We’ve spent the first couple of days in this series talking about the real challenges that autistic individuals and their families face in finding acceptance and welcome in the church. Today, and through the rest of this series, we will work on helping readers change the culture in the church to move towards inclusion.
It will not be easy. There will be those who will say it is too hard. I believe it is possible and holy work for the church to be involved in and do. Not just because it involves my own family, but because Christ calls us to be a witness of love to our neighbor and to treat others with the same grace and acceptance that we seek for ourselves. People on the inside must make room for those who feel excluded.
Any conversation towards full inclusion of autistic individuals and their families must include what they desire from the church. I cannot speak for my son or any autistic person in this part of the conversation. I can only express the needs of families and caregivers in this essay because that is my reality. I believe that what families and caregivers desire does connect to the needs of autistic individuals and others with disabilities.
For one, I believe we are looking for a Christ-like welcome. Throughout the gospels, we experience Jesus welcoming those on the margins of society. Jesus welcomed people of love. He calls those who follow him to do the same. Families are just looking for that aspect of Christ-like welcome. Christ-like acts of welcome treats the autistic person and family not as people who are different, but as children of God with sacred worth. When we see the person for whom they are, we can see the person for how Christ sees them and not how society teaches us to view people.
Families are looking for compassion and understanding. Many families, like my own, receive sympathy from the church when empathy is needed. Church members sometimes express grief towards a family. It comes in hearing church members share their grief to a family member or caregiver over lost opportunities, even if the family does not feel that specific loss. Expressions of sympathy, such as this, separate the church from the family. It is another way the church expresses the idea of difference toward autistic families.
I believe empathy is necessary for compassion and understanding. Empathy hears the struggle or challenges of another person and imagines what that might be like to experience. When we express empathy for an autistic family, we can build connections and relationships between the church and the family.
At the same time, though, families are not looking to be made to feel special. Too often, families with autistic individuals hear Christian cliches that mean little and do not build connections. Among those is “God gives special people to special families.” We’re not special. We’re parents and caregivers, just like you are for your children and family members. We struggle with how to discipline. We get overwhelmed with schedules. We fight. We argue. We love. We laugh. When we say things like “special families,” we create an unintended distance that establishes an awkward relationship between the family and church.
Finally, families are looking for the church to be present. I have heard too many stories of how churches have sought to be more inclusive toward autistic families only to give up. The reasons given were the work was too hard, or there was not enough support. Not trying sends a message that families with an autistic individual should not bother coming, even if that same church has a sign on its marque that says “everyone is welcome.” We’re not looking for perfection from the church, but we are looking for an effort. We are looking for a willingness to make mistakes. We desire for the church to be the loving grandparents and adoptive parents towards our children, just as we see the church being for other families and children.
Much like the Gentile woman looking for crumbs of grace from Jesus, so too are autistic families looking for a crumb of love from the church. For a crumb of love from the church would be more than what many are experiencing today. It is certainly more than what society gives to autistic families.
We want to be valued and loved by the church we love.
That should not be too much for autistic families to ask of the church.