects of Sensory Issues on the Experience of Worship by Autistic People

Dr Léon van Ommen and Dr Katy Unwin: The Effects of Sensory Issues on the Experience of Worship by Autistic People

The Effects of Sensory Issues on the Experience of Worship by Autistic People


NViTA Summer Fellowship, University of St. Andrew’s, Summer 2021

Dr Léon van Ommen (University of Aberdeen, Scotland) and Dr Katy Unwin (Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, La Trobe University, Australia)

Within the psychological and developmental literature, sensory processing is described as a “critical cornerstone” for understanding autism, with sensory issues having knock-on effects on multiple areas of life (e.g. social functioning). Therefore, it is unsurprising that the sensory environment of liturgy and worship could impact autistic experience and engagement. To fully understand this aspect of liturgy and worship, in this project we employ scientific methods and engage with the autism sensory literature.

Theologically, the aim of worship services is to facilitate the meeting between God and God’s people. As such it is important to know in which ways the embodied, sensory aspects of liturgy and worship help or hinder autistic participants to encounter God. Thus, an underlying question emerges: what is theologically at stake in the way Christian communities consider the sensory aspects of their worship? How can sensory issues – as experienced through the lens of autism – impact our understanding of liturgy and therefore our liturgical theology? We aim to address these questions through the following main question: In what ways do sensory issues impact autistic worshipers’ experience of worship and how does that impact their encounter with God?

This project, situated in Practical Theology and engaging with Psychological Science, analyses in-depth interviews with autistic individuals about their experience and understanding of liturgy. Through the NViTA Summer Fellowship we take the essential first steps in solving this ‘theological puzzle’ through psychological analysis of sensory issues in worship and addressing theologically what this means for encountering God, engaging with the psychological literature and theories of sensory processing, theologies of autism, and liturgical studies.