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.
“We wanted to start taking the kids to church but were nervous,” one mom said. “When you said your church had a special needs ministry, we were interested. But when you said you have a son with autism and that your church loves him, we knew it could be the church home for us.”
We now see the special needs community as an unreached people group. Too many of these families have been hurt by churches that turned them away either by their actions (or inaction), or by telling them they aren’t welcomed. Some of us may imagine it impossible for a congregation to reject any members—much less those with special needs—but it happens in routine ways.
When a child’s age doesn’t match his developmental stage, Sunday school teachers struggle to situate him in a classroom and may conclude he doesn’t fit. Is there no place for an eight year old who can’t sit still to color pictures like his peers? A mom may have to opt one of her children out of Vacation Bible School because of his severe food allergies. When she asks about changing the snacks, the response seems callous: “We always have Goldfish crackers. The other kids would be so disappointed if we didn’t have them this year.”
The sense of unwelcome can extend into the sanctuary, as well. When a preteen with sensory sensitivity gets overwhelmed by the lights, sounds, and smells of worship, a deacon’s initial reaction may be to request she and her family leave to preserve the sanctity of the service, rather than give her some time to adjust. When adult with developmental disabilities dances and claps along with the music, she may be allowed to stay, but still gets stares and dirty looks from those around her.
I’ve heard enough stories like these, and worse, to know it’s not just fear of exclusion that keeps special needs families away. Whether it comes from the mouth of ministry leaders or just through the glares and huffs from church members, many families get the sense that they don’t belong.
What made our positive experience so different from the stories I’ve heard from others? Primarily, the leadership welcomed special needs families and led the church to do the same. When we wonder about the cause of disabilities, we find Jesus’ answer to the disciples regarding the man born blind “so that the works of God might be displayed” (John 9:3). Our leaders trusted this message and were also led by pro-life views. The most vulnerable of us are not only in the womb, but also living lives dependent on the care of others. Each one is fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14), every part of them: “Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Ex. 4:11).
More denominations and churches have come to realize it’s not okay to turn families like mine away. From the largest church in the United States, Lakewood, whose Champions Club serves hundreds of special needs families each month, to Journey Church, the church my husband and I are planting in a nearby suburb, with the core value of welcoming special needs families. Organizations like Key Ministry and Joni and Friends are helping to connect families with churches in their areas that will welcome them. Even curriculum providers like LifeWay are seeing the need and providing more resources for churches.
The US Census indicates that 1 in 5 Americans live with disabilities. If people with physical or developmental disabilities never walk through the doors of our church, we must ask ourselves: Have we made it possible for them to participate in the life of our church? We can ask God to lead us in opening our congregation, to finding solutions to challenges, and being proactive to meet needs of the families who need to hear the hope we have through Christ.
Like in our small church that rallied around my son following his autism diagnosis, many churches will soon realize it doesn’t take as much work as they fear. It just takes the body of Christ working together to meet the needs of each family who walks through their doors. For our congregation, it started with James, but it hasn’t ended with him. People like James are changing churches across the country. Families are being reached through these churches. They are hearing the gospel. They are experiencing God’s love. And ultimately, their worlds are changing in the best way possible.
Sandra Peoples (M. Div, Women’s Studies) is the author of Held: Learning to Live in God’s Grip, a Bible study for special needs parents. She’s the editor of Not Alone and the social community and family support manager for Key Ministry. She serves alongside her husband as he plants Journey Church in Pearland, Texas. You can find her at sandrapeoples.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @sandrapeoples.