by Nate Truman
“Chaos is in fact just an illusion created by your inability to perceive the order in which things truly are.” Alyson Bradley, Autistic blogger.
As a father of a 15 year old son who suffers from severe autism, my family has taken a less traveled path. As a pastor’s son who grew up with church being a central part of my spiritual and social life, the church has played an important role in my world.
When worlds collide there is always chaos. However, out of that chaos, I believe great good can come about. Daniel Dage wrote a blog that very easily could have been about my son Nicholas, and the road we have traveled trying to attend church with an autistic child.
In many ways we are blessed that Nicky is “easy” compared to many other children. However, the stress, the judging eyes, and just giving up and not going to church are all things my wife and I have dealt with over the years. As his childlike “cuteness” has faded and he is approaching 15, we know we have unknown challenges ahead.
This one quote from a mom sums up why our really great special needs Sunday school class called “Friends of Angels” is not overflowing with autistic kids:
“Staying home is a more Holy, peaceful and rejuvenating experience for many families that have children with disabilities. Church is often a hostile, hellish experience where families are segregated or ostracized.”
Wow. The one place that should be a haven for these families, is often the place they are shown the least grace and compassion. When we were “church shopping” after a move, unlike other families that would just check their kids into the appropriate classrooms, we did things differently. The family would stay in the car and either my wife or I would go in and ask if they had any special needs teachers, for handicapped kids. 4 out of 5 times we would get a blank stare. After asking a few other people if there was anyone who could help our “family by the side of the road,” we were often told “well, there’s a crying room.” We would then drive to the next church.
With the help of another family with three autistic boys, we decided to build a class around our 4 kids. Often the other father and I would be out in the playground during church when volunteers did not show up so our wives could at least get an hour of worship in. Over time I have learned what the church needs to reach out to autistic families sucessfully.
By listening with a differently trained ear over the years, one thing that stands out is that Autism truly is a “spectrum” disorder. Each child has to be included differently based on where they are in the spectrum. There needs to be an educated special needs volunteer or staff member at each church that is knowledgeable and listens to each parent. That special teacher learns each child so one kid will be properly placed in with the “nurotypicals,” another in a separate class, and yet another in with the other kids, but with a helper.
What many people don’t understand is the value and character building effect they will have on the whole church body. Highschoolers who help out are forever changed into kinder people. Selfishness falls away, and petty “chuch wars” disappear. These special kids can activate sideline members to be included and find purpose in helping someone who’s problems are far more severe than their own.
Not every mom or dad can rise to the challenge and start a ministry – many are holding on by a thread and really need a lifetime of Christ like care from their church family. Many churches all ready have classes for the disabled. In the past they were for either physical disabilities or Down syndrome. Autism is a whole new world of variables that won’t fit into a lesson plan.
At the very bottom of the comments one mom put it pretty clearly:
“I think if they (Church volunteers) complained to God about how hard it was that Sunday when my (autistic) son was there, God would have said “Find a way and minister to all my children. Not just the easy ones.”
It’s not easy when being a Christian urges you to step out and minister to those who seemingly don’t appreciate it, or are not any “fun” to help. However, I know what answer awaits all the helpers of autistic children and families:
‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’