Study: U.S. Churches Exclude Children with Autism, ADD/ADHD

"Children with the greatest need for a supportive community were the most likely to feel unwelcome." - CToday

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Larry Nelson's picture

I'm a member at a large church, where we have a Special-Needs Coordinator (it's a part-time position).  Her role includes pairing special-needs children with a one-on-one volunteer who serves to monitor & assist the child in his or her Sunday school classroom (freeing up Mom or Dad to attend the service or their own adult class).  Also, the Coordinator either arranges or facilitates some training for Sunday school teachers on how to best teach these children.  She also oversees a dedicated "sensory room" (in the midst of the children's wing) which serves as a temporary place of respite for overwhelmed special-needs children.

I'm not currently teaching (now serving in other volunteer roles), but I taught first-graders for 14 years at my present church.  I had several autistic children in my classes over those years, and having resources available (such as described above) to assist me as a teacher definitely made a very positive difference both for the children and for me.

Churches that can provide such provisions to welcome families with special-needs kids tend to attract such families.  I understand that for many churches it is a question of limited resources, but like the article argues, it's an area of ministry that is often not met well by churches. 

Bert Perry's picture

I've had the opportunity to interact with a few autistic young people, though I don't know exactly where they were on the spectrum, let alone what that meant.  The parents gave me a few tips--more or less be there but don't press the issue of interaction--and things really went pretty well.  Nothing against special needs coordinators, but I have to wonder if at least for the "less severe" branches of the spectrum, a bit of "don't press the issue" goes a long way.  Might even be a great way for that coordinator to multiply her effectiveness--"these are some basics of how you interact with an autistic child", and all that.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

JD Miller's picture

I wrote this a little over a year ago about our autistic son

     Our youngest son is autistic. Back in the late 1980's the only thing many people knew about autism is what they had seen in the 1988 movie, Rain Man. Today, most people know someone with autism. We do not know if autism is more common than it used to be, or if we are just more aware of it. Growing up one of my friends was diagnosed with autism and I knew him before I even watched the movie Rain Man. Looking back I knew other people growing up who to this day have not been diagnosed as autism but share some of the same characteristics.

     For example, as a child, I played with some boys who got immense pleasure in dumping out containers filled with items. They did not necessarily even want to play with the items, they just wanted to dump them out. My mother would cringe at the prospect of having to clean up after they left. Our youngest shares the joy that comes from dumping items and he also shares other characteristics with those boys that I grew up with.

     We have taught our son that dumping items is not always allowed and for the most part he complies. Still, he is only 5 years old, and like any 5 year old, he will occasionally forget or simply disobey. Recently during a church service, as I was preaching, I saw him balancing a large container of crayons on his head. Soon they slipped from his head and spilled right towards the visitor. Of course the thrill of seeing them spill made it too hard for him to resist dumping the rest of them. He dumped them right next to the visitor who was sitting just ahead of him.

     Part of me wanted to scold him and part of me wanted to laugh. Thankfully, I simply continued to preach. After the service I began to visit with the visitors when our oldest son came over and apologized for his little brother's behavior. They graciously smiled and did not seem at all bothered by it.

     I explained that we have expectations for our children and that we expect them to behave, but that we also realize that they are kids and that we want the church to be a welcoming place for them- even if there are spilled crayons now and then.

     They agreed and as we continued to talk the subject of autism came up. They then shared that they had an adult daughter with autism and that they understood what had happened. In fact, I believe that the spilled crayons actually brought comfort to them- reminding them of experiences from when their children were younger.

     As I watched the crayons fall from my child's head, I was wishing that event was not happening. In hind sight, I am reminded that shared experiences and shared challenges in life are part of ministry. My moment of discomfort was a chance to encourage someone else.

     We see similar comfort as we read the Psalms. For example, in Psalm 6:6 David says, “I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears.” Yet just a few verses later he says that God hears his prayers and all through the Psalms we see David's trust in God. The Bible reminds us that others have faced challenges as well and that God was also there with them. We get to remind each of that from day to day.

     When two of my nephews died in a car accident we were able to see how God could use a big event like that for His glory. Recently I was reminded of how he uses little events as well. 


JD Miller's picture

We had another incident recently.  We were at a missions conference and while staying in the dorm our autistic son who is now 6, pulled the fire alarm.  A number of us were sitting around the lobby fellowshipping when it happened.  We had pointed out the red fire alarms in other buildings and instructed him not to touch them, and he has left them alone.  This alarm however was silver and a different shape and it had the word "pull" prominently written on it.  Our son is learning to read and he did just what it said to do.

Of course there was a loud warning that immediately developed and he was startled and put his hands to his ears.  I quickly stepped outside to call the fire department and let them know it was not an emergency (it was too loud inside to call).  My wife went to our son to explain to him what had happened and that he should not do that again.  An older man then went to our son and began to aggressively berate him.  My wife had to step between them,

Some people with autism will sit in a fetal position and rock back and forth as a coping mechanism when they are under stress.  Our son will laugh.  As the man became aggressive, our son became agitated and laughed.  That did not help matters.  Others said that my wife handled things very well.  She was calm but firm and let the man know that this was her son and she would handle it.  Fortunately he walked away.

As disappointed as I was with the man's behavior (he was out of line even if the child was not autistic- the child's behavior was ignorance, not sin), we were encouraged by the other adults in the room who encouraged my wife in how she handled the situation and expressed their disappointment with how the man reacted.

When I went to talk to him about it later, he said that his wife had tried to explain to him about our son's condition, but that he could not understand it.  

The truth is, we are going to run into people who have trouble understanding others.  We are going to run into people who do not react as graceful as we would like, but we have also run into so many people that have clearly shown the love of Christ toward us and our son.  

The 2 greatest commands are to love God and to love our neighbor.  As a pastor, my job is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.  Essentially that means I need to equip them to love God and to love their neighbors.  As we teach through the word of God, we need to show what love should look like in our day to day lives, not just what it should feel like within.  I am so grateful for the many Christians who love in a way that our son can clearly see. 

At that same conference he made friends with an older lady who was recently diagnosed with dementia.  She would save a place for him at the breakfast table each morning so he could eat beside her.  He liked her because she paid attention to him.  Her dementia did not stop her love and was a great example to a little boy who got to have a very special role model that week.

ChristyLou's picture

As a parent of a now adult moderately affected with autism, this is absolutely our experience.  We were treated as an inconvenience and worse when he was young.  As he grew and became able to (somewhat) participate in activities, one of us had to be there; my husband worked second shift so that fell to me much of the time.  I/we were also put down for sending him to public school and a myriad of other social slights.  Simply put, individuals with autism and their primary caregivers need the fellowship of other Christians as much as anyone else, and it is embarrassing that most churches do not recognize this.

Ron Bean's picture

I had a brother (adopted) who had Down Syndrome. He loved going to church with us but insisted on sitting quietly in the front pew by himself. Our home church accepted him and we assumed other churches would be as welcoming. Then there was the time that we attended a church for an entire spring while we helped in their ministry. After a few weeks the pastor came to us and asked us to have Tim sit with us because his presence in the front pew made the pastor "uncomfortable" and was "distracting".

BTW, the only distracting thing I can ever remember him doing was when the ushers missed him when they were taking up the offering (he always had a dollar bill for the offering) and he got out of his seat, walked to the plates on the offering table and deposited his dollar!

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

JD Miller's picture

Christylou and Ron, my heart breaks as I read your posts.  The most important commands are to love the LORD and to love your neighbor.  When Jesus was asked who our neighbor is (in other words who do we have to love), he told the story of the good Samaritan.  There was tension between the Jews and the Samaritans at that time, so loving a Samaritan was loving someone who made you uncomfortable.  I believe that we as Christians need to get back to the basics of teaching what love for God and others actually looks like.