Prenatal testing has changed your church

October 2, 2014

Prenatal testing is changing your congregation and the population of individuals with special needs. But before the wave hits you, I want to help you get prepared.

Why should you listen to me? In 2010, backed by McLean Bible Church and its renowned disability ministry, we opened Jill’s House. God has been amazing and, already, no one in the world provides more overnight respite to families raising children with intellectual disabilities than we do.  

But the people who showed up – and those who didn’t show up – surprised us. From our position on the front lines, I want to let you know what your church can expect so that you can do something about it.

Ministries within the church change based on needs and wants. For example, more churches have ESL classes, while fewer have sewing circles. Your church may have closed its bookstore and library but has since opened a ministry for people wrestling with porn and sexual identity. More churches are podcasting and fewer are distributing cassettes.  

When we think of people with special needs, happy children with Down syndrome come to mind. Yet, in our day and age, that’s a misleading picture that will not equip us for effective ministry. Here’s why:  

1. Fewer people with Down syndrome

The majority of families that learn that they’re having a child with Down syndrome no longer bring those kids to term. Tragically, they abort. Prenatal testing has become routine care for expecting mothers. These tests can be done at 10 weeks. When a mom receives a report that her unborn child has Down syndrome, she faces a choice: prepare for a child with a disability or abort.  

A hyperbolic friend recently told me, “The only people who have kids with Down syndrome are Christians and poor people.” Overstated? Sure. On the right track? Sadly, yes. If you are a baby conceived with Down syndrome, there is a high likelihood you will be aborted.

So there are fewer people with intellectual disabilities now? No.

2. More people with autism  

The number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder has increased by 30 percent over the last two years. In March 2014, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released new data on the prevalence of autism in the United States. The study identified one in 68 children as having autism, a drastic change from the 2012 statistic indicating one in 88 children were affected.

This combination of prenatal testing and the increase in autism diagnoses is quickly changing the disability community in America. A survey of the children we serve at Jill’s House reflects that change. When our ministry opened, we thought we’d mostly have people with Down syndrome and a handful of others. We based our staffing on this. We were mistaken.

Of the children we serve, more than 50 percent have autism, 20 percent have Down syndrome, 20 percent have other diagnoses such as a brain injury or cerebral palsy and 10 percent have other chromosomal abnormalities. Children with autism require more care. Their families come to us much wearier than other families due to the frequent meltdowns and their children’s struggles to communicate.

We’ve learned that parents raising children with autism are 60 percent more stressed than the rest of the population. Their divorce rates are 80 percent higher. Their child’s antisocial behaviors and limited ability to communicate becomes a strain on the whole family. Parents sleep less, sense a loss of control and feel isolated. Marriages crumble and siblings feel neglected. These families need our support.

Ministering to families affected by autism

If the church wants to support people and families affected by disability, it needs to create ministries suited for the next generation of people with disabilities. These struggles will be on your church’s doorstep soon. But good news: Since Jill’s House opened, we’ve learned a lot and designed amazing programs that bring God’s Kingdom to families affected by severe intellectual disabilities. God has given us some great resource.

Jill’s House now serves more than 500 families, primarily here at our center outside of Washington, D.C., but increasingly through our programs in Colorado Springs, Los Angeles, Austin and elsewhere.

What are we doing? We give families a night or two off each month. Jill’s House provides long stretches of respite, with most stays giving parents more than 40 consecutive hours “off duty.” These periods of respite involve keeping children at Jill’s House overnight so that parents can catch up on sleep and re-engage socially. We do this so that the physical rest we give will point to the true spiritual rest that can only come from Jesus.

It’s our privilege to serve these incredible parents by caring for their children in Jesus’ name. God has not given us the power to heal intellectual disability, but he has given us the resources we need to provide this life-changing service to families. As we wait for God to restore every mind and body, we will keep working until every family affected by disability—whether Down syndrome or autism—has respite within reach and access to a church that embraces them.

To learn more about Jill's House go to jillshouse.org.

If you'd like to learn more about Jill’s House OXYGEN3 weekend mission trip go to oxygen3.org. OXYGEN3 gives your team a chance to serve children with intellectual disabilities under the guidance of Jill’s House’s experienced professionals.