As we strive to be a body of believers that follows Christ we often know that means to love others. But pause for a moment and think to yourself, how would I show love to someone walking through the doors of the church for the first time?
Have an idea in mind? Now, what if that person walking through the doors had special needs?
I sat down with Emily Williams this week and got her input on bringing a child to church with special needs and what that looked like through her eyes. Here is what she had to say about it:
Let me preface this by saying that our son is grown, is married, and is a high school math teacher! These are the kinds of outcomes that every parent hopes for their children, right?!? We have been so blessed to see the hand of the Lord on our family, and significantly through the ministry of CHBC.
Our son is possibly the smartest person I know. From a very early age he exhibited a real gift of mathematics. He did not build houses with his Duplos, he built stacks with sometimes intricate patterns – and he did this before he was 1 year old. He was reading at a sixth-grade level – or maybe higher – before he was three years old. He was charming and quirky and funny – but his social interactions were not like other kids. At first, we chalked it up to his being so incredibly smart. But soon it was apparent that his social skills were those of someone with high-functioning autism. At school, he had a great team of teachers, and at home we had a ton of strategies to keep our household happy and functional for him and for ourselves. (I have tons of stories and ideas, by the way – feel free to ask me!)
But what about church? How could a child with this particular constellation of abilities and challenges be part of Sunday school taught by volunteer parents and non-professionals? Here is what we found:
- The official diagnosis of autism was very helpful, because we had a word that described our son and gave some clues to his behavior. Having that “label” automatically opened up understanding and compassion, and strategies for helping him have a fun and successful time in Sunday school. We were encouraged to realize that he would be labeled – so what label would we prefer? Behavior Problem? Challenging? Disruptive? Weird? If we didn’t like those labels, we should embrace Autistic, because it opens up so many more positive paths than those other emotionally-charged labels did.
- Teachers in the Sunday school were told what our son’s situation was before he was in their class. They knew in advance, they were given tips and methods, and the assistants were aware, too. There were no surprises. There was never a time that we were asked not to bring him to Sunday school, because the situation was prepared for him and children like him. What a blessing it was for my husband and me to know that he was being taught and nurtured in his spiritual life by people who understood him.
- By the time he got to middle school and high school, coming to church was his favorite thing. He loved his youth leaders, he loved the activities of the youth. He was in a life group, he went on mission trips, he was a helper in children’s Sunday school – all of these things were open to him as he grew up. And it made a huge difference to his growth as a teenager and young man, and as a Christian.
When he was in sixth grade he told everyone he knew that he was going to be baptized. At the service, I noticed that a whole line-up of really young kids were filing in to the sanctuary. I wondered about that, because they seemed really too young to be seeing a classmate be baptized. But then I realized – this was the class of first-graders that our son was a helper in. He had told them that he was going to be baptized, and the teachers brought them there to see it.
What a testimony to God’s work in our son’s life! He was not the problem child, the behavior problem, the weird kid. He was the young person who was an example to others. Those first-graders were watching someone they knew and respected declare his faith and reliance on God for salvation through Jesus Christ.