I read the following statement and wonder whether it broke the very heart of God:
“Ninety percent of ‘special needs’ families do not attend church.”
Sadder still, they do not attend because they’ve had unsettling reactions from congregations.
As the parent of a special needs child, a dad who treasures both his daughter Alexys and his Father God, I shake my head at that appalling statistic. In His own churches, we’re not following in the caution Jesus issued in Matthew 18:10: “Beware that you don’t look down on any of these little ones. For I tell you that in Heaven their angels are always in the presence of my heavenly Father.”[NIV]
If acceptance is not found in His gathering of believers, to whom do we turn for help, hugs, hope?
Taking well-adjusted children to church is a challenge in itself. We ask a great of deal of them in expecting they’ll sit quietly and behave for more than an hour. But such children understand disciplinary measures follow misbehaviors. Many demonstrate abilities that bring them through the “endless” service or they are rescued by the youth services churches offer.
Most special needs children, however, have neither the gift of associating discipline with the moment’s troubles nor the coping skills to settle down and ride out the storm.
I know this storm all too well. My daughter has been diagnosed with PDD-NOS, a form of autism. She is a blessing that brightens our home with laughter and joy. She also brings new challenges.
Everyday encounters in public places that once were easy, can now be a struggle. Noises. Smells. Lighting. Crowds. Doors that open themselves. These can all send a special needs child into a ‘meltdown.’ To add to the frustration the air thickens with comments communicated by onlookers: “That child needs discipline.” The silent ones speak through body postures and eye movements. We “hear” you. Yes, it would be reasonable–fabulous, really–to leave this untamed spirit at home and accomplish twice the errands in half the time. But that doesn’t work in our situation because Dad’s at work, or Mom’s the trusted guardian, or timing insists we stop now for milk.
So we blush in embarrassment, flame in anger, boil in our condemnation. At times we pray our way through the judgments because we walk through a lost world that shouts “tolerance” for immoral behavior but carries no such love for “different” kids.
It will be better at church, we sigh to ourselves. There we will find souls willing to peer past exteriors- the way God cautioned the prophet Samuel to disregard the outward appearance of David’s brothers–and see the heart for which Christ gave his life.
Yet it is not better. Week after week, only 10 percent of us dare brave the rejection.
Should we not expect more from our church?
The same struggles that we face in those public places, our special kids face in our church. The group of people gathering just inside the doorway as you walk in. Ushers hand you bulletins. The volume of all those people greeting one another, hugging laughing and carrying on conversation is an avalanche of sight and sound. Add to that the lighting changes, music playing, candles burning, stained glass shimmering.
For a sensory sensitive child, church can be overwhelming.
Through Facebook, my wife belongs to several support groups for parents of special needs children. With two friends she’s met, Jeanette has created a web page permitting families worldwide to share their stories, strategies, blessings, tears and so much more. These people have become friends, confidants, family. Jeanette often says that this journey would not be possible without them.
Wading through a virtual alphabet soup of neurological and behavioral conditions, the readers and writers hold one another tightly and look to the heavenly Father for strength in tending the youngsters He’s granted.
Jeanette and I decided to approach these parents with questions regarding their family and church experience. Questions like: “Do you go to church?” “Have you experienced struggles there?” “Is your church accepting of your children?”
We asked that all the answers be honest. Soon after we wondered if we were ready for the answers we may receive? We had no idea what to expect.
The response was amazing. Most of those who attend church regularly have had a wonderful experience. Their churches accepted their children and loved them. I was thankful to hear this.
Some families struggled with “looks”, inappropriate comments or lack of acceptance. One family was actually asked to leave. Another person shared that some in her church accepted her child and others did not. She thought maybe a lack of education about her child’s condition may have scared them.
For some families just the thought of going to church is too intimidating. One shared that they watch a church service online at home where the child is comfortable. I can relate to some of these struggles. I can relate to both sides. The fundamental question is: Should a bad experience keep these families from worshipping the Lord?
My daughter Alexys loves attending church. That does not mean we don’t go through any given church service without struggles. I give the credit for my daughter’s love of church partially to my churches. They have been wonderful. I am proud of them.
Jeanette herself has shared a story of a peaceful church service gone wildly wrong in mere moments. The result of a simple tap on my daughters shoulder during a sermon caused her to go into a meltdown. She started screaming “mommy hit me” over and over again. I quickly took her outside to calm her. Our church did not react. As we walked back in, Pastor Mark smiled at Lexy and with a soothing voice welcomed her back. Both the congregation and the Pastor reduced the trauma for her.
Jeanette was devastated. People had heard Alexys yell “mommy hit me.” Jeanette never wanted to return to that church again. Thankfully, as Jeanette realized that everyone understood she was able to move past it. We never heard any comments or received any looks. What we did hear was support and affection.
I do not judge those who make the comments or give the looks. I pray through awareness they will change. But I have a confession to make. Not that many years ago, I was the judgmental onlooker, quietly steaming as a family allowed their “spoiled child” to run wild through a Ford dealership where I worked as a salesman.
Shortly after I was told the child was autistic. “I could NEVER raise an autistic child.” I harrumphed to another salesman. “No way.”
Then God blesses me with Alexys and I discover how little I know of life and love.
The challenge to educate belongs to all of us. We must start with ourselves. Read up on special needs children–the internet is a wealth of information. Approach parents and ask how better to interact with their sons and daughters. Better yet, spend time with such youngsters directly. I imagine how Jesus would play with an autistic or special child. Join the fun. Welcome the brave families who do come to your church and defend them against those who speak ill.
But above all, practice daily the attitude of John 13:35, which says simply and gently, “Your love for one another will prove to the world you are my disciples.” Show others the unconditional acceptance of all His children and you will win many to his side…including that once forgotten 90 percent.