April is National Autism Awareness Month. According to the latest findings of the Centers for Disease Control, one in every 91 children in the U.S. will have some form of autism. Maybe you know of families affected by autism, whose lives are completely overwhelmed by the challenges. If they turned to your church, would they find help and support? Or, would they be met with the typical false assumptions and myths that can accompany a diagnosis of autism? Myths such as “all children with autism have mental retardation and behave the same,” or autism “is actually caused by poor parenting.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
The truth is we don’t yet know the cause or cure for autism, but we know that autism separates families from the church. Autism creates fears that the church can ease. Parents feel isolated because their families can’t always do things together like other families. These parents walk through our church doors every week assuming that we don’t understand their needs . . . and most of the time, they’re right! I have seen how our ignorance hurts families emotionally and spiritually. However, I’ve also seen that when we act with the mind of Christ, Christians have a tremendous opportunity to grow alongside these families. At whatever age their child is diagnosed with autism, the church’s response should be: “We don’t care what your child’s disability is; there’s a place for you here.” This goes beyond just providing childcare during worship, to facilitating full-participation for all families.
If your church doesn’t have a special needs ministry, Joni and Friends has a wonderful resource filled with advice, answers and articles – Special Needs Smart Pages. (www.joniandfriends.org)
A special needs ministry can touch the whole congregation. Thanks to the special needs ministry at his church, Dr. Scott Daniels understands the isolation and stress autism puts on marriages. “As our church truly becomes a genuine community, we’re capable of bringing encouragement and healing. But I wonder what the prospects are for couples who don’t have that unique community,” says Dr. Daniels. “As we see God’s well-intentioned plans for these children, it is transformational to us. We have become a better people because we have this kind of ministry—living, laughing, and struggling together to become the Body of Christ.”
National Autism Awareness Month in April is a great time to educate your church about autism. Joni and Friends has created an excellent new resource that can help. Making Sense of Autism is a two-part TV episode by Joni and Friends that takes you into the lives of families affected by autism to witness their joy and frustrations. It includes videos and study guides that can be taught as a half-day seminar or a four-week series. Hosted by Joni Eareckson Tada, it features advice from parents, pastors, experts and teachers who are addressing the issues of autism as Christ’s followers. To learn more visit www.joniandfriendstv.org.
You may be surprised to discover that families affected by autism can actually strengthen your faith community in ways you never anticipated. This is one of the mysteries of faith, that God uses those we perceive as weak and less wise to stretch us, mature us and teach us His ways.
– Written By Pat Verbal
Pat Verbal is the Manager of Curriculum Development at the Joni and Friends Christian Institute on Disability. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.