Autism and the Church: How to make a difference
Many parents are afraid to give churches a chance to help, but when they do, the church needs to be ready to respond.
We received the phone call we always dreaded.
“Your son with autism has gone missing.”
Our 13-year-old son lives in a group home, is non-verbal and is on the severe end of the autism spectrum. We had seen enough news stories with unhappy endings to know it was time to panic.
When we arrived at the group home, the street was lined with police cars and news trucks. Neither the group home nor the police had any idea where he was.
Thankfully, our story had a happy ending. Three-and-a-half hours after he went missing, our son arrived at his school. With his bus 10 minutes late, his autistic mind decided that he needed to walk to school, even though his school was nine kilometres away and in the next city. While previously not showing any safety skills, he miraculously crossed many busy streets to safely arrive at his intended destination.
Unfortunately, children with autism go missing on a regular basis. This was not our son’s first incident, although it was his longest time missing. We have heard from numerous families who have either experienced the same thing or live in fear of it. All too often, the story ends tragically.
Is there a role for the Church to support families dealing with autism?
A recent report by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that the current autism rate is one in 68. While not all of these children pose a flight risk, there are enough for the Church to take it seriously.
This requires clear communication between church leadership and the family to discover the dangers and possible solutions. Many churches have already implemented plans to protect. Autism safety plans can easily be built into existing policies. They may include additional volunteers, vigilance during washroom breaks and increased awareness of where the children are in relation to the exits.
Even more important than having a safe and welcoming Sunday school is the need to care for the entire family. After the church has gotten the family safely out the door, the family has another week to worry about their child.
But aside from safety measures, what can churches do?
The greatest needs for families are emotional. These needs centre on the child, the parents and the siblings.
Churches must realize that children with autism have a variety of developmental levels and people should be slow to judge. Even if a child is non-verbal or seems unresponsive, that child may have near or above “normal” intelligence. All children, of any or no diagnosis, need to be treated with respect and love. Children with autism know when they are welcomed unconditionally and they will respond in their own way.
The pastor and leadership must take the initiative by demonstrating how to react when a child with autism makes a sound or does something during the worship service. When the congregation sees that the leadership is embracing “the new normal,” they will be more likely to be accepting.
There are also significant needs for the parents. These include grief over lost dreams for the child, ongoing sleep disruptions and the daily stress of caring for a child with special needs. Unfortunately, this often leads to marriage breakdown. So much emotional energy is put into parenting that there is nothing left for each other.
This is something that churches can help with. One of the biggest needs for parents is respite. While there may be money available for respite, it is often difficult to find the people. Even one night or a full day on a weekend can make a difference.
Other times, churches assume that parents with children with autism are too busy to participate in social activities and so they are not invited. Instead of making assumptions, churches need to invite parents and offer support.
If the parent is single, there may be even more need for the church’s intervention. In addition to being included in social activities, the person may need help with daily activities such as chores around the house.
Siblings of the children with autism are often forgotten. Frequently the siblings take on semi-parenting roles to help the family to survive crisis situations. Not only are they expected to take on additional responsibilities, they have less access to their moms and dads. Parents are often not able to provide the amount of emotional support their non-autistic children need. The siblings also have to deal with their property being damaged and limited finances for their own activities.
Ministry to siblings is a tremendous opportunity for churches. While some people may be too intimidated to work with a child with autism, working with their siblings may be within their comfort zones. Taking the siblings out for fun activities will help not only the child, but the whole family.
Raising a child with autism is not easy. Whether it is living in fear of a child running away or the daily emotional wear, families need help. Many parents are afraid to give churches a chance to help, but when they do, the church needs to be ready to respond.
Stephen Bedard is a father of two children with autism and is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge, Ontario.
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