When the young woman flashed me a friendly smile and asked, “How are you?” my involuntary shrug and the words “I’ve been better,” tumbled out before I could stop myself. I could have sworn I meant to offer her the obligatory “Fine,” followed by my typical Sunday greeting smile. My veneer, however, had worn too thin to hide the stress of another morning battle with my son with autism, the young man sitting alone at a back table, head in hands. And I wondered, was I the only one feeling like the worst excuse for a parent ever?
I could feel the tears coming and made a quick exit for the nearest bathroom to keep my mascara in its place and to pray for God’s intervention in a situation I didn’t know how to fix. By the time I emerged, my son was gone. Thankfully, my husband had prompted a friend to invite him to help them cook burgers on the grill for the afternoon’s picnic. It worked. The morning was salvaged, but not the over-all problem that repeated itself every Sunday morning like clockwork.
Over the years we have struggled, not unlike other families, with or without autism, to find ways to help our son connect with God and connect with the church. But when dealing with extreme social anxiety, traditional models for discipleship and worship simply don’t work. That night we sat our son down to talk about options. He offered a compromise: attend a smaller discipleship group each week in place of the large Sunday worship gathering to escape the noise and the obligatory small talk he hated so much. Desperate times call for desperate measures. We have agreed to try it.
Often, however, the challenges my family face aren’t so different than challenges in families without disability but for the fact that our needs are more apparent. And in recognizing our needs more easily or having to admit our needs more openly, many times it may reveal something others may need but won’t admit to, or don’t realize is missing until they are confronted by those needs in another.
In the case of my son’s recent experience, his discomfort at church revealed what many of us look like we have, but actually long for: authentic, spiritual community, where discipleship born out of relationship leads to transparent, open-hearted worship.
Some have found it, praise God. Others, like me and my family, are still trying to machete a path through the status-quo jungle to find it or create it. But the blessing is this: I would never have seen our need so clearly had my son’s struggle not forced us out of our complacency. Contrary to the assumption of many, those with special needs in the Church are not just another demographic to serve or plug into a program; they are among those God has gifted with the special ability to reveal what all of us need and are called to manifest to a hurting world: a loving community.
Question: What has helped you and your special needs family experience community where spiritual growth, relationship and worship can take place?
–Kelli Ra Anderson, author of Divine Duct Tape and soon-to-be-released Life on the Spectrum
Latest posts by Kelli Ra Anderson (see all)
- Calming our Anxiety in Special Needs Parenting - August 24, 2015
- Victory in the Seeming Loss of Special Needs Advocacy - June 22, 2015
- Retreating in God’s Hands: respite for the special needs parent - May 25, 2015