Not less than a year ago, we were sitting in church having a hard time keeping Rhema quiet and still. I knew we only had about 15 minutes before the children would be dismissed from the service for Children’s Worship – and I would accompany Rhema – but it might as well have been fifteen years.
It was a very off day for Rhema. She was making her “noises” – loudly humming and babbling. She was even more jumpy than usual and the least little movement could set her off. So when someone in the pew got up and brushed by her, I nearly had to wrestle her back into the seat. When she started ripping pages out of the hymnal, I took her out of the service.
We hung out in the bathroom, and I let her stim in the water in the sink, until it was time to attempt Children’s Worship.
They combined all the children’s classes into one, so there were a lot of children. I didn’t know some of the teachers. The children sat down for circle time, while Rhema ran circles around the room with her head tilted to one side and her eyes half-closed. I knew there was no way she would sit still for the circle time lesson.
I felt tired.
I found a small dry erase board and markers against a wall, near the circle time group. I “caught” Rhema and directed her to the dry erase board. She eagerly began coloring with the markers, yanking caps off, and making her happy vocalizations. I was not too concerned about her “noises” because I thought most of the kids at least knew of her and were used to it. I knew that as long as no one made any big movements, Rhema would stay focused on the coloring long enough to get us through circle time.
Then a woman walked over to us and whispered loudly,
“She’s distracting the other children.”
For a second I was confused. And then I got it. Oh. Her noises are distracting the other children from the lesson.
Before I could respond, the woman picked up the dry erase board and moved it to a corner at the other side of the room. “She can color over here.”
Of course, that was enough to distract and upset Rhema, and in seconds, she was running circles again, babbling louder than ever.
I was stunned. I grabbed Rhema by the hand and walked out. The woman chased me down the hall.
“You don’t have to leave!” she said. I could tell she realized she might have made a mistake.
I shook my head and said shortly, “She’s not going to be quiet.”
I turned on my heels and left the woman standing there, dragging Rhema with me. I didn’t even know if she knew Rhema had autism. Surely, she had to know something was different about Rhema, but I was not about to explain it to her. I was too emotional to speak to her for another minute.
Brandon came out, we grabbed Hope out of her class, and we quickly left the church.
The rest of the day I struggled with discouragement and anger.
These are the passages that ministered to my hurting heart and smoothed my ruffled feathers.
“Be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Eph 4:2
“Keep a sharp eye out for weeds of bitter discontent. A thistle or two gone to seed can ruin a whole garden in no time. Heb 12:15 (MSG)
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Romans 12:18
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:21
That evening my friend Meredith called to say, “I was so glad you guys were sitting behind us in church today! I loved hearing Rhema’s sweet song.”
“Really?” I said, fragile. She had no idea what had happened in Children’s Church. She did not know that her words were a healing balm at just the right time.
I thought about my life before autism. I was so removed from the special needs community. I was so very clueless; I had no inkling of the challenges faced by children with autism and their families. I imagined how my lack of knowledge might make me hesitant to work with a child like Rhema.
I decided to forgive the woman… and anyone else who did or said a thoughtless, ignorant thing. I planned to have a conversation with her about Rhema’s unique needs. But I would not hold a grudge or allow it to sour our relationship. It turns out that months later, Brandon was able to go before the whole church and share about Rhema and our family. This same woman signed up with her daughter to spend Saturday afternoons helping me with the girls during Brandon’s deployment. God did a total healing work in both of us. I have found that when we are able to educate people about autism and how it affects Rhema, they are more than gracious and willing to help. I’ve certainly seen that in my church.
I continue to encounter people who just don’t get it. It doesn’t get to me like it used to. I understand that they don’t understand. And I try to tell them more about autism and how it affects my girl.
A few other moms and I have a vision of forming an inter-church “team” that goes around to local churches to promote inclusion and help them teach/minister to our precious little ones and their families. I’ve had many, many conversations with others about how churches can love and support the special needs community… and how we can help them do that.
I’d love to continue that conversation here and post some ideas in my next blog.
“Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on…”
Heb 10:24-25 (MSG)
Autism at Church, Part 2