EDITOR’S NOTE: April is Autism Awareness Month.
SIMPSONVILLE, S.C. (BP) — Sitting in a hallway of our church one typical Sunday morning, holding my child in my lap as he curled into the tightest 5-year old ball he could make, I pleaded with him to return to class and try again. Something about the morning had set him off, and no one was sure why. Then again, week after week, no one was ever sure why.
I kept my head down. I did not want to draw any attention to myself. On the cusp of tears, a kind word would have burst the flood gates, so I left early.
I spent that afternoon googling things like “Christian moms autism” and “Church children autism moms” and even desperately typed in “Church with Autism is hard.” I read at least 20 blogs that day. All but one recounted that their families do not attend church anymore or the parents switch off attending church without the special needs child because it is just too hard to attend.
The one blogger who did attend church was a pastor’s wife (who had to be there) and even she said it was nearly impossible each Sunday.
This internet search was like looking for the needle in a haystack, and three convictions emerged for me that day:
— Special needs families are not automatically excused from being a committed part of the local church.
— Churches are responsible for doing whatever it takes to reach, disciple and minister to special needs families.
— Special needs families are statistically an under-reached demographic, yet when committed to the church, they will be some of its most faithful members.
Keeping my son at home, rather than attending church, will never accomplish what I want for him, which is to know that Jesus and His church are as much for him as they are for me, and the church misses out on something God has for them by not having special needs people in it.
As an autism mom, I am not exempt from raising my autistic child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). The methods by which I do this may look very different from parents of typical children. But as a mom of both a neurodiverse child and two neurotypical children, I know every child is distinct and requires uniqueness in how they learn about Jesus. The call is the same for every Christian parent: We must teach and train our children to know, love and obey Jesus to their fullest capability.
One major way we all learn about Jesus is through Christian community in our local church. Our children need to be a part of worship, see adults and children with open Bibles listening to teachers and preachers, and they need to experience kindness and encouragement from people (other than their parents) who display the love of Jesus toward them. It also provides a place of service to others, because sometimes much of their home life is devoted almost exclusively to their own needs.
As a church member and ministry wife, I see the need to consider what special needs ministry looks like in each of our churches. Factors like size, number of special needs families, or even flow of the service play a part. Some churches devote entire sensory-minimized services to individuals with special needs. Other churches, like mine, have “Buddies” to help my child navigate services and transitions. We may need to look at modifying spaces to better meet the needs of special needs families: family bathrooms, calming sensory-free rooms or overflow rooms where the sermon can be heard but those who wander or make noises can be a little less conspicuous. Whether you attend a bigger church or a smaller church, if you look around and see your church is empty of families with special needs, then your church is hardly complete.
Lastly, Jesus is our example, proving that all kinds of people are welcome at His banquet table when He said, “Go out quickly to the streets and alleys of town and bring in the poor, crippled, blind, and the lame…. Go out and compel them to come in, so that My house will be full” (Luke 14:21b-23).
Those with special needs may no longer be hidden away on back alleys and abandoned roads, but they are often isolated in suburban homes or ostracized and stigmatized in other ways. Jesus says to call them to come. In doing so, we show the value of special needs families — exalting Christ, glorifying Him in His church and serving alongside one another. What a beautiful sight to see the Lord’s church with all its variety and uniqueness!