Autism at Church, Part 1

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

31 thoughts on “Autism at Church, Part 1

  1. “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)

    I love this verse, and the message in this post.

  2. I too am a mom of a child with autism. We spent may years without a church family because there were no churches that were inclusive in my community.
    several tried but with my child’s needs being similar to your childs it was too much. I was so angry going church to church trying to find a home for my child and I. I finally gave up and moved on to living with out a church family for most of 10 years.
    About 2 years ago we found a church that was totally accepting of our little family. Since we are far from relatives having an extended church family is very important. After two years of knowing these people my son and all his noises are still welcome and loved.
    I had not considered having a team that educates churches on what it is like for families like ours but I certainly am considering it now. Thank you for your very important story. And thanks for reminding me to forgive.

  3. the healing spreads .. and i don’t doubt for a moment that you will use your experience, your heart and your faith to bring understanding and compassion to congregations far and wide.

  4. You are a wonderful woman and have given me much to think about. The thistle seed ruining the garden quote really stuck out to me as well.

    This post reminded me of the special-needs ministry my friend started at her church. She has a son with Autism and also has a hard time with church and with the childrens program. So she started a program for the parents of kids with needs. If I remember correctly volunteers from the congregation sign up to help and be buddies to the special needs kids. The special needs parents have to call at least a day ahead to let the ministry know they are planning on bringing their child to church and then a volunteer is assigned to be that child’s buddy during the service. That way the parents can attend the service together and they know that their child is safe and well taken care of. I thought it was a wonderful idea! Maybe something like that could be started at your church?

  5. Sis, look at how God is using your precious girl. Remember that God’s plan is always perfect. I love you!

  6. Our church asks for teen volunteers from the youth group to work with kids who have special needs.

    We have had the same teenage girl volunteering to work with Grayson for over 2 years! She attends the early service, and stays for the second service to help Grayson in her Sunday School class.

    The teenage girls at our church have collectively been amazing in volunteering their time and developing relationships with our kids. This is their ministry.

    Some families at our church (here in PA) have behavioral specialists who are paid (by insurance) to help them in community settings like church.

    I am sure that there are some churches that are more accommodating than others – wish they were all quick to offer acceptance and help as they should- but many are. It’s so worth it to find one!

  7. Wow, there is a reason I came here and read your post today! I know God is at work. I’ve been trying to work out helping my two-year-old on the spectrum adjust to the older “toddler” class at church and have just started having conversations with the nursery director at church about how we can reach out to kids with special needs.

    I have a vision of being part of a “special needs” ministry at church that I could see would definitely involve teens/young adults and others who would volunteer to “shadow” specific kids.

    I would love to hear ideas from you and others here. I’ve been thinking about this and praying and wasn’t sure where to go from here. There is such a need out there…and I do think people are more willing to help when they understand.

  8. Thats an awesome idea! Some larger churches even have enough children with special needs (especially autism these days) that they have special self-contained children’s classes! But it is definitely important for children’s church programs to learn how they can include all children, e instead of sending them off to a far corner where they won’t be noticed!

  9. I confess, sweet friend, that prior to reading about Rhema here, I, too, might have been that confused Childrens’ Church volunteer, distracted by Rhema’s beautiful song.

    On our best days, we fail those we love via our words, actions, miscommunications, misunderstandings. I’m so glad you afforded her grace, as I would need and have needed a helping plate of grace on many occasions throughout the course of my 43 years.

    I completely hate myself on days when I get it wrong… when I choose control over understanding. God is quick to convict my heart in the matter, but then the damage is done and overcoming that damage is a hard ladder to climb. My son wears the labels of ADHD and dyslexia. He has had some very real struggles in the classroom as of late and has been (in our opinion) ignored by the teacher/administration regarding his needs. We’ve voiced our concerns, only to also be ignored, and now we stand at an impasse. Could we have handled our emotions differently toward the teacher/administration and probably received a better result? You bet. Could they have done the same? You bet. We will find our way through this to peaceful resolution? I’m not sure. Why? Because when feelings are hurt and confrontation isn’t kind, it leaves an indelible impression. The mature of heart are able to move past the pain (as you and this lady did in this situation), but I’ve found this to be the exception rather than the rule.

    Yes, teach us how to better serve the Rhema’s of the world. And please, afford us grace in the process. I am a slow learner but a willing one.

    You are precious to me and very much needed in this world. Rhema and Hope are so blessed to have you as their mother.


  10. I love your posts! They make me cry sometimes and other times they give me courage. Please don’t ever stop, you don’t know how much are you helping other moms.
    God bless you 🙂
    ps: there is a movie coming out about a “special” band.

  11. what a beautiful post. I could not agree with you more on everything. I share all the time. I also hope that that is part of why we are here. As I mentioned the autism has been a new direction for a career for me too. I now get to work with familes over 3 counties helping them with their IEP’s and problems with the school. I consider it my honor to do so and be a part of their lives. We have to spread the word in a gracious and positive manner!!! Love you Jeneil

  12. I came across your blog a few weeks ago, and have been following ever since. This post hit very close to home for me, as we haven’t been to church in quite some time. It is sometimes difficult for people to understand why my son sometimes acts in certain ways, and does certain things. We have certainly received our share of “looks” in regards to his behavior. Braeden was diagnosed on the spectrum a few years ago, and it has been a challenge to say the least. I am happy that I have been able to find your blog, and keep up with Rhema’a progress. I decided to start a blog for Braeden as well. Thanks again for sharing…


  13. I came across your blog a few weeks ago, and have been enjoying your posts. My son was diagnosed on the spectrum a few years ago, and it has been a challenge. We have had our share of outbursts in public, and I must admit the thought of going back to church scares me a little. How wonderful to hear that you turned your experience into such a wonderful lesson! I look forward to following Rhema’s progress.


  14. Beautiful post… I love that God’s healing was able to work in both your heart and hers. And how timely was your friends sweet comment? I love it!

    I can relate to that TIRED feeling, especially at church. How often have I wondered why do we bother only to spend the entire time chasing our boys down the hallways. It has gotten better, sort of. Some weeks are better than others. And to be honest, I still wonder that sometimes, but I know how important it is that we keep trying.

    This is actually just what I needed to read tonight, as we’ve missed church for a couple of weeks due to sickness making the rounds, and I’ve been dreading the “transition” of going back tomorrow and trying to get the boys back into the routine. I love your idea of setting up a group to promote inclusion, and look forward to your next post!

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  17. Unlike most here, I am not a mom of a child with autism. I am a college student, studying Occupational Therapy, with a goal of helping autistic children live the very best life that they can possibly live. I just want to help them show the world what they are capable of, and make sure they exceed everyone’s expectations. I stumbled upon your blog a few days ago while I was on the Autism Speaks Facebook page. Of all the stories I have read about your family so far, this one actually gave me goosebumps at several points, and in the end, I had tears in my eyes. Church is a big part of my life, and a big part of our church is the welcoming atmosphere that we work hard to maintain. It is our community goal to make sure that every family, no matter what their circumstances or situation (especially their children’s behavior) knows that they are welcome here and that they will be supported, not judged. For example, in our sanctuary, we encourage the church elders and other older members of the church (who might not be as flexible and understanding as some of the younger attendees) to sit in the first few pews. The last three pews are strictly reserved for families with children, because it leaves them closest to the doors, should their child need a quick walk outside or just a break from a long sermon.
    Anyways, I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your stories. I love the insider’s view of children with autism, and I look forward to reading more stories about your life with these seemingly wonderful children that God has given you!

  18. Thank you so much for sharing about the church thing… my husband and I are seeing this. All of a sudden, my baby boy is a big boy, and all the people that kinda blew us off about the autism thing (I guess assuming we were hypochondriacs of a sort) are seeing that we weren’t making this up and aren’t kidding. We’re making it, but our… well, especially my feelings get hurt a lot. Been looking into ways to help educate without creating more animosity, and you’re inspiring.

  19. I really needed to read this. We’re a military family who recently moved to a new base and was excited to try a new church one of my husband’s new coworkers invited us to. He let her know about our son with Autism and she said it would be fine. We went to the church and went to check out the children’s church and my son who usually is a little unsure in new places let go of my hand and went right into the chidren’s service and sat down. I was explaining to the worker that he has Autism and I was not sure how he would do and she assured me that if he had any trouble they would come and get me. The leader of the chilrden’s service comes over to see what we were discussing and when it was explained to her that our son had Autism she said “I think you better take him with you.” I was so angry I got Keith and we went into the service. As the praise and worship was over I got out the ipad so he would have something to keep him occupied and an usher come and tells me to take him and my other son out into the cry room. I literally had tears in my eyes and was so hurt. I had to end up going to the car and crying like a baby. I said that day I was done with church. I love God, but I can’t take that kind of rejection of my child. That was about 4 months ago and now I have muscled up the courage to try church hunting again. Pray for me!

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