Finding a Church That Sees My Son on the Autism Spectrum as a Person
I was sitting on the couch this morning reading through my morning Bible study; drinking coffee while my 8-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter are howling like wolves because they have made a wolf pack. My 13-year-old son comes thudding loudly down the stairs. He flops himself down on the couch and puts his head on my lap. We look at each other and I say to him, “They’re acting crazy, aren’t they?” He looks back at me and giggles a little. I look at my other two wildlings, look back at him and think about how early I have to wake up to get myself and these three kids ready for church in the morning. Dad’s out of town and it’s just me, so we all have to bust a move in the morning.
All of this leads to my thoughts on how fortunate we have been during our recent move from Louisiana to Northern Virginia at finding a church that is loving and accepting of all of my babies.
My 13-year-old son, Tristan, is on the autism spectrum.
Over six years earlier I had a conversation with Jesus about how I had lost faith in the church and wondered if I was looking at a life of not raising my children in church and being ostracized from the church. No one knew how to interact with or act around Tristan at church, nor did they care to try.
It blew my mind, I lived in the Bible belt and couldn’t find a church for my family to attend and form relationships with other believers. I remember telling God, “There’s basically a church on every corner and we can’t find one? One that won’t give us judgmental stares and won’t come get us every five minutes. One where we can be ministered to as a couple and as parents and minister to our kids. Is that really not out there? Has the church really come to that, where it’s only accepting of people who are ‘perfect?’”
We were constantly judged every time we went out. I know people don’t understand, but the church was the last place I thought would be so judgmental towards us.
Flash forward a few months. We put our son Kellen in a Mother’s Day Out (MDO) program at a church. The only reason we chose that program was for the location, it was close to Tristan’s therapy place. I could drop Tristan off at therapy and be at the church to pick Kellen up on time.
It was Christmas time, so Kellen had a Christmas program at the church with the other MDO children. It also happened to be the same night that the church did their Christmas program. I was a complete nervous wreck, praying Tristan wouldn’t have a meltdown from sensory overload and hoping we would all have a good time. Tristan is bothered by people singing, unless you sound like Adam Levine.
My husband, the great man that he is, strategically sat us towards the back and aisle seats in the sanctuary in case Tristan needed to step away quickly.
People were buzzing around, talking and introducing themselves, Tristan seemed a little overwhelmed, but also excited. The pastor was making his way around the church shaking hands, talking with people. He stopped and welcomed us. He tried to talk to Tristan, who did not respond to him. I told the pastor our son is on the autism spectrum, so he squatted down and talked to Tristan about all the things he knew about Thomas the tank engine, since my son was holding a Thomas the train. He pointed out his son to Tristan and told him how he used to love Thomas the train, too.
That was the first time in the four years of us looking for a church that someone had spoken to Tristan like he was a person, with thoughts and feelings.
Later during the service, while the kids sang, my husband was getting pictures of Kellen and I sat with Tristan. They start singing Jingle Bells and jingling the bells they had. Tristan’s responded with a shriek due to the auditory discomfort he experienced from the bells and the singing, as I calmed him down, an older gentleman leaned in and told him, “Their singing hurts my ears too” we both laughed. He told me to move down so I could watch my baby singing and he offered to sit with Tristan.
We all had fun that night and the people at the church were so loving, accepting and no one was judging us. It was so refreshing. It was just what my heart needed.
As soon as MDO was done with Christmas break and Kellen went back, I asked the director about the church and the children’s program. After talking a few minutes, I told her about the terrible time we were having at finding a church for us to attend. She told us to bring Tristan and they would figure it out.
We visited that next Sunday and she was waiting to help get us settled. Tristan did great, we enjoyed the church and the people were nothing short of amazing and accepting. As she said, “they would figure it out,” and they did. Our family formed so many meaningful relationships in that church. They loved us when we needed it the most.
I have found though, through this journey of parenting kids with disabilities, that there are not many options for families like mine to attending church. The disability community is missing in churches. If others have gone through the negative experiences we did, I don’t blame them for not going to church. I believe it is our responsibility, as members of our faith communities, to change this. There is a whole group of people the church is not reaching, and from the looks and feel of what I went through personally, the church doesn’t seem to care either. This needs to change.
Parenting kids is challenging, parenting kids with disabilities is too. We need support. Whether it’s in the form of a support group, connect group, parent’s night out, or just simply someone watching our children so we can enjoy an hour and half of worship on Sunday mornings. A little bit goes a long way. I encourage all churches to think about creating a disability ministry if you don’t already have one. Also remember, disability ministry is not just about kids, and adults with disabilities belong in the church. We are all called, as individuals, to be the hands and feet of Jesus, this is a calling for people with disabilities as well, so let’s do that.
Be the person who helps restore someone’s faith, rather than being the person who turns them away from it all. One act of kindness can go a long way.
Jesus used Thomas the Tank Engine and a Baptist pastor to start restoring my faith in the church.
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A version of this story originally appeared on Our Beautiful Chaotic Life.
Getty image by TimArbaev