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. At the same time, theologically it is important to understand the worship service as a highly sensory space. We interpret the sensory aspect of worship as constitutive of relating to the Divine. Thus, understanding the sensory aspect of worship and liturgy is key to understanding both autism and the church service.
This project investigates both the empirical and subjective experience of the sensory aspects of worship for autistic and non-autistic people. We aim to offer a theological reflection on facilitators and barriers to worship, resulting in a ‘sensescaping’ tool and training resource for churches. For this, we will work together in churches in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Singapore, and provide a 'sensescape' (i.e., a ‘sensory landscape’) of six churches in these countries. From the outset, we involve autistic people who will advise us on key stages in the project. We are also working together with a partner in Singapore, the Centre for Disability Ministry in Asia.
This project is the follow-on project that emerged from the project Dr Katy Unwin and I conducted in the summer of 2021, as Summer Fellows of the New Visions in Theological Anthropology project at the University of St. Andrew's, titled “The Effects of Sensory Issues on the Experience of Worship by Autistic People.” The results of the first project were published as: Armand Léon Van Ommen and Katy Unwin, “The Sensory Aspects of Worship and Liturgy as Experienced by Autistic People,” Questions Liturgiques / Studies in Liturgy 102 (2022): 267–88, https://doi.org/10.2143/QL.102.3.3291363