This is Autism Awareness Month. And although I lead an organization with an amazing center for autistic children, I confess that I am mostly clueless when it comes to supporting people with autism. I’ve only interacted with a few people with moderate to severe autism. And when I do I’m left feeling awkward. Do I shake hands, do I not? Should I try to have a conversation or not?
In an attempt to sound moderately sensible in this blog post, I decided decided to learn a bit more. On my last trip to India I sat at the In His Image office, pen in hand and got vulnerable enough to explain I really knew nothing about the issue, about the impact and the challenges faced by families. Kathie, a volunteer from the US at the centre, with more than 25 years experience in working with special needs children jumped in. “Do you know what the biggest struggle that many families with a child with autism face in the US?” My mind whirled with possibilities—education, social services, babysitters…. I was too proud to offer my stabs in the dark, and Kathie was too gracious to demand them. Regardless, it turns out the answer was both unexpected and disturbing. I’ve been chewing on it for weeks.
The biggest problem facing many families is going to church. Ponder that for a few moments. The biggest problem many families who have a child with autism face is going to church. Church. The place that represents God. On so many levels it’s wrong. First, God made these children, they are His creation. They are knitted together in their mothers’ wombs, special, unique and purposed by Him to play a role in building His kingdom. When Jesus came and walked amongst us, He was distinguished by the fact that He often took time for and associated with those the world would have described as broken. And today, the biggest challenge that many families with autism face is going to church—the place in society which should hold open its arms the widest.
As I learnt, the challenges such families face are numerous. Does the child go to Sunday School? If so which age group – their actual age or their developmental age? Many autistic children are uncomfortable with crowds and cope with their discomfort by moving. Is there space for someone who can’t sit still in church? While the answers may elude us, the reality is that, as the church, we need to respond better. Bringing in a special needs consultant or a parent of a special needs child to help us think through appropriate solutions is not impossible. None of us want the church to be known as the hardest place to go. The problem is not intentional, it’s that so many of us are like me – clueless.
I am grateful I had the opportunity to start to learn about life with autism. Yet I know I have much more to learn. For the next few weeks leading up to Easter we are going to focus on the topic of Autism. We’ll hear one mother’s story, see a church that is responding well, and be inspired by the work of the In His Image Centre in India. And we’ll link you to some resources to help you go deeper. Hopefully all of us will finish the month just a little more of aware of the challenges faced and how we can respond.