My daughter loves going to church. In fact, Jaycee spends part of her Saturday night picking out the right dress to wear the next morning.
“Get your Bible,” I tell her before we leave. Jaycee races to her bedroom and retrieves it quickly.
“Class. Friends,” she signs.
“Yes, you’ll see your friends in class at church,” I tell her.
On this particular Sunday, my daughter and I were both wearing dresses and captured the moment with a picture. With our outfits documented, my kids and I climbed into the car to head to church while my husband left for work.
The drive to church was ordinary as we joyfully sang along to the Christian radio station. I drove down the road to enter the church from the rear parking lot as I normally do. That’s when our problems began.
The back entrance was roped off, so I had to enter another way. The yells started from my daughter, who was mad that I didn’t make the turn she was expecting.
“We’re going to church, Jaycee. We just have to go in a different way,” I tried in vain to reassure her. As I started to make my way to the front of the church, I remembered Jaycee’s handicap placard was in our other vehicle. I only use it at church when we can’t park in our normal area, so she can see the door and be coaxed easily to go inside. We were in trouble, and I knew it.
The parking attendants waved me to closest spot near the middle of an unfamiliar parking lot all while Jaycee grunted and gestured at me to park in our usual area. She was not happy when I obeyed the parking attendant’s instructions and parked.
When I shut the car off, I tried to convince Jaycee everything was fine, and we were going to church. She was visibly upset. My daughter has Down syndrome, is minimally verbal, and loves routines. People often associate poor transitioning and difficulty with changes in routine with autism, but it can occur with other diagnoses as well.
My son exited the car with me. Jaycee remained inside. She was near tears and kept signing “church.” I opened her door, pointed to the church, and tried to talk her through what most people would consider a small change her in routine. As usual, I can’t say anything to help her adequately understand when anxiety unleashes from an unexpected change. I really regretted the dress I was wearing as sweat formed on my forehead while I squatted beside the passenger seat comforting my confused little girl.
After a few minutes, Jaycee got out of the vehicle still troubled. Disoriented from parking in a new area, she started walking the wrong direction. My stress level rose as I saw Jaycee walking into path where cars were being sent to park. She ignored my pleas to stop and continued to sign “church.” Though he’s the little brother, my son followed us trying to stop her as well.
In a short distance, I was able to get Jaycee pointed in the right direction and inside the church as she continued to voice her displeasure. I don’t know how long the whole thing took—maybe 10 minutes—but it was 10 minutes of stress for both of us. As I dropped her off at her class, I felt completely overwhelmed and wondered what in the world just happened. Jaycee had been totally confused by the whole ordeal but was glad to be in her familiar classroom. I was in no shape for a church service mentally. I was exhausted.
Then I had an honest thought. If we had this struggle every week, I would not come to church. I would avoid the stress, the struggle, and the anxiety of my child.
I’m sure there must be other families out there thinking the same thing. They don’t want to cause more stress for their child or themselves.
Avoiding church isn’t a great long-term option though. What if I did have this problem again and again with my child? What would I do? Next time, I would ask the parking attendant if I could squeeze in somewhere in “our” area of the parking lot. I’m sure he would have allowed me, but I didn’t want to be thatperson. You know, the one who asks for an accommodation for a valid reason that most people would never understand. I could have called my parents to come outside and help me. I was about one minute from doing just that. I could have asked some of the people walking inside to send out a specific person who may have been able to help. In the moment, I didn’t want to share with strangers our parking lot struggle and explain the severity of a situation that would probably seem like nonsense to a bystander. Maybe I was prideful for not asking for help. Perhaps, I was overwhelmed. But, I know I need to do things differently next time.
Some easy things are very hard things for families like mine. I hope and pray churches everywhere can respond to families with a listening ear and arms outreached ready to jump in to help. I know my church would have helped, but I didn’t ask. I was too busy reacting to the situation I was in suddenly. I’m thankful we made it inside and attended service, even if I spent the first half of it trying to calm down. I hope and pray we can all find the support we need to continue being a part of the church body.
Evana Sandusky is a God-fearing wife and mother of two children. Since becoming a parent, Evana has spent many hours driving to specialty appointments, praying beside a hospital bed, and helping her children through various issues related to their different diagnoses. When she's not engaged in motherly duties, Evana is a pediatric speech-language pathologist where she serves babies and toddlers with autism, feeding disorders, and other developmental delays. You can connect with Evana on twitter, Facebook, and her blog, A Special Purposed Life.