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Autism and the Church

April 2, 2014

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Have you ever heard of a church that turned away a little boy because he had red hair? What if a mother was greeted at the children’s ministry check-in with news her redheaded son had to go back home? No, you can’t imagine. If any church ever sent home a child because of their natural hair color it would make the evening news!

Now, have you ever heard of a church that turned away a little boy because he was on the autism spectrum? What if a mother was greeted at church check-in with the news that her son with autism couldn’t be accommodated? Yes, you can imagine. It happens.

Did you know that the percentage of Americans with red hair¹ is roughly equal to the percentage of 8-year-old boys diagnosed with autism? I think it’s fair to say that statistically speaking, a children’s ministry should have the same number of participating boys with autism as with red hair. That’s pretty sobering. People would go nuts (justifiably) if families of redheaded kids had to figure out which churches were “redhead friendly”. The reality is that this same scenario is happening now for families of kids with autism. While many churches are working to become special needs-friendly, there is room for improvement.

Recently a church leader said to me,

“We just don’t have any kids with significant special needs in our church. We haven’t seen the need to create a ministry or think about doing anything special to accommodate students with disabilities.”

I didn’t say anything in response. But given the size of the church, this statement seemed doubtful. Intuition told me that this leader was disengaged and inexcusably unaware of what was going on in the lives of church families. I also wondered if perhaps this leader had somewhere along the way earned the reputation of being “unfriendly to special needs”. Once a church or church leader has earned that reputation, impacted families go elsewhere or nowhere.

Looking back on my brief dialogue, I’m pretty sure the Holy Spirit restrained my sharp tongue. Everything inside of me wanted to quip back, “So your megachurch doesn’t have any kids with red hair?”  I’ve since envisioned a hypothetical conversation addressing the statistical improbability of that ministry leader’s declaration. But it’s just as well I didn’t respond the way I wanted to…real change never happens by embarrassing a person.

Okay, back to my point. In church world, we’re at a fork in the road. Up to now, it’s been an accepted norm that not all churches could or should accommodate kids with autism and other special needs. (And I share in my book that not all churches can accommodate to the same degree.) But times are a changin. It is no longer acceptable for any church to be unaware of and unprepared to welcome families with special needs. Every church needs a plan for inclusion. And the best place to start is by hiring a special needs-friendly family mininstry leader.

Autism Facts

  • About 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)²
  • ASD occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.²
  • ASD is almost 5 times more common among boys (1 in 42) than among girls (1 in 189).²
  • Parents who have a child with ASD have a 2%–18% chance of having a second child who is also affected.²
  • ASD tends to occur more often in people who have certain genetic or chromosomal conditions. About 10% of children with autism are also identified as having Down syndromefragile X syndrometuberous sclerosis, or other genetic and chromosomal disorder.²
  • Almost half (46%) of children identified with ASD has average to above average intellectual ability.²
  • Most children identified with ASD were diagnosed after age 4, even though children can be diagnosed as early as age 2.²

¹ Number of Americans with red hair http://health.yahoo.net/experts/dayinhealth/weird-facts-about-redheads; Total US Population https://www.census.gov/popclock/
² http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html

Oh, and Happy World Autism Awareness Day!

Amy Fenton Lee

5 Things to Know about the Mother of a Child with Autism

From → Kidmin

6 Comments
  1. It’s so sad, but all too common, that church leaders do not see the need to make space for those who aren’t there. It’s not that they do not want to be welcoming, but rather they misunderstand the needs. A fellow D. Min student decided to do a study finding out how many churches in her area offered a ministry for those with special needs. One church replied to her that there was no need for a special ministry because everyone was welcome. While that sounds good, the reality is that many need accommodations simply to be part of the community. I celebrate the churches that understand that need and actively seek tools to better equip their communities to welcome others. It is exciting to see how far faith communities have come in welcoming families with differences.

  2. This unfortunately happened to us last week. :(

  3. Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Garland, TX (north Dallas suburb) truly understands! Every Sunday as our “prime time” 11am weekly service we celebrate “theTable.” We call it “a wholly-inclusive worship for everyone, with or without special needs.” It’s a worship experience intentionally designed to welcome individuals and families experiencing special needs. All are invited, whether they are experiencing autism, issues of delayed development, cerebral palsy, or a host of others anywhere along the spectrum (and yes, redheads too!). All are invited to worship as we’ve opened our doors wide to experience the beauty of God’s presence in our “sacred chaos.” We’d welcome any and all to come and trust that this is the real deal. For more details you can visit http://www.LoveKnowServe.org/worship.

  4. Our continued thanks and prayers for you.

    It is sad that many leaders do not seem to realize a couple of things by not having a special needs ministry; 1) those called to serve families of special needs kids cannot fully utilize their gifts/abilities and 2) the parents of special needs kids also cannot worship as a family and cannot serve and utilize their gifts. I look at the parents of our special needs families and our church is blessed to be able have faithful servants as part of our worship team, guest services, shepherds, and other areas.

    Church leaders, our program start was really super easy; our CP asked some questions, lined up a buddy for the child, and made available space. I promise you, lives have been changed because of these simple things.

    Amy, again thank you for your continued voice,

    Stu

  5. Great article – I have read and used your book in training for our Sunday club leaders. But there is a long way to go…. Lynn

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