By Suzanne O'Keeffe, 700 Club Interactive
CBN.com Thomas is the father of a 6 year old daughter with Autism. Her name is Elle. He explained there was no specific "pinpointing" time when she went from no neurological problems to having them. Elle was a very outgoing baby and it was at an appointment when she was 1 year old that the pediatrician noticed she was not vocalizing as she should. They turned to an Infants and Toddlers program and at 3 years she was diagnosed with autism. Elle is high functioning and academically does quite well. She struggles with communication, social connection, and anxiety. When she was younger she would scream, especially when people would come into their home and the sense of not being able to control her surroundings would cause further anxiety. Overtime she has learned to cope with her surroundings; she has a large vocabulary and has integrated in to mainstream public school with an aide. Since Elle has a hard time comprehending abstract ideas and thoughts it is not easy to tell her about an invisible God. Past and future concepts are not in her comprehension ability although present in the moments are. They do talk to her about Jesus and how He lives in her heart and she will often respond (as children do) with "is He in my toe?" With protection, love and affection they show Elle who God is through actions that she can relate to and believe God will build on that.
When asked was there a specific thing that precipitated the article in Relevant Magazine, Thomas told the story of some friends who have an autistic son. They were looking for a church that they could attend and bring their son. They went to the nursery and explained their son's issues and how to handle him and were assured they could take him. Quickly the pager went off and they were told they had to take him out as the staff could not handle him. Naturally they were hurt and never went back. Today however, they attend Thomas' church and all is well.
He went on to explain that the Public School System and even movie theaters bend over backwards to make accommodations as well as learn to understand the needs of a special needs child. In the movies there are now special showings where the sound is lower and lights are on. He said the church is falling behind but should be the ones leading the pack in helping those who need the most help. When they come to a church, parents should not be embarrassed or stressed or receiving glaring looks for their child's misbehavior. The answer is training. Churches can make a concerted effort to learn how to handle special needs children. Perhaps the church can send staff to be trained or invite the parents in to dialogue and teach the staff in this area. He warns this is not a visible or typical high reward task. It will require effort and investment but when we become less inclusive and more caring the church is then functioning as it should.
Thomas quoted Gianna Jessam (pro-life advocate and survivor of a saline abortion), "things we must learn that can only be taught by the weakest among us." His opinion is that these children with autism should be valued with grace and patience by allowing them to show us things from their perspective.
Thomas ended our interview stating the church must learn to look like the communities; where we live, work and go to school and incorporate it into our services. Including and welcoming people with special needs and not excluding them will cause church to be more effective. The church should resemble the community because the more we relate and connect with them the more we bring the Kingdom of God to them.