The books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all share a familiar story of Jesus blessing little children. As their mothers eagerly journeyed to see Jesus, a tinge of excitement mingled with fear must have filled their hearts. Would Jesus accept their young ones? Would He really lay His hands on those often considered the least in society? Upon arrival, their fears intensified as the disciples dismissed them.
But Jesus was fully aware of the critical encounter between those seekers and His disciples. Author Ellen White highlights that “He waited to see how the disciples would treat them.”1 It was indeed a test for them, and I believe we all can agree that they failed miserably.
Autism spectrum disorder
A few years ago, my wife and I found ourselves introduced to the world of autism when we received the diagnosis of our firstborn child. Like many parents, we learned that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term used to describe a “developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.”2 Around the world, the rate of ASD has steadily increased, producing many questions and few answers.
Some symptoms include difficulty mingling with other children; resisting learning; having no fear of danger; avoiding eye contact; demonstrating strong attachments to objects; and having unusual reactions to the way things smell, look, feel, or sound. As a spectrum disorder, it means that symptoms will vary from person to person and by degrees.
Look in the mirror
After graduating with my undergraduate degree, I was a firm believer that wherever I pastored, our churches were going to be the friendliest in the neighborhood. Well, my perspective changed when we tried taking our autistic daughter to those “friendliest” churches a few years later. My wife and I felt the sting of embarrassment on a number of occasions when some members (not the majority) complained about our daughter’s behavior or our inability to control it. A reduction in invitations to social gatherings, alongside the fears and visible frustrations that accompany parenting a child with ASD, tore at us. Our frustration level, especially on the weekends, reached a high point.
The Lord has a powerful sense of humor. He brought back to my memory how, as a young pastor beginning my ministry, I had been a stickler about time and would often be disgruntled with a particular elder who frequently arrived late to services. He had a child with special needs and would attempt to share with me his reasons for being late. His explanations went over my head. I just was not listening. Now, a few years later, I was experiencing a similar situation. I longed for a word of understanding and a sympathetic ear. As those memories of my own lack of empathy flooded my mind, I dropped to my knees and asked God for forgiveness. I had acted like the disciples of old, who took no time to understand the hearts and motives of the mothers and showed little sympathy to those who needed it the most. I had been acting as a barrier to this family, and now I knew how they felt.
The hurt and bitterness that I felt tempted to harbor against those who just did not understand our situation gave way to sympathy. The Lord softened my heart and encouraged me not to get angry with His disciples but to help educate them and make them aware. It started a journey for me as I decided to begin graduate studies focusing on how churches can better minister to those with ASD and other special needs. As I gained insights on the topic, the crucial point for church leadership boiled down to this: the church family cannot ignore anyone but must value all, moreover those with special needs.
Some estimates “suggest that almost 20% of the population has some type of disability and between 2%–3% of people in any community have intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, or other developmental disabilities. . . . Therefore, in a congregation of 400 people, you might expect as many as 12 children and adults with developmental disabilities to be in attendance.”3 The increasing number of children being diagnosed with ASD also raises the likelihood that it may affect someone within your own immediate family.
One study reveals that 80 percent of marriages that have a child with autism may end in divorce due to the high level of stress and tension that may result.4 Look at your congregation and observe for yourself the number of single parents who happen to have a child with a developmental disability. It may surprise you. Please understand that coming to church, hearing a message, fellowshiping with friends, and receiving encouragement from the body of Christ has often kept many marriages together. But a question begs to be answered: How do couples that have a child who has ASD manage to continue to attend when they encounter attitudinal barriers? Many studies have revealed the benefit of church attendance, but others show that two-thirds of parents with children who have autism claim that their children did not participate in any weekly spiritual events, and only slightly over 10 percent of children participated more than once or twice a month.5
As I gained great insights on the topic, for me, the crucial point for church leadership boiled down to this: our church family cannot ignore anyone but must value all, moreover those with special needs.
Commenting on the story of Christ blessing the children, an author says that “He had heard their [the mothers’] prayers. He Himself had drawn them into His presence.”6 Could it be that God is also leading parents of children with special needs to your church family for them to receive His blessings? Could it be that they are simply obeying the promptings of the Spirit to help refresh their souls, marriages, and joy, but the indifference oftentimes shown them at our churches leaves them in despair?
The greatest barriers to those coming to see Jesus were His own disciples. They represent you and me—the leaders in God’s church. The pastor and elders, especially, set the emotional thermostat for a church. Once the membership realizes that the leader is disturbed and annoyed, the emotion transfers to the membership, and immediately a sea of eyes focuses upon that nervous family. I prefer the approach, shared by author Barbara Newman, that a certain pastor used. As he began to speak, someone started making noise in the back. Without missing a beat, the pastor calmly said, “Some of you might be hearing my friend, Marie. Marie’s mom and dad have asked me to tell you that she has autism spectrum disorder. Sometimes the tags in her clothes or a sound she hears really bother her. I appreciate that Marie is my cheering section today.”7 That is the kind of relief pastors and elders can bring to their congregation each Sabbath, the kind of relief those with ASD and other special needs desire when they make their way to your congregation.
What can I do?
What can you, as a pastor, do? It matters not whether the building is large or small, fancy or plain; attitude is key. Think of when you are greeted with respect and kindness at a hotel. When problems arise, the staff has a keen desire to fix the issue and achieve great customer service. Everyone likes five-star service. How can you and your church leadership be that keenly aware of any needs and rise to help with those needs? Can some problems be anticipated and solutions implemented beforehand?
When we welcome families with ASD and other special needs, the question must always be, “How can we, as a church, serve you?” At first, you may not have a sensory room available, headphones to reduce the sound, or a sign language interpreter, but when it is known that the church will welcome and do whatever lies in their power to serve and empower those with ASD and other special needs, it sends a comforting message to the families attending.
People not only came to Jesus, but He also went to them. There is a powerful witnessing opportunity to minister to families unable to attend the services because of complications resulting from disabilities. As you do so, you will gain an entrance not only to their hearts but also to the hearts of all the family members connected with them.
Education and awareness
My studies have revealed that when a church experiences a seminar on ASD and other special needs, their level of empathy and compassion generally increases. Sit down with your board and schedule a time when the church can conduct such a seminar. If your congregation or sister church already has experts in the discipline, employ their skills in making it a reality.
From the pulpit, let it be emphasized that all are welcomed. Apologize for where your church has gotten it wrong in times past, but also affirm the members each time they get it right. The global Seventh-day Adventist Church has made great strides in supporting those with special needs and disabilities through Adventist Possibility Ministries.8 Across the world, there is a progressive movement in the church toward recognizing and affirming those who have special needs.
Learn as much as you can about the topic of disabilities and special needs to be as sensitive in your choice of terminology as possible. Hearing words such as retarded, imbecile, and similar verbiage from the pulpit can be extremely offensive and harmful to those susceptible to being teased and bullied. Remember, you are inviting them to see Jesus, and your words and actions can either make that a reality or diminish the opportunity.
My wife and I have an awesome appreciation for our daughter. At times we pause and consider what life is like through her perspective, and it causes us to consider how strong she is. She is an integral part of our family. We are not complete without her, and the life and energy she brings to our home are what make it a Brooks household. Similarly, each family that comes to our church, including those with a special need, is a part of the family of God. Their very presence brings a richer experience while their absence creates a void. Adventist Possibility Ministries sums it up through their theme, which says, “All are gifted, needed, and treasured!”
Ellen White states it well when she says, “I saw that it is in the providence of God that widows and orphans, the blind, the deaf, the lame, and persons afflicted in a variety of ways, have been placed in close Christian relationship to His church; it is to prove His people and develop their true character. Angels of God are watching to see how we treat these persons who need our sympathy, love, and disinterested benevolence. This is God’s test of our character.”9 My prayer is that each church will meet and pass this test with flying colors.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), 512.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?” last reviewed August 27, 2019, cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html.
- Erik W. Carter, Including People With Disabilities in Faith Communities (Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Pub., 2007), 54.
- Chantal Sicile-Kira, “Autism—It’s a Family Thing,” Psychology Today, March 26, 2010, psychologytoday.com/blog/the-autism-advocate/201003/autism-its-family-thing.
- Gael I. Orsmond, Marty Wyngaarden Krauss, and Marsha Mailick Seltzer, “Peer Relationships and Social and Recreational Activities Among Adolescents and Adults With Autism,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 34, no. 3 (July 2004): 245–256.
- White, Desire of Ages, 511.
- Barbara J. Newman, Autism and Your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People With Autism Spectrum Disorder (Grand Rapids, MI: Friendship Ministries, 2011), 42.
- For more information and resources on Adventist Possibility Ministries, visit possibilityministries.org.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 511.