The Path Less Traveled: Families, Autism, and the Church Today
Autism, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and developmental delays often keep kids (and parents) away from church. A new study has found children with autism are almost twice as likely to never attend church or other religious services. Families of children with other disabilities are missing from the pews as well. These are the parents who grew up in the church. Whose parents were preachers, elders, Sunday school teachers, and ladies Bible class members. These parents are aching for their children to know the same love of a church family as they did.
This certainly describes my family. Our oldest son has autism. For families like mine, it doesn’t take a study to know about the barriers preventing children with disabilities (and their families) from participating in worship. What are these barriers, and how can the church accommodate?
First, an understanding of God’s design is a great place for any church body to start. Differences can be frightening. Learning that my son’s brain is physically wired differently than that of a neurotypical truly fascinated me with God’s design!
The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? (Exod. 4:11)
In Luke 14:15-24 there is a story of how the church should welcome everyone. This story shows Jesus hosting a celebratory meal where the disabled are invited guests, just as those without disabilities are. The good news of salvation is that we ALL belong.
Here are a few suggestions for creating a sanctuary for these families at church, plus some suggestions for the family seeking sanctuary.
Creating Sanctuary: Suggestions for the Church
Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. (Luke 14:21)
Church is a large social gathering that is, in itself, difficult for anyone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The service can be a radically unwelcoming, even dangerous, place for persons with ASD in ways nobody intends. Like school or grocery shopping, church is another potentially overwhelming situation autistic kids must endure on a regular basis. Unlike most people, they don’t leave church feeling refreshed and renewed to face the week ahead. Quite the opposite. Below are some suggestions for the church staff, and especially for the youth minister.
Ask what may help, as every disability and circumstance is unique. By just asking and desiring to include the child in the group, you’ve already relieved the parent considerably!
Consider a buddy system. Oftentimes there are students in the youth group who gravitate toward helping those with disabilities; by assigning one person as a buddy, both young people win.
Consider sensory challenges. Fluorescent lights are often painful, so consider using LEDs. Similarly, sudden loud noises can be painful to the ASD child. So, though you can’t do anything about crying babies, sitting a distance from the abrupt sounds (or allowing an out) is essential. Any loud abrupt sounds should be relayed beforehand to the person with autism; the surprise element is painful.
Remember the person with ASD is literal and direct. This is how they are wired. They do not understand innuendos or sarcasm at all!
Socializing is difficult and often exhausting to someone with ASD, as they cannot understand you well, especially in a crowd. Body language can be different, and they may not make eye contact. Sitting beside them somewhere quiet is easier than chatting face-to-face.
Avoid physical contact unless they offer it first; sometimes touch is painful. Offer an area of rest, like a room off the foyer, where the ASD child can go to decompress. Don’t worry if they need to wander outside for a while.
If you say you’ll do something, please do it. Those on the autistic spectrum will find it distressing if you promise something but don’t follow through, or if you use expressions like, “I’ll be back in five minutes,” when you mean you’ll be back within the next hour.
Finding Sanctuary: Suggestions for the Parent
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:1-3)
Know that you have been prepared for the road less traveled. God will not give you more than you can bear, and the Almighty prepared you and your child for this journey.
Your child’s path with the church is going to be much different than the path you took in your youth. You probably already know this and are hurting. Rest assured that God is close to you, and you are not alone in your journey. It‘s part of why you are reading this now and all of why I’m writing it.
You will have to do things differently. First, more might rest on you teaching God’s word than the Sunday school teacher, but your child will still learn it—just in different ways!
Some youth groups are inclusive to children with disabilities—now more than ever! However, if you are new to a congregation and there is a clique already formed, you may need to provide your own inclusive pew experience during service. Remember, consistency is key, so find the area of the church that works for your child’s needs. We found a place not too far from the exit, not too close to the cry room, and near welcoming seniors who always offered a smile! You may hurt for the youth group loss but they won’t as much as you do if you follow a consistent plan that eases their disability challenges.
If the biblical stories don’t come to life in Sunday school, try viewing a video series of the Bible at home. Remember, people with autism understand by visualization. Watching Bible stories together has brought to life the same lessons for my son as I had learned in my youth. He has been just as impressed with God’s message although it had to be delivered in a quieter setting with time we set aside.
When you are struggling with someone taking advantage of your child's disabilities, whether through exclusion or bullying, try to take a second to pray for them. Pray that their eyes will be open to the value of all people, and that God will help to soften their heart.
Know that there is a special purpose for your child. God does not make mistakes, and medical science is just now realizing that for every deficit the brain function incurs, there is a gift or an ability that has been given. That is the power of your child and God’s design!
I would like to leave you with a statement my son Samuel said when he was very young, which we’ve printed to hang by our front door:
Don’t worry about the impairments that God included in this package … think about the good stuff in the package God gave you.
I would agree with Sam. As medical science begins to understand the brain and the effects of autism we as a society—and especially as the church—should subside our fear of “different” and embrace God’s beautiful design together.