Because April is Autism Awareness Month, we will spend the next few weeks reflecting on our own experiences of autism, some people we love who are affected by autism, and the relevance of biblical truth in our response to autism. Aside from our In His Image team in India, we are not experts in this field and don’t claim to be. We don’t have a lot of technical assistance to offer. But we hope that we can inspire you to engage with God’s beloved children made vulnerable by autism and to connect with the many fantastic organizations that do offer resources to help the body of Christ in this area.
I recently had the opportunity to visit In His Image in India for the first time. Since I haven’t had a lot of interactions with people with autism, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was rather hoping I didn’t just offend others and embarrass myself while there. In reality, hanging out with the the students at the In His Image center was…easy.
First we visited a classroom of high-school aged students. The young men were happy, friendly and utterly uninhibited. One boy was like a one-man welcoming committee. I found myself smiling without trying.
From classroom to classroom, students interacted with our group at their own comfort level. Some ignored us. Some stared at us (and can you blame them? Strangers, foreigners, grown-ups…we were an oddity at least). Some wanted our attention. Like all kids everywhere.
The students at In His Image function at levels across the autism spectrum, with a range of special needs. What struck me was that “problem behaviors” and “special needs” in older students are pretty similar to “normal behaviors” and “typical needs” in my own young children. Violent temper tantrums? Check. Trouble expressing themselves verbally? Check. High need for predictability? Check. One young man seemed to be in perpetual motion, running from one end of the room to the other dodging people and obstacles like a parkour expert. At our house, we call that “bouncing off the walls,” and it’s a constant. So as I watched the teachers at In His Image help students gain coping skills, I felt kinship.
Now, having been at In His Image, autism is less mysterious to me. And the greatest needs seem more obvious, as well. Parents and teachers need encouragement and reprieve. As a parent of young kids with many of these same behaviors, I often feel burnt out. There have been mornings that I have woken up with a feeling of dread because the days are just SO long. There are nights I can’t form a coherent thought by the time my kids are in bed. I imagine parents of children with autism experience all the same things…with one major difference. For me, it’s temporary. I can at least tell myself, “Okay, by high school he won’t STILL be screaming and biting because someone took his marble.” It’s hard to imagine the extra weariness and hopelessness that could set in without those bright spots on the horizon.
I had read about the importance of respite care for parents of special needs kids. But it was just academic until the moment I was able to fully put myself in their shoes.
I also know that entrusting my beloved children to someone else is one of the biggest ongoing challenges of parenthood. Who will understand their “quirks” and see past their current potty humor/OCD/narcissism to their heart? Who will be gentle yet firm in calling forth their full potential? Who will help me show them Jesus? These are the same questions that the parents of children with autism face, but with fewer options, more closed doors, and a much longer road to walk. What are we, the Church, doing to equip ourselves to be entrusted with God’s chosen with autism?
I’ve often been told that the most important thing In His Image does is bring parents hope. Finally, I understand.
TO GO FURTHER:
Here are a few articles with more information about the how your church could bless parents of special needs children with a respite care event:
This is an article by the director of In His Image, who has great incites as both a mother and educator of children with autism.
A great set of resources to help any church build a ministry around children with disabilities. You do need to register, but once you have it includes everything from a pack on how to run an event to videos from the conference Inclusion Fusion.
This is an article from The Inclusive Church…one of many great reads on their helpful site.
This page has free (and some not so free) downloadable resources to help churches start thinking about how to engage with families affected by disabilities.