Autism and Church—It's a Good Thing!

Autism and church. Not always a fun combination.  

Even though our little Vineyard church family is as laid-back and accepting as they come, I came close to losing my cool in front of them last Sunday. It took every ounce of energy I had to keep from screaming or bursting into noisy tears. Can you relate?

I knew church would be difficult that day, because Joel is in the middle of a major life transition, moving from the farm community where he’s lived for five years to a home closer to Mom and Dad. His anxiety has been a little high, and he hadn't slept well the night before. I really knew we were in trouble when one of our pastors lit the Advent candles. The leadership forgot to incorporate this into the service last week so I’d hoped maybe we were going to skip the tradition this year because Joel believes his job in life is to blow out candlesImmediately!

The minute the candles were lit, Joel sat up straight and started making loud blowing noises. The candles glowed for approximately four minutes before Joel made a quick dash for the front and, you guessed it, blew out the candles.

During worship, Joel walked circles around the church. Stood directly in front of the worship band, clapped his hands and sang along. Walked back to his seat and sat for a minute or two. Jumped up and walked into the bathroom and flushed the toilet. Jumped up and walked into the bathroom and flushed the toilet again. And again. And again.

He chattered the entire time.

It’s Christmas time. Where’s Santa? It’s time for snow. Is it gonna snow? Church is over. It’s time for lunch. Let’s go home. Amen.

Thankfully, the worship band was loud enough that Joel’s chatter didn’t bother most of the congregation, but I can tell you, it bothered us! We kept leading him back to his seat, but it was impossible. Joel was hyped to the max and it was either let him roam or go home. We really wanted to stay for communion, and Wally was assigned to a healing team later in the service, so Joel circled the room several times before stopping in front of the worship band again.

The music wound down as the pastor walked forward to pray.

Joel’s voice rang out through the silence. Hey! Let’s sing “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”!

Everyone burst into laughter. Everyone but me, that is. Red-faced, I walked up front and pulled Joel back to his seat. He jumped up immediately and walked to the art corner where one of our teens, Jonathon, was drawing. Right behind Joel, I leaned down and whispered to Jonathon, “Joel just can’t seem to sit still or stop talking today.”

Jonathon grinned. “I know! It's a good thing! Joel hardly ever talks!”

For the first time that morning I actually smiled.

Parents of kids with disabilities often feel shame when their children act up in public. Shame is a big issue especially when it comes to behaviors in church. Church is a place where we're supposed to sit quietly until we're told to stand up and sing, right?

But, like Jonathon said, it’s a good thing when Joel talks. It’s a good thing that he loves to worship. And it’s a God-thing to be part of a church where people smile when Joel wanders around the room during worship. Where the pastor sometimes invites him up to sing with the microphone. Where the congregation loves him and accepts him just as he is, even on those days that verge on manic.

That's the kingdom of heaven here on earth!

Tonight in our Lectio group, our reading was Zephaniah 3:14-20. Verse 19 resonated with me, especially the words about shame:

Keep watching! At the right time,
        I will deal with those who assaulted you.
    I will steady those who are lame and about to fall;
        I will gather those who are outcasts and oppressed.
    Instead of being filled with shame as they always have been,
        I will fill them with praise and make them famous over all the world.

God promises to replace our shame with praise. He will gather the outcasts and oppressed. He exults over Joel (and me, and you, and your child!) with singing (Zephaniah 3:17). I thank Jonathon for helping me to see with new eyes on Sunday.

Autism and church—it's a good thing! Sometimes, a blessing beyond measure.