When I was a kid , I spent several years on the junior usher board at church. Of course, back in the 70s, neither I nor my parents knew I was autistic, but they knew things were a bit off with me.
Anyway, being an usher in the African American church is an artform. You wear certain uniforms and there were certain hand signals that you would use to indicate a certain need. When the time came for prayer, you were supposed to cross your arms over your chest and bow your head. I can remember the feeling of cocooning myself into this little ball and it felt good. Once I was in that position, I would start twisting or rocking my torso, to the left and then to right. Back and forth, back and forth. It felt good to me, but it must have looked damn weird to the people in the pews. I can distinctly remember one day being in my happy place and rocking back and forth until a pair of hands touched my shoulders indicating that it was time to stop.
Looking back 30 years later, that was a vivid example of kid with autism in the church. I don't know if what the person did was correct or not, but I do wonder if people were disturbed at what I was doing.
Now that I am a pastor and someone with autism, I have started to wonder how those with autism are treated in the church. In talking with a good friend who has two children on the spectrum, I have found out that churches have a long way to go in welcoming people and families where one or more persons are on the spectrum.
I stumbled upon this blog post by a special-ed teacher in Georgia, who shares the struggles he and his wife have faced when it comes to the church accomodating his son who is autistic:
One would think that the safest place in the world for children with disabilities would be in houses of worship, among people dedicated to God, love, mercy, grace, compassion, faith, and forgiveness. But this is not true at all. The worship service itself, with constant demands for compliance and conformity, is hostile for those who are inherently different from everyone else. Anyone who is unable to conform to the structures of the service is not welcome and asked to leave. The larger the church, the more true this will be.
I may editorialize more on my feelings toward church and those with disabilities later, but I want to talk a bit about how churches attempt to deal with this unique and growing population. In this particular church spoken about above, they attempted to recruit helpers in order to help Thomas participate in the same activities as his peers. I think the intent of the program was excellent, and it started out well enough. But without diligence by a committed coordinator, it becomes just another chore to dread like ushering, parking lot duty, being a greeter or assorted other mundane tasks and ministries in the church. Yes, we are the boy’s parents and he is our responsibility which we take seriously. But no one was caring much about our own spiritual growth or struggles. Staying home is a more Holy, peaceful and rejuvenating experience for many families that have children with disabilities. Church is often a hostile, hellish experience where families are segregated or ostracized. I don’t think Jesus would approve.
The thing is, a lot of this rings true. There are many churches where the worship service is meant to be a time of silence and decorum. God help you if a kid gets cranky. But it's one thing if grown people are talking out of turn; it's another if a kid with autism is having a meltdown.
Churches have to be more aware and willing to find ways to welcome special needs persons. Of course, being a pastor I also know that isn't so easy to do, especially when it comes autism. Sometimes a person with autism could be very disruptive in a worship service and dealing with a person with autism can be difficult. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. That said, no one ever said being church was easy.
When it comes to this family, I wonder what would have happened had the pastor worked with family and other leaders to make church a more welcome place, not only for the kid, but for the parents. It is interesting that in all of this, it seems that the Senior Pastor was absent.
Raising a kid with autism can be challenging for parents. They love their kids and will do what it takes to make sure they are well-cared for. But it can also be draining for them as well and it seems like in this case, no one seemed to care about the spiritual and emotional health of Thomas' parents.
Maybe the problem here is that church is so formal. We treat it like we are watching the symphony. We want to hear the music and the choir, but we don't want to hear babies crying; that just ruins everything.
I'm not saying that church needs to be a rock concert, but what it we allowed a bit more informality?
Lesile Phillips, a blogger from Houston is more pointed in how churches treat persons with autism and other behavior disorders:
What I find fascinating (and by that I mean infuriating) is that often the people who claim to be most understanding, most inclusive and most loving are often actually the most judgmental, UN-welcoming people out there. Sure, many faith communities have taken the trouble to build ramps or make accommodations for people with physical disabilities. Sorry to say folks, but that's the easy stuff. When are we going to get to the hard stuff?
The hard stuff is making successful inclusion happen for people whose disabilities have behavioral manifestations, like autism, bipolar disorder, Tourette Syndrome. Many people can understand that children with autism may have behavior challenges, but they seem to think that because a place of worship should be quiet and reverent that a child can somehow leave their disability "at the door". If walking into a place of worship cured my son's autism, I'd live in one. It doesn't work that way. His disability follows him right inside the door, past ornate statues, alongside people in fancy-colored robes, among people praying and singing - you name it, it's there.
I was raised as a Christian. Christians are fond of asking "What would Jesus do?" (In fact, they are so fond of asking it, they sometimes sport bracelets that simply say "WWJD?") Would he turn my son away? What about your faith, whatever it may be? Is it consistent with your beliefs that people with challenges and their families, who likely need supportive fellowship more than anyone on the planet, should be excluded from worship?
I don't know what I can do to make church more welcoming to my fellow aspies, but I will try. I want church to be a place where freaks are welcomed.