Is Your Church Open to Autism?
It's everywhere, bursting from our schools and neighborhoods and playgrounds. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in every 110 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. But with numbers like this, shouldn't our churches, of all places, be bursting with autism too? Certainly our pews are packed with families basking in the love and support of the church. Right?
The truth is that most families with autistic children can't make it to the door of the church. So our churches don't always see the need. I know, because for many years we were one of these invisible families. Church, like the rest of life, just didn't work. There were barriers, unspoken requirements, like sitting still and staying quiet and paying attention. But there isn't a pause button for autism. Max didn't seem to fit. For five years we stayed home on Sunday mornings. Actually, we stayed home most every other day too, me and my beautiful son, isolated like we were lepers.
Finally, when Max turned 13, I could bear it no longer. I brought him back for the one thing he always loved about church when he was a toddler: when it was over. So, that's exactly when we showed up. We called it "backwards church." People were pouring out of the sanctuary and we walked in! It was the coffee hour, which at our church feels more like a backyard barbecue—friends talking and laughing, children playing Nerf football. Max fit right in. But something else was going on: God was about to grab his spiritual tool belt.
Within minutes Max started helping some of the men who were stacking chairs in the sanctuary. Before we left, one of the men approached Max. He put his hand on Max's shoulder and asked if he would like to be an official member of the "Grunt Crew," the team of men who clean and stack the chairs after each service. Max straightened his back and gasped with a rush of air so cool and cleansing that it felt like menthol. One small invitation, that one touch, changed our lives and the life of our church. For six years now Max has been a member of the Grunt Crew. He's even become a greeter, which for Max includes leaping and dancing when the worship music begins. Max still doesn't sit through the service, but his joy in serving is contagious. And he is a vital part of our church. It's as if being with Max, this boy without armor or pretense, who knows the privilege of church, lets us all feel a bit of victory too.
I'm not going to suggest that others follow our model of backwards church. God doesn't have a stamped-out assembly line plan for anyone. But when desperate needs are in sight, God is not the kind of guy to wait around for his nonprofit status to come through or to complete his disability training. God wants us to be his hands, to reach out to the weak and disabled, right now.
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