Why Christians Need to Care About Autism

What responsibility do believers have for those with special needs?

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.

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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.

Top Comments

Autism Lighthouse

1

Autism Lighthouse commented…

Great article. I know there is a tremendous need for people with autism to be reached out to; however, I think that a lot of Christians do not understand how to really connect with someone who has autism. Also, I would really like to see more churches with ministries designed to reach out to children with autism. In my area, there are only a handful of churches with special needs ministries.

82 Comments

86,539

guest commented…

I'd have to disagree with your comment as well. Savants aside many show signs of very high intellectual skills and capabilities. For example, many people with ASD have the ability remember and memorizethings that are important to them that is far beyond our capabilities, and this is just one of the several things they are capable of that goes beyond what most are capable of.

86,539

Ash commented…

This is an interesting article but let's not forget the importance of person first language. These are not special needs kids we are talking about. These are KIDS with special needs. They are people first. Its important!

Adam

12

Adam commented…

my question is this: how would God judge a person with autism, more specifically Asperger's syndrome? even though someone with asperger's usually has average or above average intelligence and understands the gospel and the fact that he wants to worship God and be a good christian, but since people with asperger's can't socialize or communicate efficiently with others to share or grow themselves in the faith, will God judge them more lightly than say the average, normal human being?

and i'm speaking primarily teenagers and adults with asperger's here, they can try and try to be a christian but what if they can't progress or get past a certain threshold or barrier because of their disorder, or the inability to see their own shortcomings and usually don't have a clue on how to fix or rise above them. .i'm thinking christian counseling may be one avenue these people could look towards for help. .??

Autism Lighthouse

1

Autism Lighthouse commented…

Great article. I know there is a tremendous need for people with autism to be reached out to; however, I think that a lot of Christians do not understand how to really connect with someone who has autism. Also, I would really like to see more churches with ministries designed to reach out to children with autism. In my area, there are only a handful of churches with special needs ministries.

Amanda

1

Amanda commented…

I'm always excited to see Christians paying any attention whatsoever to autistic people. Being autistic myself, I want to make a few comments.
First, autistic people do not see ourselves as a tragedy. Autism is part of who we are, just like introversion or extraversion is part of who you are. There are some very challenging parts of it, and we do need help and support for those, but we often value the gifts we received along with our autism. (This didn't seem to be explicitly addressed)
Second, on the statement that kids and teens need special attention, I disagree completely. Kids and teens need help and attention, but in reality most of the verbal kids I know with autism function better than I do, and I'm in my 30s. I may have years of experience on them, but I've received virtually no support while they've received support for years. And that support generally started before they experienced years of inexplicable social torment.
Third, many of the most meaningful actions just take awareness of sensory sensitivities. Ask about lighting or sound sensitivities. Always ask before touching. Any of these things can be painful or extremely uncomfortable to a person with autism.
Fourth, I think the main issue the church has with autism is not so much the support offered or withheld but the messages sent about what God thinks of autistics. This leads many autistics away from Jesus since He is portrayed as being unaccepting.

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