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Becoming a Missionary to Autism

November 3, 2011

I am delighted to feature today’s guest post written by Kelly Sapp, Director of the Champions Special Needs Ministry for Capital Christian Center in Sacramento, CA.  As one of the most progressive inclusion ministries in the United States, the Champions ministry is known for its success including children and students with autism. ~ Amy


My introduction to autism came on my first Sunday serving as the Team Lead for my church’s special needs ministry.  At the time I started, I was tapped with supporting our “Champions” ministry director, Dr. Cynthia Zierhut.  During the week Cynthia worked as a researcher for the U.C. Davis M.I.N.D. Institute, screening toddlers for autism.  To keep the ministry running and to help Cynthia successfully juggle two sets of responsibilities, I would handle many of the day-to-day issues for Champions.  My background was in music education, working with children in K-12 school environments.  Even though I worked two of those years with individuals who were severely impaired, I came to Champions not as a special needs expert, but as a called ministry servant.  On my first Sunday working in my new position, I awkwardly tried to assist families checking in their child while simultaneously helping buddies (whom we call coaches) pair up with their assigned champion and accompany them to their respective mainstream environments.

The Mystery

Gregory*, an 8 year old Champion, arrived at the champions room bouncing a ball and singing with THE most beautiful, I mean bel canto voice you have ever heard from a child. Any boys’ choir director would be scrambling to get Gregory’s voice!  So, being the relational, intuitive music teacher person that I am, I approached Gregory, bouncing the ball with him and making my voice go up when the ball went up, and down when the ball went down.  I was sure that Gregory would see the correlation of the ball to my voice and we could connect. Instead, Gregory darted away from me, as if I were invisible. Feeling like a failure, my heart dropped to my shoes.  Seeing my bewilderment, Cynthia, our ministry director, approached me to explain that Gregory had autism and like some other children with this diagnosis, “he lacks the ability to imitate.  Whereas most of us are programmed to learn language and life skills by imitation, for some students with autism, their minds don’t work that way.” It was at that moment I realized that I was in for a new challenge.  More than ever before autism seemed like a distant country, an unfamiliar culture, a mystery.

Unexpected Differences

For the coming weeks and months the mystery grew and so did my inexplicable ability to serve the children and families impacted by autism (a God thing!).  One of the first things I learned was the importance of providing small group sizes in our Champions Ministry and its direct impact on safety.  For example, Cynthia shared that having more than five children with special needs in an environment at one time could be dangerous.  Having led concert rehearsals and choir practices for up to 400 elementary school children, this seemed hard to believe.  Surely I could handle five kids at one time, even if they did have special needs like autism.  Wrong.  One month into my new position, and after a wonderful Sunday morning in Champions, checkout time came and one boy said “goodbye” to another.  The parting student received an unexpected and violent slam to the floor by his fellow Champions participant.  I was shocked as I watched the parents of both boys respond graciously and with complete understanding. Wow. I’m not sure what was more surprising, the jolting and somewhat scary behavior or the grace with which the parents showed in their reactions.

Getting Educated on Autism

Fourteen months after accepting the job as Champions Team Lead (and my first real introduction to autism), God had other plans for Cynthia and our church would need a new ministry director.  And yikes, it was me!  To help speed up my ramp-up time and prepare to better serve in as the leader of our church’s special needs ministry, both Cynthia and our church’s children’s pastor recommended that I take classes at U.C. Davis on autism.  Their advisement proved to be tremendously helpful to me. Our Champions families (now about 40 of them) have children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, cognitive disabilities and various behavioral issues, but mostly autism.

From my experience autism is like no other special need. I now know that autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can co-exist with other disorders, as well as with supreme giftings. It affects boys 4 times more than girls, but for some reason, seems more profound in girls.  The spectrum ranges from individuals who may be completely nonverbal and appear to be withdrawn into their own world, all the way to individuals who are highly verbal and genius level (sometimes referred to as Asperger’s syndrome). The “in between” on the spectrum includes every combination of abilities and disabilities.  If you’ve met one child with autism, it does not mean you understand autism.

The social part of an autistic brain is where we see challenges. The beauty and complexity of autism is in a sometimes diminished desire to please others. This can be freeing and exasperating.  Whereas a “typical” individual catches on to unwritten behavior rules, a person with autism may lack the awareness needed to receive and interpret social cues.  This can lead to undesirable isolation.  Individuals with autism may be more logical, but lacking in the ability to appreciate or process emotion.  A person with autism may not look others in the eye or read the body language of those around them.  We see examples of this in our ministry when a student enjoys talking at length about an encyclopedia-like fact without seeing the signs of boredom among those listening.  The good news is that social skills can often be taught and mastered by individuals diagnosed with autism.

Today, more than two years after beginning my service inside our church’s special needs ministry, I am confident in God’s provision for my personal ministry and compelled to learn more about autism.  Autism has changed my life.  My heart is to make friends with it, to understand it, and to relate to it… I am as a missionary immersing myself in a culture in order to reach its captives. ~ Kelly Sapp

* Name changed for privacy

Kelly Sapp is the Director of the Champions Ministry of Capital Christian Center in Sacramento, CA.  

For more best practices from CCC’s Champions Ministry, see these earlier posts:

Addressing Aggressive or Unsafe Behaviors

Should the Church Suggest Special Needs Testing or Treatment for a Child?

Inviting Parents to Disclose the Diagnosis

Avoid Controversial Subjects and Remain Focused on the Mission

Hosting a Special Needs Prom

  1. This is truly inspiring! If only there were more people in this world with a heart like Kelly’s. Thanks for posting this Amy!

  2. I like the analogy of being a missionary – well said!

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