Welcoming Children with Autism into the Church
Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. Mark 10:14-16
Please see this six-minute video as a way into the subject of church and autism:
Clearly Jesus calls the church to receive and bless children. And yet many children remain outside the church, never receiving the blessing of a community of faith. The autistic child is among those often omitted from that blessing and deprived of the opportunity to fulfill spiritual yearning, to know God's call and comfort, and to receive encouragement from a Christian community committed to the child's whole self. How does a church learn to welcome the autistic child? I witnessed a church carry out such a welcome in a near perfect way through a period of twenty years. I saw the congregation open its arms to the child and lift him up to God, and bless the child with loving care. The child blessed the congregation in return. They allowed him to be who he was, in all his quirkiness and preciousness, and they created safe, love-filled space in which he could grow as a member of their family. From tot to teen to young adult, the child grew in their spiritual garden, nurtured by their unselfish guardianship of his personhood. They ensured that he grew not on the outside -- as the somewhat "different" child that he was; but that he could grow in the center of church life with all others of his age group as one who belonged to them as a son and a brother within the family. The congregation somehow knew what to do. What did they know? This reflective paper based on reading and research into the subject seeks some of the answers to what other churches might want to know:
How can we welcome the autism disorder spectrum (ADS) child and his or her family? How can we make a difference in the life of that child? What does it mean for the church to accept, love, nurture, and cherish this child? What happens when a church does not do all of the above? First, it is important to understand that "autism" is not a word that is defined easily. Use of the word autism dates to 1912 and was used "to describe the social withdrawal associated with schizophrenia. The word is derived from the Greek word for self, autos," says Anglican priest John Gillibrand, who tells the story of his son who is autistic. But the term took on the "spectrum" descriptive as clinicians began to understand the wide range of conditions. Episcopal clergyman Dixon Kinser, like Gillibrand, writes about autism as a parent and a priest with personal experience. Kinser says, "It is important to note that the church ought to be the one to take the initiative. When a child is diagnosed with ASD, the family members … act to find resources for their child. And so should the family of God."
The modest scope of this paper does not permit a thorough explanation of the autism spectrum disorder. However, from the beginning of any initiative by a church to welcome ASD children and their families, that church's congregation should have some understanding of ASD children's challenges. Kinser suggests that the congregation should understand the social challenges of autistic children and how those challenges are manifested -- less eye contact with others, inability to read the usual social cues resulting in such actions as violating another's personal space, or reacting oddly with a laugh in the midst of a serious situation. Such unexpected behavior results in what David Briggs reports -- that the autistic child is nearly twice as likely never to attend a religious service as children with no health issues. He says that it is these children "with conditions that limit social interaction, who are often excluded from other social settings and have the greater need for a community of social support [who are] most likely to feel unwelcome at religious services. In his or her youngest years, the autistic child may have destructive tendencies, toilet problems, and sleep problems, Gillibrand reports, adding that as a parent of an autistic son he was "not prepared for the way in which the 'public' would respond to person with disabilities." He goes on to lament, "We all want to believe that the world is a more wonderful, more blessed place than it often is and try to block out anything which provides evidence to the contrary."
Welcoming the autistic child and his or her family is not simple. Gregory E. Lamb likens people with physical disabilities to those with intellectual challenges, saying that churches face hard choices in deciding whether to serve those with special needs. He says, "Rather than merely creating 'mercy missions' centered on a person's 'disabilities' we must recognize the abilities that all people possess." Further, Lamb says, Jesus left a model for us: "(1) Jesus approached the need; (2) Jesus saw/engaged the need; (3) Jesus healed the need; (4) and the response was that God was glorified."
A congregation indeed can see and engage the need of the autistic child and the family. The congregation arms itself with knowledge: seeking its best understanding of what it means to be autistic; then the congregation proclaims a desire to be both inclusive and compassionate as Jesus has called the church to be: "I was a stranger and you welcomed me" and "I was sick and you took care of me" (See Matthew 25: 35-40). God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit gives the church community the healing power and comforting presence of God's own gift of faith, hope, and love to transform the life of the autistic child and the child's family. What happens if a church does not reach out to children with special needs such as the autistic child? The loss is great for both the church and the children. Studies that show autistic children lack a true sense of "self" (autos; see early definition of autism above) are being refuted by scholars who refuse to believe that being outside the "usual norm" means that the autistic person does not have spiritual capacity.
Olivia Bustion refutes some of the arguments made by others who write about ASD children and their spiritual aptitude. She challenges, for example, the idea that ASD children have a diminished sense of self that disallows their religious and spiritual growth. Bustion offers her own testimony that asks for a closer look through an ethnography she has constructed. Her research, she says, "stands to enrich academic theological reflection in particular, and religious studies more generally" as it reveals clearer data about the spiritual lives of autistic Christians. Among "behavioral scientists," Bustion says, the story they tell about autism is "a story of deficit." There is a preconceived assumption that the autistic person has "an impaired sense of self" and therefore the relationship they can form with God will be weak at best. Bustion uses a wide-ranging list of questions on which to base her study. She looks for new visions. She asks, "What themes emerge in their first-person accounts of faith practice? What sorts of community do groups of autistic Christians build?" Bustion's research leads to recommendations that religious communities might embrace in order to make a more welcoming space for ASD children and families. By listening to the autistic Christians themselves, Bustion is able to form new visions of how these Christians think, interact, and worship. Her many quotes are paths into the autistic person's way of thinking about God and the world. One says, for example, "God is not stymied by [us]. He knows exactly how to speak to our hearts in such a way that we can unmistakably understand Him."
A congregation may find that ASD children not only bless but also teach them. One thing congregations might learn from them is the nature of holiness, says Paul Gondreau, who cautions against viewing the outward appearance only, but looking instead upon the heart where often is found "the reality and beauty of the Cross of Christ." However, any disabled child -- or adult -- deserves more than a sweetly sentimental sorrow growing from pity in another's heart. The ASD child has his or her own "moral and spiritual struggles" and should be received into a congregation where room is made for those struggles and a theological satisfaction from wrestling with them. In Amy Julia Becker's study, she found that pre-conceived notions had precluded visions of intellectually disabled young people becoming spiritual leaders. She describes how young people with such challenges can become effective prayer leaders and greeters. "Whatever the reasons that many people with intellectual disabilities are especially gifted in ministries of prayer -- maybe they are less bound by social norms, more accustomed to expressing needs honestly, more aware of human vulnerability -- it's possible that the same factors also make them exceptionally gifted in ministries of welcome." Becker goes on to say, "The sudden notion that my daughter was, like me, both broken and gifted forced me to recognize a fundamental truth about her and about others with conditions like Down syndrome, autism, and significant development delays," Becker said. "They, too, have been equipped by the Spirit to contribute to the loving work of the church in the world."
Many books, videos, and web sites are available to give assistance to churches who seek help in creating a plan to reach out and to embrace autistic children and their families. There are suggestions for specific actions directed at the children: careful organization of the space and program offered the children; a buddy system to assist each child with comfort and ease of settling into the unfamiliar space and routine; monitoring noise levels and other stumbling blocks; and generally giving the autistic child and the family a sense of safety and loving attention to their needs without smothering them. The church mentioned in the beginning of this essay is unnamed to protect privacy of members and of the child in question. However, I can repeat that the congregation had a deep sense of responsibility to be God's people and God's place for the child and his family. Those basic Christian notions of hospitality do not let us down when we turn to specific questions of how to behave and who to be.
Letty Russell offers excellent foundational guidance for creating hospitable space that reflects God's love and hospitality. Russell especially calls out the church to "welcome by reaching out across difference to participate in God's actions bringing justice and healing in our world of crisis and our fear of the ones we call 'other.'" Throughout her small but powerful book, these kinds of word bridges are built between communities. In her work I find much encouragement for how churches can form the basis for learning about ADS children and finding in them the beauty and blessing of those who otherwise might be overlooked. What a tragedy it would be for a church to miss an opportunity to welcome these children and their families.
In this reflection as a public theologian, I have looked at ways churches have welcomed or not welcomed the autistic child and his or her family; ways churches might better accommodate these children and their families; and ways these children bless congregations in which they are engaged. The public I target is the church-aware public, those who are members, those who have ties to churches and their congregational activities, or those who have interests in what churches do. My public is comprised of those who are likely to read the reflective piece on the web site of the church where I serve as minister. I will post the public theology essay on that web site. My source material includes articles in journals and books; and books centered on the autistic child or related to hospitality in the church, especially as Scripture describes hospitality.
Here are a few links that complement the content of the essay above
This link takes you to "Going to Church: A Guide for Children with Autism."
This link takes you to a guide to becoming a more inclusive worship space, especially for children such as those on the autistic spectrum.
This web site looks at the importance of allowing creativity among autistic children.
Here is another web site with interesting tips for using art as therapy for autistic children.
This web site has a story about autism and art and tips as well as guidelines for delivering art therapy, statistics and data that are interesting.
Becker, Amy Julia. "The Ministry of the Disabled: How Christians with Intellectual Disabilities Are Serving Churches (Not Just Being Served by Them)," Christianity Today (May 2018): 34-44.
Briggs, David. "Study: U.S. Churches Exclude Children with Autism, ADD/ADHD," Christianity Today International, web only, July 20, 2018.
Bustion, Olivia. "Autism and Christianity: An Ethnographic Intervention," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 85, number 3 (September 2017): 653-681.
Gillibrand, John. Disabled Church -- Disabled Society: the Implications of Autism for Philosophy, Theology, and Politics. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2010.
Gondreau, Paul. "Disability, the Healing of Infirmity, and the Theological Virtue of Hope: A Thomistic Approach," Journal of Moral Theology 6, Special Issue 2 (2017): 70-111.
Kinser, Dixon. "Jesus on the Autism Spectrum." In Faith Forward: A Dialogue on Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity, vol. 1, edited by. David M. Csinos and Melvin Bray, foreword by Shane Claiborne. Kelowna, B.C.: CopperHouse, 2013.
Lamb, Gregory E., "Sinfully Stereotyped: Jesus's Desire to Correct Ancient Physiognomic Assumptions in the Gospel according to Luke," Word & World 37, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 177-185.
Russell, Letty M. Just Hospitality: God's Welcome in a World of Differences, edited by J. Shannon Clarkson and Kate M. Ott. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
 John Gillibrand. Disabled Church -- Disabled Society: the Implications of Autism for Philosophy, Theology, and Politics Kindle Cloud Reader (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2010), 22.
 Dixon Kinser, "Jesus on the Autism Spectrum," in Faith Forward: A Dialogue on Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity, vol. 1, eds. David M. Csinos and Melvin Bray, foreword by Shane Claiborne (Kelowna, B.C.: CopperHouse, 2013), 220.
 David Briggs, "Study: U.S. Churches Exclude Children with Autism, ADD/ADHD," in Christianity Today, July 20, 2018.
 Gillibrand, 34, 39, 40.
 Gregory E. Lamb, "Sinfully Stereotyped: Jesus's Desire to Correct Ancient Physiognomic Assumptions in the Gospel according to Luke," in Word & World, Volume 37, Number 2, Spring 2017, 184.
 Olivia Bustion, "Autism and Christianity: An Ethnographic Intervention," in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 85, number 3 (September 2017): 654-55.
 Bustion, 663.
 Bustion, 664.
 Bustion, 674.
 Paul Gondreau, "Disability, the Healing of Infirmity, and the Theological Virtue of Hope: A Thomistic Approach," Journal of Moral Theology, Volume 6, Special Issue 2 (2017), 88, 102.
 Amy Julia Becker, "The Ministry of the Disabled," Christianity Today, May 2018, 40.
 Becker, 38.
 Letty M. Russell, Just Hospitality: God's Welcome in a World of Differences, edited by J. Shannon Clarkson and Kate M. Ott. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 53.