Autism and the church

Autism Acceptance

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

–Luke 14:12-13

“BRINGGG! BRINGGG! BRINGGG!” I woke up to my 7:30 alarm last Wednesday in a foggy daze. In the midst of my daily decision weighing the pros and cons of hitting snooze, I remembered that today was my meeting with the social worker at the Virginia institute of Autism (VIA). I had scheduled a meeting with her in hopes of learning more about the scope of resources available to families affected by autism in the community.

As I walked by my classroom and stood by Linda’s* office that morning, she welcomed me to come in and sit down as she finished up an email. After exchanging pleasantries, she began by telling me about her role at VIA, which consisted of everything from marriage counseling to program development. “There is much more to caring for a child with autism than just sending that child to the right school. Autism affects all aspects of a family, and the amount of stress it can bring on is overwhelming.” She went on to talk about the high divorce rate among families of kids with autism (as high as 80%), and told me about a new sibling support program for siblings of these children, an often overlooked group. “Seemingly everyday family activities are wrought with stress and anxiety— something as simple as going to Walmart can turn into an exhausting battle.” She cited that 40% of the kids at VIA qualify for free or reduced lunch, and the fact that many of these families are near the poverty line means the number of daily stressors is even higher. “Not being able to leave your child alone for any real period of time—being constantly afraid that he will hurt himself or one of us—that’s tough.”

Having worked in disaster relief after 9/11, she compares her role with many VIA families to that of a grief counselor. “I know a mom who, despite being told repeatedly that her son will never speak verbally, continues to spend money she doesn’t have on extra speech services. She just thinks, ‘if I get him the right supports, if I do enough, he’ll speak.’ When that doesn’t happen, when the disability becomes more and more real as the child grows up, you go through different periods of grief. When a mother realizes she will never hear the sound of her daughter’s voice reading a book, that can be shattering.”

Her background of social work in low-income neighborhoods and faith-based nonprofits taught her to look at helping people from a holistic angle. This wasn’t just about autism, it was about families. “I don’t think I could have come to this job straight out of school,” she said, citing the difficulty of the breadth of the work. “The biggest part of my job is connecting families of children who are newly diagnosed to resources in the community, even if the child does not attend our school.” Her warmth and passion for her work shone through everything she explained.

When I told her more about what I was interested in exploring through the Project on Lived Theology, she nodded as her eyes became wide. “One of the number one complaints I hear from families is that they have nowhere to attend church. They feel their child has no place. Often, parents are forced to choose between bringing only part of their family to church or staying at home.” Unfortunately, many choose to stay at home. Linda could think of one church in the area that has a ministry for people with special needs. An oft-cited statistic is that 90% of families of children with special needs are kept from attending worship services.

What does it say about God’s Kingdom when these kids are more welcome in a public school classroom than a Sunday school classroom?

In Vulnerable Communion, Dr. Thomas Reynolds recounts his own experience of having his son, Chris, kicked out of Sunday school. He received a call from his Methodist minister representing the concern of several mothers concerned with Chris’ “bad behavior” during Sunday school. These accusations were not without reason; as Dr. Reynolds notes, Chris engaged in “verbal outbursts that sometimes involved profanity, a lack of sensitivity to other children’s personal space (occasionally biting them when irritated or provoked) and an unpredictably violent imagination when playing with toys” (Reynolds 11). In this case, the mothers’ concern was that Chris was a bad influence on their own children. However, one does not have to call Chris’ behavior desirable in order to see that including him is important.

A large part of the disability rights movement outside the church has been recognizing the potential of all children to succeed if given the proper supports. It is no secret that most children with autism do not succeed in a regular education classroom alongside typically developing peers. Suppressing their differences only creates more problems. But equally important is the realization that there are areas in which every student can succeed. Dr. Reynolds describes that his son “thrives in some circumstances, but not all.” This much has been made clear to me in my time at VIA, seeing the hope in parents’ eyes when they realize that there is an educational environment in which their child can flourish.

Maybe Chris’ Sunday school classmates would have been impacted by his behavior. But I question why this impact is considered negative in a Christian context. If we want our children to grow up well-versed in the art of distinguishing normal from abnormal and inadequate at loving those who are different, why in the world do we want to follow Jesus?

Over and over again, Jesus resisted traditional religious authority in favor of inclusion. Associating himself with lepers, swindlers, prostitutes, Jesus was not exactly “family-friendly.” Disability rights advocate Lenita Coleman Brown discusses how stigma most fundamentally results from the fear of difference—we fear what we don’t understand: “As the developmental literature reveals, fear is not a natural but an acquired response to difference of stigmas”(Brown 150). Stigma is a way for us to cognitively process difference without getting too messy in the process. But we miss so much when we do this.

Too often we forget that the body of Christ, while divine, was brutally broken. Why should the metaphorical body of Christ look any different? We are all broken. Some of us are just better at hiding it than others.

*Names of faculty members at VIA have been changed to protect privacy.

Brown, Lerita Coleman. “Stigma: An Enigma Demystified.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2013. 147-160. Print.

Reynolds, Thomas E. Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008. Print.