Suffer The Little Children: Part IV in my Autism series, Updated   Leave a comment

So today I’m writing about experiences that people on the autism spectrum have had at churches around the United States.  Some people were children, one an adult when I talked with them about what it was like to attend church or youth group.

There was a general sense that other people just didn’t know how to interact, so sometimes families with people with ASDs (autism spectrum disorders) were just left alone, and did not have any overtly negative experiences.  One respondent told me that her son had a very positive experience at the church they were currently attending.  People were accepting of differences, and the congregation was friendly.  At this church, the pastor had a grandchild on the spectrum, which she said made him more understanding and inclusive.  At two other mega-churches they attended before the family found this small Southern Baptist church, their son was directed to the special needs department, which he did not need as a high functioning individual.  This lack of understanding of his actual situation seemed patronizing to him and he would not go back to that church.

Another mother, Shelly, met personally with people in leadership roles in three different churches to explain her child’s situation.  Her older teen-aged son is a talented musician who wanted to get involved by playing in the worship team.  They agreed to include him in the band.  However, when some difficulties arose in getting all the musicians in sync, instead of spending the additional time it might have taken to help him get up to speed with the band, the leader decided this young man on the spectrum was too much trouble, and he was asked to leave.  Shelly also found out later that the pastor had said unkind things about her son during a church leader’s meeting.

In a different situation, as she moved up from the middle school group, Kimberly’s daughter Julie found the high school scene to be focused on socializing and the teens who were leading the worship music.  The environment was supportive of the musical talent of these kids, leading them to rise to the top in what quickly became a popularity contest, and girls and guys who had previously been Julie’s friends in the middle school group began to ignore her.

When Kimberly met with the youth group leader to explain about Asperger’s, he wanted to assign another girl to be her friend, but Kimberly said Julie would see right through that.  She suggested instead that he create more structure for the group meetings, as she knew there were other introverted teens who were having a hard time with the long periods of unsupervised small talk and general chaos.  His response was that the majority liked the arrangement as it was, and as the group was growing quickly, Julie would just have to get used to the way things were.  Due to all the factors that were making youth group overwhelming for Julie, Kimberly decided to let her stop attending.  Then she was criticized by other parents in the church for not requiring her daughter to attend.  The family eventually left this church for one that was much smaller, where they are happy.

Most of these situations while hurtful, were not overtly dangerous.  Unfortunately, having autism apparently does put you in literal danger.  Marie left her three-year-old in the church nursery.  He was found walking along the road outside the church by people who happened by and brought him back in.  The reason?  The male nursery worker let him leave the room because he had “had enough.”  I’m not sure what behaviors a three-year-old could exhibit that would justify “releasing him into the wild” to fend for himself.

Marie also had a younger son knocked down and kicked in the head during another church’s children’s program.  No adults intervened, and when she let the leadership know, they didn’t take any action.  In both of these cases, nobody was concerned, let alone apologetic.  I’d like to provided more commentary, but on this one, I’m speechless.

The church seems to have a hard time with anybody being different.  I think this problem extends far beyond the world of ASDs.  No room is left for people to be different and for people to be loved as they are.  If you don’t raise your hands occasionally during the songs, get into the music and smile at everyone, and if you aren’t comfortable holding hands during group prayer, you are criticized as being un-Christian.  Yes, a pastor actually told the congregation from the pulpit that if you did not join hands with others, you were un-Christian.  There’s a very small grain of truth to that–but it doesn’t take into account other realities.  It dismisses the challenges those with ASDs face every day.

If a person has extreme social anxiety or a physical condition which would prevent her from holding hands during a group prayer time, this would probably be understood.  The same consideration should always be extended to any person who is worshiping in a congregation.  Consider that for people on the spectrum, sensory input or a change in routine can be overwhelming, and these challenges can be something as simple as your talking to her while she is worshiping, or asking her to move out of her accustomed spot.  These are concerns that neurotypical people often are not aware of.  But now you know–large group gatherings can be a literal minefield for other minds.

Your feelings may get hurt by what you think is odd behavior, but the focus should be honoring the needs and feelings of the other person.  Your ideas about what is socially acceptable behavior may be upset, but what is important is that members of the body of faith experience the grace and peace the church exists to share.

Love the person as he is and where he is.  Continue to acknowledge the person even when you don’t seem to be getting a response; smile when you see him; ask how he is.  Over time, your consistent love and kindness will be rewarded.  There are many valid reasons why a person may not be either able or willing to do exactly as the majority of the church body is doing during worship.  These reasons should not keep a person from being loved, valued and included.

 

 

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Posted April 18, 2018 by swanatbagend in autism, the church

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