“As a church we really need to emphasize the importance of that child’s faith over any outward behavior. Not every child has the ability to sit quietly for an entire sermon or look and act appropriately in front of adults, but every child has the ability to have a loving relationship with Jesus.”
Last Sunday, Rebecca and Jamie Adam shared their experience of trying to “do church” as a family in which two sons have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder and another has ADHD. Their comments generated much interest-Sunday and Monday were two of the top three days for “hits” on this blog since we formally launched in September. We also connected with Jill Spicer’s blog in Texas, where we encountered more than enough stories from parents to keep our ministry team inspired for the rest of the year. I asked Rebecca and Jamie to expand upon some of their comments from Sunday…they graciously agreed to share so that church staff, volunteers and other families may benefit from their experience.
C4EC: What could a church do to help families like yours to feel welcomed and included? To help with the “angry eyes” you encounter at church?
Having a child with a hidden disability and trying to make them function and flourish in a socially demanding environment like church is a bit like trying to shove a round peg into a square hole. It is not like we want to announce to every usher or to the church that our child has challenges or disabilities so please allow a little slack. In my childhood, our church always emphasized that Christian children needed to have impeccable behavior and that good behavior was directly proportional to their inward belief. As a church we really need to emphasize the importance of that child’s faith over any outward behavior. Not every child has the ability to sit quietly for an entire sermon or look and act appropriately in front of adults, but every child does have the ability to have a loving relationship with Jesus. We would hope that other church members would suspend judgment of a child or a teenager when they are having a difficult time, being reminded of Jesus’ own words “better a millstone around the neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
A church needs to aware of the challenges of hidden disabilities and initiate the reaching out to affected families just as Christ was the Master Initiator to those in need. One time during a baptismal service our pastor kindly warned the congregation that there was going to be loud cheering and clapping at the end. It was just enough time to warn our son to anticipate the loud noise and encourage him to cover his ears. We also think that sometimes churches need to give families of children with hidden disabilities some loving space. Many times our sons would have been overstimulated by certain children’s activities and we chose to refrain from them such as Vacation Bible School and Christmas pageants where the energy level for all is fever pitched. We truly didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by not participating, it is just grows difficult trying to explain why your child might not handle otherwise “exciting” celebrations of the church. As a parent the most loving question you could ever hear from a church staff member is “What can we do help your son/daughter get the most from Sunday School or church?”
C4EC: Why have you continued to attend church in light of the experiences you described?
We attend church not just because the Lord commands it, but because we desire to worship and fellowship with other believers. As importantly, in order to train up our children according to God’s Word they need the same opportunity. Despite the challenges that corporate worship has presented at times, the positive experiences have far outweighed the disappointments. As the children have matured, we have noticed that the struggles have lessened. Christianity in its essence is made of fellowship, the Trinity itself being the model. It is important not to allow negative situations to color our attitude toward the church and other Christians. We believe if we allow our children to only see a negative view of church, we would have instilled in them unintentionally, a soured attitude towards God’s Kingdom. We have always believed that God created our children in order to bring something unique to His church and have never wanted to hold back the special blessing they can bring to a church family.
C4EC: What would be of most help to the two of you in teaching your kids about Jesus and helping them to grow in faith?
With autism, it has been difficult to try and get across abstract spiritual truths to our sons. Jesus was a Master Teacher who always reached out to teach people in ways they could understand clearly. It doesn’t say in scripture that Jesus refused to teach the multitudes unless they were sitting quietly with their hands folded. The disciples Christ chose Himself were known for interjecting off topic questions and for their impulsivity. And yet, Jesus used concrete examples from their everyday life to communicate God’s love for them. It is important in dealing with individuals who have difficulty understanding spirituality to stay very concrete and emphasize Christ’s parables. One time our church had several different stage setups to illustrate spiritual disciplines. On the stage illustrating confession we as a family had to write our past sins on little clay pots and then with a hammer we had to smash the pots. Our sons learned about forgiveness in a very concrete way by trying to see if they could read the sins they had written after the pot was reduced to tiny pieces. Also, it is almost impossible for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to understand “Christianese” phrases such as “live for the Lord”, or “asking Jesus into your heart”. If those sayings were rephrased in a concrete way such as “make sure your actions would please Jesus everyday” or “pray that God will forgive us and ask Jesus to guide our lives” it would help these children understand what truths we ultimately want them to understand.
C4EC: What advice would you give to parents of kids with conditions like Asperger’s Disorder or ADHD who don’t regularly attend church because of a negative experience in the past?
In John 9, Jesus answered the question of why a man had been afflicted from birth with blindness “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” We have to keep in mind that the Lord designed each of our children, no matter what kind of disorders they may carry with them through life. According to the Bible, God designed them to bring glory to Himself. If we fail to bring our children to church or other social environments, we dampen the ability for others to see God’s glory revealed in their lives. It is a difficult task for a family to work with their church in trying to make the staff understand their child’s disability. We understand that parents of children with special needs are exhausted by the weekend from battling with school and behavioral health agencies. However, God’s grace can be extended to every struggle in our lives, including the struggle to find a place where our children can be taught about Christ’s love. Sunday School teachers can grow in their acceptance of disabled children and other church members can broaden their understanding of the body of Christ. Although this can be a slow process, the end result is that Christ’s church is sanctified.