A few weeks ago, my 6-year-old daughter, Elle, drew all over her forehead with a marker. As her class was walking down the school hallway, the vice principal pulled her out of line and, pointing to her forehead, asked her, “What’s all this?” Elle looked at him for a moment, then stuck her finger in his belly and said, “What’s all this?” As Mr. Pratt, the vice principal, told us this story later that day, he walked off muttering about his need to go home and do some crunches that night.
Elle has autism. She always says what she thinks. If you don’t want to know how she really feels about something, you’d be better off not asking. To say Elle makes life more interesting would be putting it mildly.
In the United States today, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that 1 out of every 88 kids has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASDs include “classic” autism, Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder. In lay terms, it includes kids you may simply find to be somewhat quirky or odd, ranging to kids who have serious social disorders. That 1 in 88 number is 78 percent higher than it was only one decade ago. There’s fierce debate as to whether autism is occurring more frequently now than it did in the past or if it’s simply being diagnosed more accurately. Regardless, it results in a sizable segment of children today—and then, of course, there are many other special needs besides those within the autism spectrum.
So what, if any, obligations do Christians have to those with special needs? And what can we do to help?
To answer the first question, the central story of Christianity is of the strong helping the weak. A great, all-powerful God was willing to live amongst the flawed, imperfect people whom He loved in order to lift them up. Jesus chose to surround Himself with people who were not the academic or social cream of the crop. People who were “not good enough” were always welcome to Him. If we choose to ignore those who seem to be broken in some way, we quickly become the servant who, being forgiven a great debt, refused to show mercy for a small one.
Perhaps we look at the fact that when Jesus encountered somebody who was mute or exhibiting drastic behavior, He always ends up casting a demon out of that person and we wonder whether people with mental issues today have a physical issue (like a chemical imbalance or neurological disorder) or if Satan has a hand in it somehow.
I don’t know whether mental disorders are caused by the Devil, genetic devolution stemming from the fall of man, manmade chemicals and materials, or gamma rays from the planet Omicron Persei 8. What I do believe is we are to follow in the footsteps of Jesus; we must do whatever we can in order to help people in need—which includes those with special needs.
Here are some thoughts that can help prepare you to bring hope and encouragement to people who are fighting to connect with a world that can seem foreign and alien at times.
Isolation leads to depression
Because those with special needs frequently struggle with communication or the ability to interact socially, they can feel isolated, and this isolation can lead to depression. One of the more famous champions of autism, Temple Grandin, has said, “I would not be here now if I did not have anti-depressants.”
Make an effort to interact with people who seem to be different at church, in your workplace or in your neighborhood. People with special needs have frequently been kept apart from the majority of their peers, put in separate classes, treated differently. Church, in particular, affords a chance to stand equally before a God who created us all. Being willing to accept people who don’t necessarily “behave appropriately” all of the time opens us to the possibility of making connections with people who desperately need them.
Kids and teens are the most vulnerable
Special needs adults frequently have the ability to lead lives of varying independence, thanks to coping mechanisms they are able to put in place. They generally know their limits and put together a routine that allows them to process what life sends their way.
Kids and teens don’t have the life experience to manage what’s coming at them in the same capacity adults do. Special needs kids also frequently have trouble with communication, which compounds any issues they may have. I’ll never forget my daughter at 4 years old trying to talk to my wife and me but being unable to and simply breaking down and sobbing.
The first rule of interacting with special needs kids is to start by interacting with their parents. The parents can help you ensure you’re interacting with their child in a positive, meaningful way. Shouting a greeting and hugging a special needs kid could be a disaster. Many kids with an ASD have sensory issues (that is, trouble processing outside stimulus), so shouting would actually hurt their ears; many also have an aversion to physical touch, so a hug would upset them; and many have anxiety problems, so a stranger approaching them would put them in a great deal of fear. You could set a child off for the rest of the day despite your best intentions. Let the parents tell you what their child is and is not capable of handling. Take your cues from them.
Refuse to be condescending
Not everything a specials needs person does should be commended, just as we don’t commend everything done by a person without special needs.
Somebody who has trouble with verbal ticks (making sounds when you’re supposed to be quiet) or needs to handle sensory issues perhaps by getting up and walking around at an unusual time or using a handheld stress ball—or in the case of a kid, needing to be squeezed or play with toys—should not need to be glared at or thought less of in a group setting for being somewhat disruptive. But if somebody begins to cross over from acting out of their disability to acting out of disregard for others, it’s OK to address it.
For instance, if somebody with special needs brings a tambourine to church and plays it loudly out of time in the congregation, we do not need to say, “Bless his heart, let’s just encourage him as he praises!” Instead, we should invite them to the band practices or maybe offer to give lessons, asking that the tambourine playing doesn’t occur in the midst of a service until the music leader gives the OK. In some areas, giving a person with special needs the same standard as everybody else is the highest form of respect. We must know the difference.
Obviously, special needs vary from person to person. It wouldn’t be possible to write a comprehensive guide even on how to interact with only those who have an ASD. However, it is my hope we all see the need to make the effort. Interacting with people who need more grace and patience than others doesn’t only lift them up; it lifts us up as well. The compassion we learn by interacting with people who have special needs, the strength we see in them by refusing to let the world crush them despite their disadvantages, the ability to see the divine imprint even in a “broken” vessel—this deepens and strengthens our faith. And as we stretch out our hands to those who are weaker than us, I believe we can and will receive the same treatment from the One who is greater than us all.
In addition to being the youth minister at Christ’s Community Worship Center in Columbia, Md., Thomas Christianson is an adjunct professor of religious studies and philosophy at Stevenson University. He has a master’s degree in practical theology from Regent University and blogs at www.thomaschristianson.com.