Archive for April, 2013

Giving Autism Sanctuary

April 6, 2013

In honor of Autism Awareness month I ask — How is the church creating sanctuary for families with disabilities generally and in particular Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and ADHD?

In my opinion, modern evangelicalism’s definition of a successful ministry has areas of weakness that alienate our ASD brothers and sisters. Unlike other disabilities, Aspergers (a form of high functioning autism), ADHD and the like have no visible markers. At first glance, they seem like any other child (or adult), but in reality, they suffer from a neurological disorder that affects behavior and social interactions.

Most Christians take for granted guilt and empathy, but those with this neurological condition find it difficult to connect and communicate their own emotions, let alone connect to the emotions of other people.

Many church programs are inundated with sensory over-stimulation (lights, bright colors, sounds) and activities that include multiple sensory activities (learning motions to a song on a video screen). Those with ASD and ADHD are highly attuned to each sight and sound and find it hard to filter and focus.

We evangelicals often speak in metaphor and in relational terms concerning our faith in Christ (like, “Give your heart to Christ”). Whereas those with ASD are more literal and less outwardly emotive.

The above-mentioned are tools for tending God’s garden of souls yet those power tools may be too much for these delicate blossoms. We must not forget the church’s most important services are connecting people to God and to one another. We are to nurture the tree of the faithful, grafting, in even those who feel like outcasts, branches to Christ.

I do not mean to focus primarily on programming. However, inadvertently, we may be getting in the way of Christ’s call to “suffer the little children unto me.”

Are sensory-loaded activities keeping children from feeling safe and in sanctuary when attending church? Do we present holiness as “behavioral ethics,” fulfilling social cues that are not comprehended by someone with ASD? Do we focus on their strengths of service, liturgy, and memorization? Do we value them as contributors to our own spiritual development? Are we pushing a “personal relationship” with Jesus unto kids who have difficulty connecting affectionately to their own parents, let alone the Spirit of God? Are we ministering to their families who want to express their love to them in a way they understand? Are we first to greet, to include and to validate them as valuable children with the imprint of God upon them? Are we too busy ministering that we do not notice Christ ministering through the “least of these” to us?

It is not so much an issue of accommodating the disabled as much as it is about making the church a haven for raising up the neurologically impaired, lifting their souls to heaven and putting a face to the grace we all receive in Christ.

I challenge the church to embrace disenfranchised families, to become Autistic-aware in our ministries, and allow Christ to minister to us through them.

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