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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.

Unplugged & Plugged In

September 24, 2012

Ah, finally the camping season is through as we return to the regularly scheduled September of labor and learning. I chuckled greatly when I move to Venango County for so many of you camp throughout the summer… Some live in the woods but have a desire to go down the street to a campground. People can burn in their backyards and yet still want to enjoy a campfire somewhere else. And when many of us camp, we prefer a state-of-the-art camper with home essentials, including the kitchen sink! We even send our children to camps with high tech gadgetry, nice dorms with hot and cold running water. Remember the days when your parents or grandparents took you out camping… in a tent?
Camping without the comforts makes us more thankful for the gadgets. It is more difficult to be impatient with a microwave after meals over the campfire. God realized we needed this break. He even made a mandatory camping holiday called the Festival of Tents which begins next week!
After the Israelites were to enter the Promised Land (to live in comfortable houses and to farm fields-of-plenty) they were to go out annually to their backyard, pitch a tent for a few days, and remember how God provided in the desert. Maybe we need the same.
Live simply for a couple days. Talk with our family without an electronic device between us. Look into each other’s eyes and sit with them rather than reply to their posts. Live together for a few moments with the real treasures of our life; our spouse, our children (not our stuff).
I think this is a much needed (and overlooked) holiday for we are overloaded on all circuits. We need an tech timeout occasionally. However, we are so afraid of what we will miss, rather than what we might gain. When given the opportunity we carry it all with us in our fully-equipped wifi Winnebago! Get unplugged, unwind, take a vacation from all the stuff. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it will annoying and difficult. It may not bring you serenity as your labor might intensify. But, it will bring appreciation for the ease of life God has given. It will nurture our soul to have a long conversation with friends and family rather than a 140 character quip. The “less” reminds us to be grateful for our “more.”
So, my family is going tenting in the backyard for a couple days. Next week we will eat our meals outside our house and have a few “unplugged” hours. Yup, I will leave the cellphone inside, gulp! We will stare at the house God has granted us filled with all its ease and remember how blessed we are. We will have conversations, share books and enjoy time together. We will plug into each other, the real treasures of this life. Will you join us? …In tents? I hear its intense!

[By the way, I wrote this on my iPad while on vacation with my family and a district conference where I was constantly in search of wifi! I couldn’t even take a vacation without constantly checking my IMs. I know I need to take my own advice!]


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