My Son’s Autism Changed Everything—Even Our Church
Editor’s note: National Autism Awareness Month is coming up in April. More than 3.5 million Americans live with autism spectrum disorder, whose symptoms vary widely from case to case. In light of the growing prevalence of autism, parents and church leaders are speaking out about the church’s role in welcoming families of children with autism or other developmental disorders.
Below, Sandra Peoples shares her family’s story. You can also read five tips for churches from writer Nish Weiseth. — Kate
Back in 2010, we held our three-year-old son’s hand and walked in to a meeting with a school psychologist, occupational therapist, and speech pathologist. We walked out holding our autistic son’s hand.
That moment changed everything in our lives. Our family dynamics shifted as we opened our home to four different therapists each week. Dinner became not only time to eat together, but also to help James regain the language skills he had lost (“Who is this? Daddy. Say ‘Daddy.’”). I settled into the idea of working from home to be available to him. Since insurance only covered a portion of his therapies, we adjusted our finances to cover the rest. We began to look into the future as a family of three, rather than envisioning me and my husband as eventual empty-nesters. I also turned to the Psalms and Job more and more.
One thing that couldn’t change was the church we attended. My husband, the pastor of a small church in central Pennsylvania, felt called to stay despite our concerns that our congregation might not be able to meet our son’s needs. Then, a member of the church who works in occupational therapy got some sensory-friendly toys for his Sunday school room. She helped his teachers understand his behaviors. She hugged me outside his classroom and promised me he would be fine.
After that, a special ed teacher volunteered to help as his “buddy,” and began to train others to do the same. They didn’t realize they were doing “special needs ministry;” they just got to know our son James and did what they could to help.
With this team in place, I started inviting other parents I met in therapy waiting rooms and autism parent support groups. I told them how welcoming our church was and passed out flyers about our respite nights—when parents could drop off their kids at the church and have a date night.
My husband stood at a booth for our church at an autism walk that drew thousands. Some asked him why the church was there; he said we wanted to share the good news of God’s love and tell families our church was a safe place for them and their special needs children. Sure enough, families from the walk showed up as visitors soon after.
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