Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Church With the Special Needs Child

Amanda Broadfoot
www.lifeisaspectrum.com

We found a church today. At least, I'm pretty sure we have. We've been looking for a while, and talk about finding something right under your nose: We ended up at the same place where we've been attending Kindermusik every Wednesday night for the past five months, Good Samaritan United Methodist.

Dave went to the nursery with Billy and Willow to help ease Billy into his new surroundings. We explained to the nursery staff that Billy is autistic, and they were all just wonderful. After an initial, brief meltdown over the sight of Mama high-tailin' it to the grownups' room, Billy apparently settled in very nicely. At coloring time, he helpfully shared his orange crayon with everyone -- whether or not they wanted a bit of orange on their drawing -- and serenaded the whole class with a couple of verses of "Jesus Loves Me."

I got a glorious hour to sit in a beautiful room, sing beautiful music, pray quietly, and ponder philosophical and spiritual points. It felt downright luxurious. Like a spa for Mama's soul.

There was a time when I took going to church for granted. I grew up in church with a tight-knit group of friends who went on trips together, put on plays, occasionally behaved badly and yet, were ultimately baptized into a family that was more than the sum of its parts. Church was fun -- and yes, uplifting and spiritually rewarding -- but when you're a kid, the fun is what gets you there. I always wanted my children to have the same opportunity.

When we moved to Tallahassee, we started looking for a church to call home. One of our first stops looked very promising: It was known for its extensive children's program, which was a priority to me. For a couple of Sundays, we attended, with Dave taking Billy to children's church -- a much more structured environment than Billy was used to. During the Bible story, Billy's echolalia (repetitive talking) continued. He was overwhelmed by all the new people and the number of structured activities; each small group quickly changed from one station to the next activity every few minutes. And he melted down.

But Dave reported to me that he was able to get it under control, and felt that, with a little time, Billy would settle into the routine.

The next Sunday, though, the teacher made it clear to Dave that Billy was too disruptive to the rest of the class, so instead Dave ended up taking Billy outside to play. When Dave told me what happened, I was upset. I wrote an email to the head of education, and probably got a bit high and mighty in my quoting of the Bible and Jesus' words about, "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me," plus waxing poetic about how the church was supposed to be God's house and no one, certainly not a child, should be turned away.

I felt genuinely mortified about five minutes after I sent that email. But then the phone rang; it was the head of education, and my mortification couldn't come close to matching hers, she said. She couldn't have been nicer. She explained that Sunday school teachers were volunteers and they weren't always equipped or trained to handle special needs. I assured her I understood, and the last thing we wanted was to ruin any other child's experience at church. I had thought we were really making headway. Next time, I promised, I would attend with Billy; I would take him out at the first sign of a meltdown. And somewhat reluctantly, I agreed to teach him his Sunday school lesson by ourselves, in the hallway, so  his echolalia wouldn't disturb the other kids' lesson.

Then, before we hung up, she said something that completely changed my mind. "Of course," she said, "I still can't promise you it's going to work."

You can't promise me it's going to work? If it doesn't, then what? We get expelled from church? Really? Ah, just forget it.

Compare that with the response I got from a gentleman at Good Samaritan today: "If we're doing our job right as a church," he said kindly, "you and your son will always feel at home here. No matter what." I admit it: I burst into hysterical tears. Great impression on the new congregation: Mascara smearing everywhere. I tried to talk, to say, "I'm not usually like this," (though if you know me, you know that I actually am just like that, and lied to my new church), while snorting and wiping my nose. Lovely.

Everyone was so kind. The pastor even said that she had just this week spoken to someone about starting a special needs Sunday school. I assured her there was a need. I'm sure there are plenty of families with special kids who could use the spiritual support of a church family -- not to mention an hour of real, literal peace.

If you attend a house of worship, I'd really love to know how it handles kids with special needs. If you don't know, could you do me a favor and ask someone? I have a couple of reasons for asking this favor: First of all, I'm curious about the various ways this is handled and looking for ideas. Secondly, I think that the more people ask this question, the more likely the issue is to be addressed.

I know most places probably haven't addressed the issue simply because they don't have any special needs kids in their congregation. But that's one of those chicken-egg scenarios. Maybe there aren't any families with special needs in the congregation because attending is just too hard for them.

Again, I'm not trying to give financially- and manpower-strapped churches, synagogues, and their ever-dedicated volunteers a hard time. Not in the slightest. If anything, most of us parents of developmentally challenged children really wish our kids could fit right in, without any special accommodations whatsoever. I hate the idea that anybody would think we expect them to remake Sunday school for Billy -- but would it be OK if he just walked around during story time, while listening, rather than having to sit perfectly still? We'll go with him. We'll keep him from dismantling the carefully put-together Lego Noah's ark and try to keep his singing contextually appropriate (he's just as likely to launch into "The Gambler" as "Jesus Loves Me").

Because let's face it: When it comes to spiritual growth, we all have special needs sometimes.

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This essay was originally published at www.lifeisaspectrum.com.