Mickey Mouse and Relationships: Why Relationships are Fundmanetal to Special Needs Ministry

Noah turns 10 next week.

First, it is hard to imagine that our oldest child will soon enter the world of double-digit birthdays. I have to remind myself that it was not just yesterday that I slowly drove from Central Baptist in Lexington, Ky., through Danville, and into Mackville while snowing when we took him home from the hospital. Life does move faster than we would like.

These last ten years have been a blessing. It is a joy being Noah’s dad and, yes, biggest advocate. He is a bundle of joy wrapped up in someone who loved Mickey Mouse, Qdoba, Cheerios, and all things jumping on his trampoline or exercise ball. He loves chanting, “Let’s Go, Momers!” Noah has yet to master saying “Mountaineers,” but we are working on it. He is our buddy.

Noah’s diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and anxiety does not define our relationship. It does for others. For me, he is always my first-born precious son. He will always be that child I tried to get to watch golf with me a few hours after he was born. He is always the child who loved it when I would slap the couch like a referee counting a pin. He is always the child who loves car rides to random places. He is always the child who loves french fries more than anything else. That is Noah.

He is not my autistic son who has issues with anxiety. He is my son. He is precious, beloved, and the most important thing in our world. I wish that is how others would see him, as well.

Throughout Noah’s life, I have desired for others to see Noah for who he is as a person. To use a phrase from others, he is “a child of God with sacred worth.” It is not easy. What people often want to see and discuss is how his autism will affect them. The focus becomes on them instead on him.

I understand that desire to a degree, especially with society’s lack of a clear understanding of autism. I also know that it is a perspective that causes harm. It hinders the potential of getting to know people like Noah on their terms. Instead of seeing Noah as sacred and valuable, people often see him as someone to keep at a distance or to only interact with on special occasions.

We miss something when we forget the person with the diagnosis is still a person with gifts, passions, desires, and, yes, needs. One of those most basic needs is the connection with other people. God created humanity to be in a relationship with God and one another. We need relationships to thrive in life. When our interaction with the person is based solely on perceived limitations, we miss out on the blessings of interacting and connecting with people like Noah.

I have experienced people limiting the potential for relationships and connection by marginalizing Noah and others like him. People do not see the lovable, goofy, tenderhearted child. They only see him for his diagnosis. For all of our talk of wanting to be tolerant and fully inclusive of marginalized people, when it comes to individuals like Noah our words rarely match our actions. It is the rare expression of kindness and grace that means the world to Noah and me, yet our more common reaction is separation and distance.

I think we can do better. I think we can meet people where they are in their life. God calls us to find ways to establish relationships with every person, especially those with special needs. Just as Christ reaches people where they are, God calls us to do the same for all people. It is not that hard to do. All it takes is meeting people where they are.

The most meaningful act of establishing a relationship comes when we take an interest in what people like Noah enjoy. When we see people for who they are and not what a diagnosis says about them, we can see the creative beauty and grace inherent in each person. Instead of allowing the diagnosis to become a wall, empathy of seeing the person for who they enable us to build a bridge of connection that establishes relationships and care. Noah lights up when people spend time talking with him about Mickey Mouse. It shows they see him for who he is and cares for him at that moment.

Yes, his diagnosis is always there. It is not the only thing that defines him. It should not be the only thing that defines how others, especially the church, see people like him and their families.

Everyone needs relationships with others on the journey of life. Noah, and others like him, should not be denied the opportunity for relationships and connections simply because of a diagnosis. Every person is valuable in God’s eyes. If we believe that, as the body of Christ, then let us live that out, especially with people like Noah.


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