Three Things Special Needs Families Need from the Church

Note: This is the text of a presentation I gave Saturday at the Kenova United Methodist Church (Kenova, W.Va.) United Methodist Men’s Breakfast. The speech focused on three things special needs parents need from the church.

Greetings and peace! I am thankful to be with you on this busy and beautiful morning. I want to thank the church, Rev. Tennant, and Bob Tomblin for their invitation and work to create a more inclusive church for families and individuals with special needs. I am excited about your ongoing work to provide a safe and accommodating church for the special needs community. I give praise to God for that work.

As we talk today, I am mindful of the words of Christ, “let the children come to me.” This is our desire as pastors, laity, and as the church. We desire all of God’s children to experience God’s love and presence. It is an invitation given by Christ to all. The church is to be a conduit of that invitation. We are responsible for seeing that the invitation is received by those who have often been excluded from the church. 

I am passionate about the disability community, especially the invisible disability community. Invisible disabilities are those disabilities or concerns that are not always physically present in a person. It would include traumatic brain injuries, anxiety, other mental health disorders, ADHD, and autism.

While I could speak on my battles with anxiety and depression and how they affect me as a pastor and child of God, and we could have long conversations about that, my focus today is on my passion for the inclusion of autistic individuals in the church. Individuals like my son, Noah, are often seen as less than a child of God by the very people that call me their pastor in the churches I have served by not providing fair and equitable access to the church and its ministries. 

Autism is a spectrum. One child, one adult, on the autism spectrum is not the same as another. I want to take a moment to introduce you to my son. Noah is 9. He loves Mickey Mouse, Duck and Goose, French Fries, Christmas movies, and singing his feelings. He loves to chant “Let’s Go Momners,” which is his version of saying “Let’s Go Mountaineers.” He fluctuates between level 2 and level 3 autism, which means he needs moderate to high levels of support, accommodations, and understanding to navigate a society not made for him and believes everyone thinks and processes the world the same way. 

We have left churches and communities because we have seen him excluded from the church he loves. We have also witnessed the exclusion of seeing people look at my son with fear and us with misunderstanding. We have a long way to go to be an inclusive and welcoming church and to live out Christ’s call to let the children come to him when it comes to people with autism and their families. I am thankful for your work in helping to bend and extend the table for people like Noah.

So what are families looking for from the church? As a pastor and father of an autistic child, what am I looking for in the church? 

We are looking for understanding from the church. We desire understanding that leads to shared connection, compassion, and education. If we were to ask the average church member to describe autism, they would likely convey a media-contrived image that promotes myths, stereotypes, and misunderstandings about autism. People have come to me and assumed my son is like what they see on television or in the movies without ever engaging him or us. People have also refused to relate to him because they believe autism is a disease. We have had conspiratorial research shared with us that autism was created by vaccines, which is not true. These actions separate people from those with autism and other invisible disabilities and their families.

We need to listen to understand as a church, so that we may be more inclusive in our relationships with others. We must admit what we do not know and desire to learn more. This learning comes through conversations with those who are autistic and their families. The best understanding we can have is by learning from those who have an invisible disability and hearing their story. Only then do we begin to have empathy for the experiences of others. This empathy changes our mindset from fear to acceptance.

We also need the church to be more accommodating. I am not asking for the church to give up its beloved ministry. What I am asking is for the church to consider the needs of others in their ministry planning. We need to accommodate individuals with invisible disabilities and see the world through their perspective.  

To accommodate is a matter of justice. Justice is not about giving each the same thing. It is about giving each person what they need to experience God’s presence in a community. This holy work begins when we get over our fears. Fear that if a church accommodates the needs of the autistic individual doing so would take away from the experience of others. Fear that there is not enough money or resources. Fear that it would make people leave. I have experienced these as a pastor and, it has been painful to experience the church live more in fear than hope. My son and people on the spectrum are children of God and people of sacred worth, just like you, me, and all of God’s people.

To accommodate autistic individuals and their families in the church is holy work. It is the same holy work the church has done for those who need a ramp or an elevator to access the sanctuary, words projected on the screen, a listening device, and other great ways of accommodating. It is the same work of justice and inclusion. We must be willing to think through the needs of the autistic community and consider, as you have, sensory rooms that provide a calming space for children. We must also consider one-on-one peer supports for ministry, providing social story bulletins that give specific details about the flow and order, thinking about how sounds echo in the sanctuaries, and even considering buffers to reduce echoes and sound waves. However, the most important accommodation we can make is to have those who are autistic or their families in the room when we are considering ministries with them in mind.

Finally, people who are autistic and their families need the love and compassion of the church. Sharing God’s love is the greatest gift we can share with the world. Christ loves every person. We feel God’s presence that shares love of welcome, embrace, compassion, grace, and understanding through the witness and connection of the church. That connection strengthens us in our love of God and journey of faith. Love and encouragement, as well as the presence of fellowship, are necessary for all of us.

The need for love is especially true for the autistic community and their families. We often feel isolated by the church and excluded from connections with our colleagues and, yes, our community. We need that love just as much as you do. We do not need to hear, “you have too much on your plate.” We need the church to ask, “how can we be the church for you and your family.” We need the same expressions of love that makes room for everyone at Christ’s table and in the church.

I believe in an extended and open table that welcomes everyone to come and see the love of God. Like you, I struggle with how to make room for everyone. I do not always get it right. We all struggle, at times, to get it right. No one is asking for perfection on the journey of inclusion. We are asking for effort.

I am thankful to God for the effort that you and your church are putting into this great work. I pray others will consider the great work before us to welcome and include those with invisible disabilities. The work is never complete. It is always ongoing. But, thanks be to God, Christ is with us as we lead the children to the Lord and extend the table to include Noah, others like him, and their families.

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