The other day in Sunday School, my son had a substitute teacher and he turned out to be the only kid in his class that day. The teacher was able to focus all of her attention on him. She taught the lesson using felt board figures and allowed him to place each one onto the board as she told the story of Moses and the Burning Bush. When she finished the story, she laid out all the felt pieces onto the table and asked him to show her the answer rather than expecting a verbal response. He answered almost every question correctly, and the ones he didn’t answer were simply reworded in a way that made more sense to him and then correctly answered. Without hesitation he even answered the question of “how did God speak to Moses?” by simply pointing to the burning bush. Despite the wiggling, the stimming, the random noises, the jumping up and down, despite the communication barriers, my son was listening, and more importantly, he was learning.
Why is this such a big deal? My son has been considered mostly non verbal for much of his life. His communication has been limited to mostly one word requests. Although his verbal skills are now developing, they are doing so slowly and intraverabal communication (speaking about things that are not in front of him visually) are particularly hard. I have argued for years that my son takes in far more information than what he is able to spit back out, but to be perfectly honest, most people (including teachers at church) do not believe me. They assume that if a child does not speak, he does not know. If he is not sitting still, he is not paying attention. If he is not showing that he is learning, it is not worth the effort. How wrong they all are!
Churches are making this mistake over and over again all across the world. Children like my son are simply babysat and kept out of everyone else’s hair, while they concentrate their teaching efforts on more “typical” children. The message they are unintentionally giving is that children like my son aren’t as important in the church or the kingdom of God. Oh how that hurts not only these children, it is hurting their parents, it is hurting their own churches, it is hurting the other children in their classes, and oh, how it must be hurting the very One who created them. Our children’s church workers, our Sunday School teachers, our pastors, our greeters, our church board members, and each and every one of our church leaders really need to learn that EVERYONE in the church matters to God! There is not one person that God doesn’t want there, not one person who isn’t capable of learning the Gospel (no matter how abled or disabled they might be), not one person EVER who is not important in the Church and in the Kingdom of God.
If there is only one autism message that I could share with the world…. That would be it! That EVERY person, including those with autism, are spiritual beings created by God, loved by God, desired by God, and sought after by God. They need to hear the Gospel message. They need to have someone show them God’s love firsthand. They are capable of learning and participating and growing spiritually. They are capable of being a part of the Body of Christ. We have got to stop treating them like second class citizens in the Church and make it our responsibility to give them the opportunity to be a vital part. Until each and every one of us in the Church embraces this, we aren’t truly the Church at all. John 3:16 tells us that “for God so loved the WORLD,” (notice that it say the WORLD, not just the pastors, not just those who are healthy, not just the well behaved, not just those with high IQ’s, not just those who are easy to love…. the WORLD…. I don’t see any stipulations of any kind in there), “that he gave his only Son, that whosoever” (there it is again…. WHOSOEVER!), “believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” If God was willing to give his one and only Son over to death to pay the price for EVERYONE, shouldn’t we as the Church, at least be willing to adapt our methods to teach them? May God have mercy on us if we choose otherwise.