I’ve been teaching in children’s ministry since I was 13. From a very early age I have loved connecting with children, usually face to face over a puzzle or pile of play doh. The two to five year age group is where I fit in. Bit of a cop out really as they don’t ask to many of the “tricky” questions that the older children do. I’ve got all of the “does my dog go to heaven” type questions sorted; I have to pray for guidance if it gets any more complicated. The younger age group is also where you find the “quirky kids” who are not yet diagnosed and their parents are stressed as to why their child is struggling in so many different ways.
We’ve had some pretty difficult church life experiences with our kids. Our oldest wasn’t diagnosed until four years of age so for a long time he was “quirky” and most people had no idea what to do with him. His coping mechanism at church when his anxiety built up to the point of no return was to hide under tables, and have earth-shattering meltdowns.
At one church I told a “parent helper” to give my son some “quiet time” if he became overwhelmed. He misinterpreted my instructions and put my son in the corner with his foot on his back to keep him there. I could hear the screaming through two solid walls into the auditorium. I took my son and left the church, heaving with emotional heartbreaking sobbing tears. Yes, we’ve had some “difficult” church experiences.
Fast-forward five years and the awareness for special needs is growing and every community is learning to accommodate the different needs of children, especially the church. The bible speaks of God’s love more than 9000 times, so too are churches as they reach out to every person regardless of their situation. As the world is becoming more aware and tolerant of others, so too are churches becoming welcoming and loving to all people and children, regardless of how loud, destructive or distracting they can be.
The church I attend and serve in with my three aspies has a heart for everyone, but especially those who have been in prison. When a tattoo covered, Harley riding, cigarette smoking long term ex-offender walked through the doors one Sunday morning, he was welcomed with a handshake and made to feel at home. The reaction he received was like anyone else, “welcome home!” People didn’t stop and stare, they didn’t point fingers and say he didn’t belong, he was, and still is, one of them, as are our children.
Logistically speaking, accommodating special needs children in a church environment is a skill that needs to be researched, taught and practiced. In our church my oldest son has a special table were he can set up his Lego each week and hide under if needed. My middle son quickly got the reputation as the “streak with yellow crocs” as he unleashed his ADHD energy around the church, lap after lap after lap. My youngest needs ear protection when the noise is too loud, except of course when it’s him making the noise, that doesn’t seem to bother him so much, or anyone else.
My first experience of an autism friendly church was Planetshakers Planet Kids, in Melbourne, Australia. After much anxiety and epi-pen packing we decided to brave the kids ministry and register the boys. We filled out a page of general info, name, age, contact, allergies and signatures. But then, there was a second page for special needs. Questions such as “what will upset your child” meant that there was an immediate understanding that yes, my child is different, and even if dress up characters seem fun to the rest of the children, it will cause mine to run up the road at least two blocks. And that’s okay!
I love and adore my current church, Edge. Edge’s philosophy is simple, Hope, Truth, Love. Every week they are doing practical things to show that Hope, Truth, Love is more than a catchy bi-line; it’s a way of life. Projects such as renovating women’s prisons and serving meals on the street are some of the outward projects that the church community are participating in. But there are other projects that few know about like their special needs program that they’re trialling in one of their five campus’. The aim of the program is to give every child with special needs a one on one carer at every service they attend. A carer to make sure there are no scary dress up characters and a set of earmuffs when it’s too loud. This is not just acceptance; this is excellence in catering for every kid with special needs.
As a parent of three uniquely wired boys taking them anywhere in the community outside their predicable home environment is stressful. How loud will it be? What will my children do? How will others react? Will we be welcomed back? Over the years we’ve been asked to leave kinder gym programs, swimming lessons, junior soccer clubs, structured music time and even a community kindergarten. After a while it becomes easier just to stay at home. And that’s what I read on lots of forums from parents who find it too difficult to take their children anywhere for fear that they will be judged, not accepted, and not tolerated.
This morning at church was an extremely emotional experience, not because the music was spirit filled or the message pulled some heartstrings or my child had been forced into a corner. This morning I saw my children being accepted, loved and enjoyed for who they are. As my eight year old sang at the front of church into his oversized bubble wand, that he’d been carrying for a week, he didn’t stand out. He was accompanied by one of our amazing kids leaders, Emily, who rather than make him conform, celebrated his unique singing, and dancing, style. Emily is part of a new wave of dedicated children’s leaders who are educated, welcoming and most importantly non-judgemental of children and their parents.
So why did I push through the challenges and hurt to find a church home for my kids? I believe that God made my kids with a unique mould, for a reason. It wasn’t anything I ate, any vaccinations that were given or any other preventable reason. My kids are special and they were made that way. One day they will be great singers, innovative engineers or great artists because that was who they were made to be. Parenting them in the meantime can be a struggle, I’m not going to “sugar coat” my life, it’s not easy. But if I can find a church home for my kids where they can learn to love one another, and be loved, then I am going to be there, as often as I can.