One of the most common questions I get asked by parents of children with autism is about how to share faith with those children. As a parent, this is something that is very much on my mind as well.
However, there are no easy answers. Autism is only one of many developmental disabilities, and even within autism, there is an incredibly wide spectrum. It is as difficult to generalize about those with developmental disabilities as it is to generalize about those who are neuro-typical.
Having said that, there is something that we can say about the development of faith when it comes to all our children. Although we try to promote faith in our home and make church services a positive experience, what I have really done is trust them to God.
My prayer for all five our children, those with and without autism, is that God would reveal himself in a way that they would understand.
We are beginning to see that work out in our family.
For background, our two oldest children have autism and they are on the severe end of the spectrum. These teenagers are considered nonverbal and they live in a group home in another city. The plan is for both of them to come home for day visits every other week.
Recently we had our children home for a visit and it was getting time to take them back. Although nonverbal, our son was able to use some words to communicate to us that he wanted to stay for an overnight visit. As this was Saturday night, we warned him that this meant he had to come to church. He eagerly agreed to come to church.
Our son had not been with us to church for a couple of years. I am a pastor and at my previous church, my wife stayed home most Sundays to be with our children with autism. Our son had not been to my current church for a service, although he had attended a men’s breakfast.
When we arrived at church, our son was very eager to come in and was interested in meeting people. He gave much more eye contact than he usually does with strangers. He made some noise, but the congregation didn’t mind as we have another young man with autism who attends regularly.
Two week later, at his next visit, he once again requested coming to church. Our church only celebrates communion once a month and this was one of those Sundays. My wife and I had not talked about what that would look like.
As I was leading communion at the front of the church, my eyes were on my wife and son. My son was very present and paying attention. He was quiet and was giving me full eye contact. For the first time, my sixteen year-old son received the bread and the cup from the Lord’s table. My wife told me that our son even got teary after communion.
He had sensed something sacred in communion that many neuro-typical people never notice.
He has made it clear that he is now attending church with us every time he comes for a visit. We are even talking to him about baptism and expect to baptize him in the fall.
I’m fully aware that this precious experience is not what happens with every child with a developmental disability. It is not even the experience of our daughter.
But that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have a faith. Her autism affects her more severely than it does her brother. It has been far longer since she has joined us for church. She also has more difficulty communicating.
However, I still see God at work in her. Sometimes it is just her repetition of the line from Veggie Tales, “God made you special and he loves you very much.” That’s good theology.
My advice for parents of children with or without disabilities is to do your best and then leave them in the hands of God. God has hands big enough for all of them.
Stephen J. Bedard is a pastor at Queen Street Baptist Church, adjunct faculty with Emmanuel Bible College and Chaplain at The Lorne Scots. Stephen has his BBA from Brock University along with MDiv, MTh and MA degrees from McMaster Divinity College. He is currently completing his DMin from Acadia Divinity College. He lives with his wife Amanda in St. Catherines, Ontario. Their oldest two children have autism and live in a group home setting. We have previously featured Stephen on posts When Church Gets Loud: Insights from a Pastor, The Church, Autism and Apologetics and Ministering With Autism. Steve was a workshop presenter at Christian Horizons’ Building Communities of Belonging Conference. Feel free to check out his website at www.stephenjbedard.com, pick or up a copy of his book How to Make Your Church Autism Friendly.