1 in 68 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. These numbers suggest that families all around you wrestle with this issue. They’re in your neighborhoods, schools, family reunions and churches.
Most Christians want to serve these families, but too often we don’t know enough about autism spectrum disorder – nor do we take the time to ask.
In honor of Autism Awareness Month, I reached out to fellow Christians who parent children with autism. I asked them to share what they wished fellow Christians knew about autism.
Their comments were revealing and challenging. Here are four broad lessons these autism parents want us to learn about autism.
Every child with autism is different.
We often assume that all children with autism have the same symptoms. They don’t. Christy, who has two children with autism, explains:
“Autism is a spectrum disorder. The spectrum ranges from people mildly affected by autism who function much like their peers to people very severely on the spectrum who are debilitated by this disorder and who will require lifelong care. It’s exceptionally important to understand that this disorder presents itself differently in every person it affects.”
Thus, some children with autism have sensory issues, and others don’t. Some children with autism are social, and others are not. Some children with autism are high functioning, while others are low functioning. Every child is different.
Cathy, another parent of two children with autism, elaborated on this important point that every child with autism is different: “One of the first things you’ll read when you start researching autism is the saying, ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met ONE person with autism.’ While people on the spectrum share many traits, each one is different in how they are effected. This is why it’s important to get to know the individual person.”
No two children are the same. If we know a child with autism in our family, church or community, we must do the hard work of getting to know them as individuals.
Too many churches are ill-prepared to serve children with autism – and their parents.
Christian autism parents desire to find a community of believers with whom they can worship and fellowship. But I quickly learned how difficult finding such a community can be.
Most children’s and youth ministries are not prepared to minister to children with autism. For example, Celeste, another parent, told me a story about her family’s difficulties in the worship service. Her six-year-old son is supposed to leave half-way through the worship service to attend children’s church, but the parts of worship he does attend are overwhelming for his acute sensory issues. The child’s father often must sit with him in the foyer. When her son finally does arrive at children’s church, he’s uncomfortable because the activities are not developmentally appropriate.
“My children will eventually learn to sit through a church service, but it will have to be at their own pace,” Celeste explained.
Celeste’s experience is not uncommon. Many parents of children with autism expressed similar difficulties. One parent, Lou Ann, explained that she and her husband didn’t attend small group for years because they had no option for their son. As a result, they felt disconnected from the church. “One of the biggest obstacles that families of autistic children face is the issue of feeling ostracized,” she said. “This can lead to feelings of isolation and ultimately loneliness.”
Christy encouraged churches to find ways to serve families with special needs. “Look for ways to accommodate their needs at church, and seek out tangible and practical ways to be a help to them at home or in the community,” she said. After all, all Christians need biblical community – including autism parents.
Children with autism are a blessing, not a curse.
Often, Christians express pity for autism parents. While these sentiments are well intended, the parents I talked with wanted to remind us that their children are a blessing, not a curse.
Lou Ann helpfully explained, “The very last thing that we expect or want is pity. We are the lucky ones! ‘For you created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.’ (Psalms 139:13-14)”
Children with autism are not an exception to the psalmist’s rule. They, too, are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Celeste also reiterated that children with autism are not as different as we would often assume. “Children with autism are just like normal children, they simply process and learn things differently,” she said.
Thus, while we seek to serve families with special needs, we shouldn’t do so with a posture of pity. We come alongside such families, joyfully acknowledging that their children are loved and blessed by God.
We can learn from autism parents – if we’ll listen to them.
Parenting children with autism can be immensely difficult, particularly when children are on the severe end of the spectrum. What hope can such parents have? Christy wants us to know that her greatest hope is in the sovereignty of God. She writes, “For believers, facing the struggles that accompany a diagnosis of autism requires an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty in our lives. There is nothing that happens to us outside the will and plan of our Heavenly Father. It requires a dependency on the promises of God and Christ’s ability to sustain us no matter what He may choose to bring into our lives. And it requires a focus on the hope of all believers: eternal life in Heaven someday with Jesus. The Bible refers to the struggles we endure on this earth as a ‘light momentary affliction [that] is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.’”
Reading Christy’s comments humbled me. We often view ourselves as agents of blessing for autism parents and their families. But they’re more likely to bless us. They have much to teach us about love, hope, trust and God – if we’ll take the time to listen.
Will you take the time to listen?
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Nathaniel Williams oversees intersectproject.org and pastors Cedar Rock First Baptist Church. Originally published on the Intersect Project website and used with permission.)