I remember when everything changed.
It was the moment when Noah, our son who is autistic, went from being accepted in the church to being marginalized. It came the weekend after we received his diagnosis.
Granted, it was shocking for us. My family was still processing what this diagnosis meant. I remember standing before the church and letting people know about the diagnosis. I did it so that the church would embrace our journey as its own and how to care for us.
It became quickly apparent that our relationship would never be the same. My wife tells me how it felt people reacted to us as if a family member had died. There were supportive people, but for the majority, he no longer was that loving child who loved to bang on the piano after worship. He became a puzzle and someone to fear and not love.
For the most part, our experience in the church has seen Noah, and individuals like him, treated as different and, unfortunately, not normal. It is painful to witness your child treated with suspicion and curiosity. It is even more painful to see it in the church.
As I wrote yesterday, the church has a problem embracing autistic individuals. It is a real problem. It is one my family has experienced.
Yet, it is not a problem unfamiliar to society as a whole. Society marginalizes those who are different and treats people on the spectrum with fear, suspicion, or, unfortunately, a belief that autism is not real. This attitude endangers the fragile support systems for autistic individuals and their families.
While my concern is the larger societal challenges as it relates to acceptance, my primary focus is on my corner of society in the church. So, why do we have this problem of accepting autistic individuals in the church?
For one, misinformation is prominent in the church regarding autism. Much like society, the church understands autism through movies, television shows, and, yes, videos on social media intended to provide an emotional response. These are forms of entertainment and do not accurately reflect the life of an autistic individual or the challenges a family faces in providing care. Because this is the only reference point, most people in the church assume that an autistic individual is what they see on their television screens. This lack of accurate information reinforces stereotypes and creates distance when someone does not live up to their expectations.
Second, the church struggles with people who do not fit into culturally-accepted patterns of behavior. For all of our talk of welcoming the marginalized and including all people at the table, we rarely live that out beyond the groups we are most comfortable with in life. A child who struggles to sit through a 60-minute worship because the noise of the organ might be too loud becomes the problem child that needs controlling. I have experienced the looks toward my son in worship when he becomes loud. That look of “be quiet.” These actions create a distance between the church and the family caring for their child.
Third, the church allows fear to guide its connection to autistic individuals. Fear, unfortunately, is a dominant motivator in the church: fear of closing, fear of the unknown, fear of not having enough money to pay the bills, etc. Fear can hinder outreach and engagement because you become unmotivated to try someone new. We have experienced the unwillingness of the church to connect with Noah and others like him out of fear. What if we set him off? What if he responds poorly? What if he gets upset? Those are each fair questions. When these questions become the motivating force that prevents engagement, it separates the church from the family. It creates an attitude of unacceptance. It sends a message, as well, to the family that they are not wanted or welcome in the church.
I believe the majority of churches would struggle to hear how autistic families feel excluded in the church and how their actions (or lack thereof) have created the situation we face today. Instead of becoming defensive, the church needs to hear these statements and reflect upon them. I offer them out of love for the church and a desire for the church to be the ongoing witness of Christ.
We cannot be that until we wrestle with why the church has struggled to include autistic individuals and families.