Sunday, May 3, 2009

All Those Who Suffer in Body, Mind, or Spirit

It's hard to find a church when you have a child with autism. Many of the symptoms are behaviors that look like those of an unruly kid with clueless or uncaring parents. Some people try to straighten him up beyond his ability. Others try to straighten us up. One church told us that we were welcome, but if he couldn't act like the other Sunday School kids, he shouldn't come. As one friend whose son also has autism put it, "I don't recall Jesus saying, 'Suffer the little children to come unto meā€”unless they're autistic.'"

Once they learn that he has autism and can't help these behaviors, some expect us to just keep him quiet and out of the way. I've had a hard time feeling like part of any church myself. It's hard to worship God while spending the whole service trying to make sure other people aren't bothered by the occasional off-topic interjection. Even in churches that welcomed us as a family, I felt he was only tolerated, not fully part of the church, encouraged to participate as far as he was able.

I was raised Baptist, met my wife through IVCF, and we were married in an Evangelical Free church. Through a long series of events, we ended up in a church that is part of the Anglican Church in North America. Think Episcopal Church minus the leftist politics. Many in our congregation are former Baptists, Pentecostals, &c., so our style of worship is a combination of several traditions. I call it Angli-costal.

It's a young church, both in the sense that it is a recent plant, and that most of the families have children under age 12. Worship is mostly family-integrated. Children six and under go to Sunday School during the sermon, but are expected to participate in, or at least sit through, the rest of the service. Children age seven and up are expected to stay through the whole thing. I think this is healthy. Children are challenged to listen, sing, and pray with adults. Adults have to learn to be patient with children.

GL is allowed to go to Sunday School with the little kids. Sometimes he gets upset, and starts yelling, usually at no one in particular. If the teacher thinks it's getting out of hand, she comes and gets one of us, we sit with him for a few minutes, and he calms down. Only one teacher has ever done this. Last week, he seemed a bit agitated before Sunday School, so I was expecting to get called out of the service, but it never happened. I asked the teacher afterward how he did, and he said, "Fine. He's a delight to have in Sunday School. He just says what everyone else is thinking, but is afraid to say."

GL sits with us through the rest of the service. We sit in the back. But after Communion, (we have it every week, near the end of the service) I slip out with him, and we go ride the trolley. It's kind of a tourist thing that makes a loop around the neighborhood. No big deal, but it's cheap, and he really likes it. That gets him out of announcements and the closing hymn when he's already been as quiet and still as he gets for as long as he can stand.

Early this year, they asked us if he would like to be an acolyte. That means he would get a turn every few weeks to carry in the cross or one of the candles before the service, and carry it out at the end. The hard part for him would be sitting up front for the whole service, and postponing his trolley ride until after church. We talked it over, and decided we would try it if they would let us play it by ear, and let him come sit by us during the service, and just process in and out. Everyone was agreeable.

The first time he was scheduled to serve, I had one of the Scripture readings, so I was right behind him going in and out, and sat up front with him during the service. He wiggled a bit and asked about the trolley a few times, but on the whole it went pretty well.

Last night we had company and got to bed late. This morning, just as we got to church, we realized GL hadn't had his morning meds. MB thought I had given them. I thought she had. When we walked in, we learned that both GL and BB were scheduled to serve. Someone had forgotten to email us the schedule. With fear and trembling, we decided to let them try. Not that we were worried about BB.

They processed in and took their seats with minimal fuss. We somehow all forgot about not having him sit up front. They did fairly well in the early part of the service, although I had to slip up behind them once to remind GL to be quiet, and once to remind BB to stop telling GL to be quiet. When the Sunday School traveling music started, GL hopped up and went tearing down the aisle. No one had remembered to tell him he was supposed to stay up front, so we let it go.

He returned to the front after Sunday School. After a couple of small outbursts, ("I want to go ride the trolley." and "Stop smiling at me!") I slipped behind him to see if I could calm him. He kept talking about the trolley, but more quietly, and whenever I offered to take him, he insisted that he wanted to stay for Communion and the recessional. If you think he was too much of a distraction, note that about half of the children age 4 and under were crawling around under the chairs. He couldn't quite calm down, but he didn't want to leave, and as long as I was there, he kept it mostly under control.

So I knelt behind him, put my hand on his shoulder, and prayed. And wept. Through the rest of the service. Afterward, several people commented on how well he did. The Catechist, who is in charge of the acolytes, asked if we wanted him to continue to serve. I said that I didn't want him to be a problem, but we would like to include him as far as he was able, and that would vary from week to week. And also that he missed his meds this morning. He said, "Oh, don't worry. He was operating at a disadvantage. We're glad to have him."

Comfort and heal all those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit; give them courage and hope in their troubles, and bring them the joy of your salvation.

Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought GL did very well this morning and then I heard that he'd missed his meds and I thought he did great. Maybe I was distracted by my own kids but I didn't hear much from him at all.


May 3, 2009 at 9:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the best church we have ever been involved with. For those who misunderstood, this is to praise LoC. At times Papa Bear and I still find it hard to believe that our church family is SO accepting. Thanks to all who help make GL serving in church possible.
Mama Bear

May 4, 2009 at 7:48 AM  
Anonymous Amy Lu said...

Oh my, you've made me misty. (sniff, sniff)

Our son is also different from his peers. We've researched many things since others started having issues with him at the tender age of 2.

Autism, Aspergers, Semantic-Pragmatic Disorder, PDD, ADD, you name it.

As Mama Bear in our family, I knew in my gut that something was different, but I knew it wasn't what they were suggesting. So I dove head first into the grand world of childhood labels. And honestly, most of the time felt like I was drowning.

The straw that broke this camel's back was the day the director of Christian Education at our church called me to tell me (to add her name to the list of people) that our son is "different". He was 5 at the time. My mind was not going in that direction at the moment she called, and I resented constantly being thrown back on that track.

I hung up, and I lost it. I sat weeping at the computer, and out of desperation, called Focus on the Family's help line. The counselor I ended up with was by chance by all worldly measures, but was indeed divine intervention.

After 30 to 45 minutes on the phone, he asked a question I had never considered. "Have you ever thought that maybe your son is Gifted?"

At this point I could write a novel, chronicling the last year of our lives. But I'll spare you. Maybe I'll write about it on my own blog. But as of this last weekend (attending a conference and two workshops on the topic), after a year of researching, I think I can embrace this label and what it means for our son.

And now we can navigate the issues we are dealing with in our church....

Thanks for writing what you have.

May 4, 2009 at 10:43 AM  

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