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When a Child Shows Signs of Autism – Part 1

January 11, 2012

In late 2008 I wrote a short magazine article to help caring friends support parents who have a child with special needs.  Not long after I wrote that article (which eventually ran in a 2009 issue of Atlanta Parent Magazine), I wondered how churches were doing at providing support to families impacted by special needs.  I soon learned there was a need for a bigger conversation on this topic and I shifted my writing focus to the area of my primary love, ministry.  It wasn’t long before I found a new passion and created a full-time hobby of researching and writing on special needs inclusion in the church setting.  Now, as I begin my fourth year devoted to the topic of church and inclusion, it is fun to see the buzz surrounding special needs kidmin.

I hear from many of the blog’s readers or people who have participated in conferences I’ve been a part of over the past couple of years.  Many of these new friends serve as volunteer caregivers, special needs ministry “champions,” children’s pastors, and executive pastors.  (For more on the target audience of this blog, see The Premise of the Inclusive Church Blog.)  Nearly all of the church leaders reach out to me with similar passions (to better include kids with special needs) and similar challenges.  For today’s post I thought I would expound a bit on the common questions I hear from children’s ministry teams, explain the context for those questions, and set the stage for the next two blog posts.  For the rest of this week I’ll offer guidance related to the following two questions.

Example Question #1 from Children’s Ministry Leaders:

“We have a child participating in our typical children’s ministry environment that exhibits behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder.  The parents have never mentioned anything about their child having any learning differences or disabilities.  Our ministry volunteers have shared their repeated observations with our kidmin leaders.  We are wondering, is it our ministry team’s responsibility to approach the parents and alert them to the potential need for testing or treatment?”

Nearly always the leader who asks this question cares personally for the child and sees opportunity for him/her to potentially benefit from testing and early intervention.  At the same time, the ministry leader wisely recognizes the risk in pointing out a potential cognitive disability to a conscientious and sometimes fragile parent.  Certainly the last thing the church wants to do is to make a vulnerable mother feel like a failure at her most important job!  Or perhaps the church senses the parents are at least marginally aware but not yet ready to discuss their child’s differences or delays publicly.  Whatever the case, it takes tremendous discernment and delicacy in deciding whether or not to communicate such observations to a child’s parents.

We’ll address potential responses to this question in Part 2.

Example Question #2 from Children’s Ministry Leaders:

“Johnny is a participant in our typical children’s ministry environment.  His parents have not alerted us to any special needs. He consistently exhibits some unexpected behaviors that are proving to be a challenge to our volunteers.  We have noticed that he also shows several signs of autism spectrum disorder.  Because of some specific concerns we have related to safety, we feel that we need to talk with the parents.  How would you advise us to approach the family and handle this situation?” 

For the churches that contact me the central dilemma is not that a child with a potential special needs diagnosis is participating in the  ministry environment.  If a church doesn’t want to make a genuine attempt to accommodate the child, they don’t contact me.  From the inquiring leader’s perspective, the challenge revolves around the desire to make the church experience more positive (and safe!) for the child, their peers, and the affected caregivers.  And in this scenario, the the church isn’t sure if or how to initiate a candid conversation with the family.

Very often these questions come from a church that either offers a visible special needs ministry or at least has a protocol in place for accommodating a child with a learning difference.  Sometimes the church leader talking with me wonders aloud if the parents are aware of the church’s capabilities yet reticent to have their child paired with a buddy or come in under the special needs ministry.  Understandably many parents avoid a special needs label for their child.  They want their child to be viewed with respect and to receive the same social opportunities as their typical peers.  However this desire for privacy can occasionally add a layer of complexity for the children’s ministry team, who could benefit from a more open line of communication with the parents.

In Part 3 we’ll speak directly to Question #2.  Stay tuned as we help a church craft a response (or not) for when a child shows signs of autism.

For a related post on this blog, see To Tell or Not to Tell:  An Open Letter to Parents.

**Please note:   This topic may be one of the more sensitive issues we have addressed on this blog.  It is my sincere desire that the information in this series would help the churches who have a specific need for guidance in this area.  Ultimately my goal is to help facilitate an inclusion success for every church and every family impacted by special needs.  No two children with autism (or any diagnosis) will walk the same path or exhibit the same characteristics.  Please read this series with prayerful discernment, recognizing that each child is unique and that the information shared here may not apply to the participants and experiences of every church.**

~ Amy Fenton Lee

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