I worked for several years as a journalist before entering the ministry, so I have always appreciated the words we say to one another. Our words can convey our hopes. They can describe our interpretation of events.
Words can also encourage and discourage our investment in communities that have felt excluded by the church.
In my experience, when people engage us about our son, they use words that they do not understand or appreciate. Their words can be the source of unwelcome, even if the word said is positive and affirming toward inclusion. The most optimistic words are unheard if the reality expresses distance, fear, or exclusion of the autism community and their allies.
Our words truly do matter. If we seek to build a more inclusive church then we have to be aware of our words and what messages they may convey.
To help, here are three statements not to say to an autistic family and three things to say.
Do not say, “Everyone is welcome.” The classic marque of “all are welcome” is the most cliche of Christian cliches. It is a statement people say to advertise their church with a desire to be more welcoming towards people. However, it is a phrase that misses the mark if you have experienced the lack of true embrace from the church. It is hard to hear that “everyone is welcome” when you have seen your child kept away from activities, experienced the stares in worship, or made to feel your concerns are not valid. It is a cliche that harms more than it welcomes.
Do not say, “I don’t know how you do it. You must be special people.” I honestly want to scream every time someone says something like this statement. While trying to be encouraging, it comes off as dismissive and unsupportive. For one, it’s clear the person saying it is also thinking, “Thank God that is not my situation.” It is a statement that prevents any dialogue on how the church can be more helpful because it is clear the individual sees the family as someone to pity and not love. I don’t believe I am special simply because my son is on the spectrum. It denies the reality of our experience.
Do not say, “This isn’t a problem for us.” This is another classic dismissive and defensive statement often expressed by the church to members of the autism community. It is a self-protection mechanism that prevents engaging in dialogue on how the church can be more welcoming. The statement assumes the church is inclusive, even if the reality is not the case. When said, it is clear that the church is not listening. When heard, especially when the reality is different, it sends a message to the family that they are not welcome. Almost every church we have served has said something similar to this statement, even if the reality is different.
What should a church say?
Do say, “How can we be more welcoming?” This question is an important one to ask. It aims to understand what autism is and desires inclusion in the church. It does not assume that the church is a safe, loving, and welcoming place for all. It recognizes, as well, that there are things that the church needs to learn and do to be more welcoming of those on the spectrum. The question invites a dialogue where the one with experience guides the conversation as a ministry partner instead of a ministry recipient.
Do say, “How can we support you?” Every family is different, and each family has its own set of needs. This question shows a genuine desire to learn how the church can be a loving witness to the family. It is a question where the intent is to offer care and support. When families have to navigate school challenges, a broken system, the lack of resources, and driving from one therapy appointment to another, it is comforting and empowering to hear someone ask how they can walk with you.
Do say, “We love you.” Most of the damage done by the church towards the autistic community with its lack of welcome could be sampling saying, “We love you.” The very phrase promotes a desire for inclusion, and it says that there is something about you that we value in you. It also says that we are committed to you. Love is about a commitment to God and one another. For someone to look at the person on the spectrum and say, “I love you,” can be rewarding and encouraging. To look at the family at the end of their rope and say, “I love you,” can be uplifting and gratifying.
These are just some examples of things not to say and to say. When we change the tone of our conversation, we can encourage deeper dialogue and embrace autistic individuals and their families.