April is National Autism Awareness Month. This article was written by Russell Threet. Threet has been serving as Senior Pastor at FBC Mena since September of 2015.
Ministering to families in our modern day is no easy task. Things just seem to be harder than even 10 years ago when I entered ministry. Families have issues to deal with that previous generations would have called unbelievable. The complexities of family life are growing, even in the church. Now, add in the stresses of having a member of the family being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Things grow even more difficult. Church life is hard. Autism makes it harder. If you have ASD or other special needs families in your church you know it is just a struggle for them to be there and be able to sit through a church service. If you were not aware, consider this your notice. In this article I want to offer pastors, leaders, and church members some basic advice about ways that you can minister to families dealing with ASD that can have a big impact.
Explain on their behalf
In all of their beautiful quirkiness, people with ASD sometimes do things that are surprising or even shocking to those who do not know the family’s story. So, when something happens in a church service or at a fellowship meal and people start to whisper, seize the opportunity to keep a family member from feeling obligated to apologize or explain. I do not mean to say that you should apologize for them or that you should join in the whispering in some attempt to garner pity. To use a very mild example, let me tell you something about my son. He is 11 and loves babies. Seeing a baby will change the course of his entire day. However, when he sees a baby he will stare at the baby. He might even try to kiss a baby if we do not get a hand on him to slow him down. He is simply so overwhelmed with joy when he sees a baby it explodes out of him. Yet, it can be off putting if someone does not know him. I find myself saying, “he is autistic and he absolutely loves babies” more times than I can count. These types of situations abound for ASD families. If someone who knows and loves my son saw him approaching a baby and was able to step in to make an introduction and explain his love for babies it would take that pressure away. One less explanation of behavior. One less set of staring eyes averted through understanding. You cannot imagine the blessing that can be to a family.
Make worship possible
Worship services in most churches can be a nightmare for those with ASD. The sounds, smells, lights, and expectations of behavior can make individuals and families feel out of place. This is why many Christians with special needs family members either do not attend church or attend church in shifts so that one family member is always at home with the special needs individual. I speak as a pastor who has not found a way to do this well when I say: Pastor, do what has to be done to let that family worship together! Buy ear muffs for the sound sensitive. Find a place for the family to sit that makes their situation easier and make sure no one sits there (we are Baptists after all). Find volunteers to sit with the family to be an extra set of hands. In cases where someone with ASD has such extreme challenges that being in the service is not a good option for them find a consistent set of volunteers that will care for and minister to that person while the rest of their family worships together.
Yes, I know this is labor intensive. Yes, I know it is hard. No, my church does not have this figured out all the way. Do your best. These families understand the challenges more than you do. Most will greatly appreciate your willingness to learn and persevere.
Marriage might be rightly considered a failing institution in the United States. Most every church understands this and takes opportunities to hold up the institution of marriage as a good and godly endeavor. This is accomplished through marriage retreats, conferences, sermon series, etc. According to Denise Mann of WebMD, research shows that parents of children with ASD are almost 10% more likely to divorce than parents of neurotypical children.[i] So, if marriages need support then marriages in families dealing with ASD need additional support. This can take many shapes. Perhaps the most valuable is babysitting. It is hard to find a trustworthy babysitter. Even when one is available ASD families struggle with allowing others to take on the burden of being fully responsible for their loved one. ASD and other special needs families are often in a situation where they never get a break. Even family members are reluctant to help. Research has shown that stress hormone levels for ASD parents are extreme and show similar patterns to those of soldiers in active combat.[ii] We all need a break, but these families rarely have that luxury. One night is a blessing. Making an overnight outing possible could make a couple’s year.
Don’t just offer, do
ASD families are used to going it alone. This is not a good mode of operation. Sometimes they do it out of necessity. Other times they do it out of fear. Many times they do it because they have been burned. Empty promises have convinced them they are on their own. How many times do you say to someone, “If you need something just let me know”? How many times has someone said that to you? Now, how many times has it been followed by action from either side? Maybe never. We probably mean it when we say it but we probably say it because we know no one is going to “let you know” when they have a real need. So, if you see a need in the life of an ASD family take the initiative. Now, I do offer some caution here. Use wisdom in this area. Sometimes you may need to arrange everything and then ask with the full measure of the help ready to bolt into action. Don’t push too hard, but do not think these families are going to reach out for help, it rarely happens.
Stand and fight
It is devastating to know how many families have been told by pastors and church members they should leave a church because their ASD child or family member is too difficult and “we are not equipped to help.” I have heard this story dozens of times. Many churches are ill equipped, have no plan, and refuse to try to walk with these families. Some churches say they tried and failed and now do not want to try again. If your church or people in your church take a position of hardness, rejection, and coldness to ASD and other special needs families, I believe it is your duty to speak up. Whether you are the pastor or the newest member of the church, it is your role to rebuke with love those that would refuse the ministry of the church to families just because their situation presents some significant obstacles. These families have to fight many fights in school systems, with government agencies, and with medical institutions. They should not have to fight to be counted as worthy of the fellowship of Christ’s church. Fight for them in public and in private.
Right now, wherever you sit as you are reading this, there are multiple families in your area that are not coming to church because of the challenges of ASD or another developmental issue. Imagine what would happen if you became the church in your community that had the reputation of being accepting, loving, and helpful to families like this as they sought to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. Do you think it would impact your church? I believe your church would grow in grace and probably in numbers. I am a pastor. I am a parent. I know the struggles of this issue from both sides. You have to begin somewhere. Be honest about where you are in your capability to minister to these kinds of families, then make a plan to get better. Stay the course and be a force for Christ in this population of people. Dr. David Wheeler, professor of evangelism at Liberty University, once told me that he believed that special needs individuals and families were the most unreached people group in the United States. They have been forgotten by the statisticians and demographers.
Do you want to make a Gospel impact? I know you do. Do you want to dive deep into ministering to unchurched and dechurched people? I believe almost every Christian and church does. If you want this type of impact, then make this population a priority and let the Gospel of Jesus Christ do the saving work only it can do.