Autism in the Church: Welcoming Special Needs Children
By Jason Wert
Autism in the church is an invisible problem that is alienating families all over the country.
The 7-year-old boy danced around at the front of the room as the worship team played a song. His parents made multiple attempts to corral him but to the child he was just fitting in. After all, the adults were singing loud, waving their arms and swaying. This was how he waved his hands and swayed to the Spirit in the room.
The adults didn’t see the worship that was happening. They looked at the child with obvious irritation. They looked at the parents with raised eyebrows silently asking why they don’t get their child under control. (As if the parents haven’t been trying to keep him acting in the manner that people want children to act in a church service when child care isn’t being provided.)
With every giggle, every whisper to his parents that was a little louder than a whisper, every fidget in his seat the irritation of those around him seemed to exponentially grow. People would move away from the child and his family. The family was made to feel more and more unwelcome.
The child wasn’t just being disobedient. The parents weren’t just slacking in their duties.
The child had autism.
Every Sunday in churches all across the USA, families with autistic children are pushed to the side and made to feel unwelcome because most churches just aren’t ready to deal with these children. It’s not just autism either: families who have children with special needs ranging from MS to Down Syndrome to cerebral palsy find themselves being pushed to the perimeter of the “church family” until they quietly leave on their own.
Every Sunday there are thousands of families who would love to spend time worshipping God with other followers of Christ who feel they have no place to go because they are not made to feel welcome simply because the child God gave them doesn’t fit the “normal” societal template for a child.
The church will tell them that they’re not equipped to handle a child with special needs. They’ll tell the parents that their child is “too much of a disruption for the other children.” If the family is invited to stay they’ll be asked to sit in the children’s area with their child to “help them.”
How does that help the parents grow in their relationship with God or other believers? They can take care of their child at home without the dirty looks that will inevitably be given to them by others who don’t understand the struggles of a child with special needs. And those dirty looks, snide comments and cold shoulders are very noticeable to the parents of those children.
The problem goes a lot deeper than just the church hierarchy that is usually not prepared when a family with a special needs child walks in their door. There’s a profound lack of understanding and support from the Christian community as a whole. Our worship time is seen almost in a selfish manner by so many of us. We like to sit in certain spots. We like to hear certain songs. We get very irritated if something throws off our experience like a child who doesn’t act like the perfect angel. Instead of taking that moment to show the grace of God that we’re claiming to seek ourselves in the worship service we allow anger to be our guide.
And I’m not talking the child who’s screaming and yelling and making an obvious huge disruption. I’m talking the child who just rocks back and forth in the pew. The one that dances during the worship time as he’s made to stand up like everyone else. LITTLE things that can be such a huge sore spot for so many people that they’ll condemn and exclude the families of those children.
Would Jesus really turn away the family of the special needs child?
Do you think He wants us doing that?
Yet it happens every Sunday.
How do I know these things happen? Because I have a son with autism. And I’ve experienced some of it. I’ve been involved with other families who have special needs children who have dealt with some of the things I’ve mentioned. The families who are told it’s unreasonable for them to expect the church to help with their child so the adults can have even an hour of interaction with other adults to worship God. The families who are told if they want the church to be able to care for special needs children then those parents need to start and run the program.
The families who are made to feel it’s somehow their fault their child was born in a way other than “normal.”
There are some churches that are doing wonderfully when it comes to helping the families of children with special needs. Our family has been tremendously blessed by finding one. We’ve tried to invite other special needs families to attend but have had our hearts broken many times when they say “we simply don’t want to put our family through it again.”
So if you’re a church leader, I ask you: what would happen if a family with a special needs child walked through your door? If you’re just a Christ-follower not in leadership, I ask you: how would you react to the child who is acting a little differently than the other little boys and girls?
Jason has been blessed with great trials that have refined him through fire both figuratively and once literally. He’s had his faith stretched to the breaking point and has seen God come through in amazing ways that he’s now sharing through his website and the upcoming Mustard Seed Year. A former 20-year veteran radio broadcaster, Jason now lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his family where he focuses on writing and speaking.