Many neurological and developmental disorders are still emerging in terms of society’s acceptance of the legitimacy of their diagnoses. Ask a mother of a child with any number of neurological disorders, and she will share a story of a friend or family member who dismissed the diagnosis as a new way of labeling bad parenting. Many pediatricians do not recognize or treat developmental disorders. As a result, rather than being a helper along a mother’s journey, very often, the child’s medical provider has served as an obstacle or even hindrance. And finally, for those who acknowledge the legitimacy of many diagnoses, common public misperceptions often prevent those same individuals from embracing a child with a disorder associated with behavior nuances and social awkwardness. As a result, parents face an intimidating uphill battle for acceptance if they make their child’s diagnosis public. Families of such a child have often been conditioned to remain tight-lipped for the life they live and the challenges their child faces.
Churches can create an environment to invite parents’ forthright and honest disclosure by sending a message of acceptance. Dr. Cynthia Zierhut, Clinical Psychologist with the Unviersity of California Davis’ M.I.N.D. Institute and Director of Capital Christian Center’s “Champions Ministry” (Sacramento, CA)* shares how their church gives disability visibility and ultimately creates an environment inviting disclosure:
“Capital Christian Center recognizes and celebrates autism awareness month each April. Our church leadership promotes the month in very public ways and during worship. This year our church hosted an autism awareness concert sponsored by the secular organization, Autism Speaks. In addition, we invite members of our church who are parents of typical children to sponsor a child with autism for the local autism walk. Then during the walk, the sponsoring family accompanies the family of the child with autism.”
Finding creative ways to weave families with special needs or a special needs program itself into the broader church’s family ministry is both brilliant and Biblical.
Creating an Atmosphere of Acceptance:
- Encourage the children’s ministry staff to wear official autism awareness jewelry, lapel pins and lanyard ribbons. Order through www.supportstore.com or www.autismlink.com. Do not underestimate the power of this subtle message!
- Post a bulletin board providing tips for relating to a child with autism. With permission, feature an affected child’s story from the church.
- Plug in children with disability into visible places in the children’s ministry. Assign a child with special needs a memorized line in a skit, the job of carrying the flag during VBS assembly, or the task of updating a church bulletin board.
- Invite parents of both typical children and children with disabilities to serve on the children’s ministry advisory team.
- Arrange for the typical mothers’ church group or Bible study to host a professional to speak on developmental milestones and delay warning signs in children. Simultaneously have the professional address autism education.
- Invite parents of children with a disability to share their family’s story in various congregational settings.
- Allow secular special needs networking groups to utilize the church facilities.
- Join forces with a nearby church and sponsor a special needs family fun day.
For more on this subject see the posts To Tell or Not To Tell: An Open Letter to Parents and A Parent’s Prescription for Disclosure.
P.S. Happy Autism Awareness Month!
– Amy Fenton Lee