Stephen J. Bedard is the director of Hope’s Reasons Ministries. His purpose is to equip Christians to articulate and defend their faith in a reasonable, relevant and respectful manner. He teaches and leads workshops and seminars and is the co-author of the award winning Unmasking the Pagan Christ and numerous other magazine and journal articles. Stephen lives in Cambridge, Ontario with his wife, Amanda, and five children, Logan, Abby, Justus, Emma and Faith. You can learn more about Stephen at www.stephenjbedard.com
This post originally appeared on the Hope’s Reason blog on January 21, 2012. Stephen has also been blogging about his journey at his personal blog, stevebedard.blogspot.ca. You can find the audio of this post here.
Today I would like to talk to you about autism. “Autism? I thought this was about apologetics, not autism.” Well, part of my vision for Hope’s Reason Ministries, in addition to apologetics, is to provide a forum for advocating for special needs children. Still, why should you as a person interested in apologetics listen to what I have to say about autism? Imagine if a parent comes to your church and they are really struggling with their autistic child.
How will you respond? Will you sit down with them and go over the ontological argument for God’s existence or the intricacies of the Trinity? Will you even try to explain issues related to the logical problem of evil? If not, do you have anything for them? I would say that autism and other disabilities are a part of the problem of suffering and therefore connected to apologetics. But instead of just requiring a rational response, it requires a compassionate response.
I happen to be an expert in autism as I have an earned D.A.D. in fatherhood studies. In other words, I am a dad to two severely autistic children and have learned much in the process. What is autism? According to the Autism Society of Canada: “Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), also referred to as autism, is a neurological disorder which causes developmental disability. Autism affects the way the brain functions, resulting in difficulties with communication and social interaction, and unusual patterns of behaviour, activities and interests.” How prevalent is autism? According to the Autism Society of Canada it is 1 out of every 165 births and the Autism Society of America, it is 1 out of every 110 births.
Look at those numbers, look at how many people are in your church and see if the numbers match up with how many autistic people are in your congregation. You may not have any. My question is: why? The fact is that it is difficult to bring autistic children to church.
Autistic children do weird things and make loud noises. Sort of like typical children, only better, and unfortunately more annoying to people who are not informed. You see, often there is no physical sign that an autistic child has anything wrong and when they act out, other adults glare at the parents for not keeping them under control. So for most parents, it is easier to just stay home from church. However, with the difficulties of raising a child with autism, a church community is exactly what a family needs.
How can the church support a family dealing with autism? Ideally, a church would be set up with the facilities and the volunteers to allow an autistic child to be integrated into the regular children’s programs at a church. Sometimes that can happen, but as a pastor of two small churches, I know that is often a challenge. That does not mean you cut the family loose and let them deal with things on their own. Perhaps there is a person in the church who can do respite on a Sunday morning or you could connect them with a university student or some other person to look after the child. Not just for Sunday mornings but for the parents to go get groceries or go on a date. This is a tremendous need. But you might respond by saying that you and the people you know do not have any special training to look after and autistic child. Most of the people we have had did not have special training, we gave some tips and our children did the rest of the training. It really is not that hard. Just do not go into it with high anxiety or the need to initiate the relationship. Let the child feel comfortable, respect their boundaries, be observant of their emotions and be prepared to be blessed by wonderful children. What else can you do? Even if you are not prepared to work with children, there are other needs. There is the relationship between the parents. Autism is a tremendous strain on a marriage and there is not always much emotional energy left over for each other. One thing I noticed in the Gospels is that most of the time when a parent brought a suffering child to Jesus it was only one parent and not both. The significance? Not sure but it is hard to stay together with such challenges. Help arrange for childcare and invite the parents over for a couples night. Do not assume that parents of autistic children have no desire to get together with others. Autism can be very isolating and these adult social times are very important. Also, try to provide the opportunity for the parents to go on a date. This is very much appreciated. Another need is the non-autistic siblings. It is not easy to be a brother or sister to an autistic child. They lose the parents attention, they get their toys broken and there are added responsibilities. Reach out to these children, take them to a movie or a hockey game. Love them and enrich their childhood.
A couple of last thoughts. If you see a parent struggling with a child having a meltdown and other siblings looking confused, offer to help. It may or may not be autism, but offer any way. If they don’t want your help, they will tell you. But they may need your help, even to watch the siblings as the parents work on the child having the meltdown. We have been there many times, most of the time people just glare or smirk at us. A little help please? Also, do not judge. It is easy for people to make judgments when they have not been in that role. You do not know what it is like. You might think you know better, but just keep quiet unless your advice is sought. Also, sometimes parents have to make hard decisions. We had to send our daughter to a group home. We have been judged on this, even by other people dealing with autism. You do not know what we went through, nor do you understand the better relationship we have with our daughter. We didn’t abandon our daughter, we saved our family, including both our autistic children.
In conclusion, if your church encounters a family dealing with autism, be prepared with a good solid apologetic, an apologetic of compassion. Demonstrate that Christianity is true, that it works and that the body of Christ has an important place for families dealing with autism.