By / May 3

If you’ve not heard the word “neurodiversity” yet, you might soon — and I trust your life will be richer for it. Neurodiversity identifies people whose brains and bodies process information differently than much of the population. 

The fall of mankind means that we live in a world where our bodies and brains don’t function perfectly. Even though that is the case, the dignity of all humans as image-bearers of our triune God should still be affirmed and celebrated within the body of Christ. So why does it feel like many of us have been waiting too long to hear the church speak to these issues in a meaningful way?

We’ve been trained to see diagnoses like ADHD, autism, dyslexia, or sensory processing disorder as purely deficit-based, measuring people negatively against a set of normal brain functions. But advocacy on the part of neurodiverse people themselves is beginning to flip the script. And fortunately, our society is beginning to see the value of people with neurological variations instead of seeing those people as problems. For Christians, this is welcomed news. We, of all people, should be able to see the beautiful way that God uses us in the midst of our challenges, difficulties, and sufferings.

Looking for love in unfamiliar places

Author, hip hop artist, Christian, and autism advocate Sho Baraka raps in a verse of Propaganda’s “I Ain’t Got An Answer” and captures the tension of life in a neurodiverse household as a parent of two sons diagnosed with autism:

It’s apparent sometimes I think I’ve failed as a parent. 
And my son having autism is rough.
But maybe he don’t speak cuz words don’t say much.

Maybe he don’t need words to communicate his love.
And sometimes his silence causes me to stumble.
It’s possible he’s a version of me that’s more humble.
And I think my child finds more joy in playin with my phone,Than playin’ on his own.
Will he shed a tear when I’m gone?
I’m wrestling with the shame of an outsider view of me,
Cause life is the spotlight on my own insecurities.
But I know his laugh, it lights up a thousand rooms.
And when he speaks to me it just like a flower blooms.

Baraka has shared publicly about how initially he didn’t want to disclose his boys’ diagnosis, wrestling with the world’s expectations of his boys and of him as a parent. Once he used his platform to share his family’s story, though, he said he received hundreds of notes from others saying he made their family feel represented.

Similarly, in his new book, Disability and the Church, Atlanta pastor Lamar Hardwick recalls a dual reaction when he shared his diagnosis and changed his Facebook page to “The Autism Pastor.” Being honest about his autism with his congregation opened the door for many families who — seeing the label — felt comfortable going to his church because they knew they would be cared for and prayed over, and that their worth would be acknowledged by “having a seat at the table.” While Hardwick says he respects people’s right to disclose or not disclose their diagnosis, he has been hurt by other Christians who indicated it would be better for him as a leader not to identify so freely as someone with autism.

Hardwick knows firsthand that “families and individuals with special needs don’t need us to rush them through the valley. They need us to walk with them slowly and deliberately . . . . Good shepherds go at a pace that works best for their flock.” 

I can attest from my own experience that the pastors who best understand my sister (who is neurodiverse) are the ones who themselves have children with disabilities. The level of patience and kindness they demonstrate is always from a place of knowing. I’ve also seen too often that such empathy is a rare commodity in the church. 

What can you do? 

If families with special needs are the most underrepresented demographic in the church, how can churches reach out to, get to know better, or shepherd neurodiverse families? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Don’t pathologize — Do some research

Neurodiversity is not one-size-fits-all and doesn’t necessarily always come with an official diagnosis. Spend time listening to neurodiverse people and reading some books on the subject.  You may be surprised to find out just how inaccurate and hurtful some ideas you have about ADHD (“That just means he’s hyper all the time”), autism (“Oh, he’s like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, right?”), dyslexia (“She’s just a slow reader”) are — let alone the pain that comes with dismissal (“Those aren’t real problems; it’s all overdiagnosed”). 

If you have a friend who has been diagnosed (or perhaps their child or a relative has), ask if they are comfortable sharing. If so, ask what things they enjoy about themselves and about neurodiversity in everyday life. Read websites from autistic people, people with ADHD, or dyslexia, and you will see that every story is unique.  

Several churches in my hometown of Chattanooga have “buddy programs” or “parents’ night out” to help make care and love for special needs families part of the regular ministry of the church. They want to be known as families who open their arms to serve others who otherwise might be overlooked, and then retain them as valued members. If Christians take the time to think through their social networks (school, neighborhood, workplace, sports leagues, etc.), they might recognize that they actually know several neurodiverse people. Are we seeking out them out for community within the body of Christ, or do we see them as an inconvenience or “high-maintenance” relationships to be avoided?

2. Support and accept them like Jesus would

When I think back to some of the trauma my sister endured in public schools in the early 1990s because of her neurodiversity and other special needs, the church was often one place my family could count on to go and have people support them. Thankfully, my sister’s behavior was not always a barrier for inclusion. Yes, she might talk your ear off about snakes, medical news, or whatever she had just learned about, and her volume might be louder than you anticipated for a conversation, but everyone knew how much she loved coming to spend time with the body of Christ every week. 

To this day, people from the churches my family has been part of still take my sister to run errands or to her various volunteering jobs because she cannot drive. Neighbors ask her to dogsit. She has tutored children at the local elementary school. She longs for a reason to get up in the morning, and Christian community is one of the few places where her dignity is actively being restored.   

3. Advocate for neurodiversity in your church 

If a member of your church is chronically misunderstood because of their behavior, don’t let others ridicule them or make jokes at their expense. If someone has an nontraditional idea or suggestion about ministry and shares it with church leadership, leaders should pause and ask themselves why they are uncomfortable with the out-of-the-box thinking or inconvenience before they say no. 

Neurodiverse people are very aware of power dynamics because too many are used to having their actions misinterpreted by those in authority. Youth leaders need to be especially vigilant and proactive about advocating for inclusion where possible by educating parents and children on issues of disability and acceptance. 

The easiest way to advocate for neurodiversity is to encounter it from an asset-based approach — ask what strengths the person brings to the church body before asking what they may lack.

Three years ago, my husband and I joined a new church to be closer to home. One of the big draws there was the wide range of neurodiversity represented in the congregation. Parents were open about their children and diagnoses, including our pastor’s son. It has been a major encouragement to see our daughter, who is diagnosed with ADHD, feel represented and understood by other parents and peers when she comes to church. This gives me hope that others will see that kind of inclusion as foundational to the church’s mission, and I pray that the Lord will give us his heart for those the world often leaves out.

By / Apr 28

Ten years ago, at my son James’s three-year well visit, I decided to be honest with his pediatrician about the delays we saw and the concerns we had. I wrote this at the time: “He doesn’t talk, but he used to. He doesn’t play with other kids. He doesn’t react when his dad gets home from work. Sometimes, even though he’s in the room, it’s like he’s not really with us.” At that appointment, she checked for skills he should have had at that point. She asked him to draw a circle. He couldn’t. He couldn’t even hold the crayon. She asked him if he was a boy or a girl. He said nothing. She asked me if he could dress himself. He couldn’t, but he did love to undress himself (a problem since he was not even close to being potty trained). At the end of that appointment, she gave me a number to call at the school district to set up an appointment for more testing.

A couple months later, my husband Lee told James to do his “best worst” as we walked into the elementary school where James would go through an official evaluation. Our prayer was that they would get an accurate picture of what he could do and not do. We met with a speech therapist, occupational therapist, and psychologist. After an hour of playing with James and asking us questions, they left the room. When they returned, the psychiatrist sat down with us while the SLP and OT went back to playing with James. She said, “Based on his testing today and our observations, we believe James has autism.”

It’s been 10 years since that diagnosis day. Ten years of therapy, special education, nights with very little sleep, diet changes, trying new medicines, and adjusting our expectations for what life should look like as we parent our 13-year-old son with level 3, profound autism. 

There have been many, many days I have echoed the prayer of Habakkuk, “How long, Lord, must I call for help and you do not listen?” (v. 2a, CSB). And although Habakkuk was praying very different prayers from what I pray now, God’s answer to him brings me hope as well: “Look at the nations and observe—be utterly astounded! For I am doing something in your days that you will not believe when you hear about it” (v. 5b). 

Look and observe. 

The progress James has made may not seem like progress to most. But when I really look and observe, I see miracles. Just this week we walked into our church’s sanctuary, James wearing his noise-reducing headphones to block out some of the sensory input, and his anxiety stayed low enough for us to say hi to friends before it was time for him to go to his class (where, because of the disability ministry our church offers, he’s able to hear the gospel message week after week in an environment where he’s comfortable). Every time he answers yes or no, every time he skips out the backdoor to swing independently, every time he practices and practices a new skill like using a spoon or drying off with a towel, I “look and observe” what God is doing in his life.    

Be utterly astounded.

As thankful as we are every time we see him gain a new skill, if James never progresses beyond where he is now, God is still at work. He’s at work not only in James’ life, but in my life, our family, and my ministry to other special-needs families. James teaches me more about God’s love for me than anyone else I’ve known. I love him because he’s my son, not because of anything he accomplishes or goals he meets. God loves me because when he sees me, he sees his Son. Even all my accomplishments fade away when compared to what Christ has done on my behalf. As Paul wrote, “Because of him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them as dung, so that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Phil. 3:8b-9a). I am “utterly astounded” by God’s love and care over us day after day. 

When I look ahead 

As we sat in that room at the elementary school 10 years ago, we couldn’t have imagined where we’d be now. Even getting an autism diagnosis only helps so much, because every autistic person is so different. There was no way to know then where we’d be today. But as I look ahead at the decades to come, I take strength from all God has done in the last 10 years. 

A refrain I see in the Old Testament is to remember and tell—remember what God has done and tell others about it—reflecting and reminding, observing and articulating. These practices, over and over again, point me to the hope I have in God through Christ. I know he will give me strength to face our next big challenge because he hasn’t failed us yet. I know he will give me wisdom to make future decisions because he’s been guiding me each day. I know he will provide for James even when I can’t because I’ve seen him do it all along. 

I turn again to Habakkuk as I reflect, and like the woman in Proverbs 31, I can “laugh at the time to come” not because I have everything figured out, but because I don’t have to. I can “take joy” because He is my strength.

. . . yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength; (Hab. 3:18-19a)

By / Apr 19

Ten years ago, we sat in child-sized chairs in a storage room/office at the elementary school across the street from where we lived in Pennsylvania and heard these words from a psychologist, “We believe your son has autism.” We had walked in that morning knowing something was different about James, and we walked out with a diagnosis, a binder of resources, and the promise someone would call with our next steps. 

I wasn’t new to the world of disability—my big sister has Down syndrome. But my experiences as a sibling and my experiences as a mom were different. Honestly, everything was different after that day. How we spent our time was different. We now had therapy appointments to go to and books to read. How we spent our money was different as we paid for behavioral therapy and occupational therapy. Our relationships with friends changed, as their kids grew and matured through stages James wouldn’t reach in the same way. Our relationships with family members changed, requiring them to adjust their plans around his needs. My plans to homeschool James changed as his preschool teacher held his hand and walked him into the big elementary school when he was just three. 

Changes to our church 

One more thing had to change—the church my husband pastored. Even though I had grown up in a church that welcomed my family and many other special needs families in our small town in Oklahoma, making accommodations and having a culture of inclusion, it hadn’t occurred to me that our church at the time of James’s diagnosis wasn’t ready to welcome special needs families. I looked around and didn’t see kids or teens on the autism spectrum, with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, or any other disability. In most school districts, 13% of their student population is in special education. But that number wasn’t reflected at our church. 

In the parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14, we hear Jesus speak of another time a portion of the community was excluded. The master of the house invited many friends and neighbors to his banquet, but they had excuses about why they couldn’t come. So he instructed his servant to “‘bring in here the poor, maimed, blind, and lame.’ ‘Master,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, and there’s still room’” (vv. 21b-22, CSB). 

The master may have looked around his home, his table, and noticed who was missing, much like I did when I looked around our sanctuary the Sunday after James’ diagnosis. Kids like James were missing. Adults like my sister were missing. And our mission was clear—invite them in, and make them welcome. Then, we’ll experience the truth of what the servant told his master—when we make room for those who need accommodations, those who are often neglected, ignored, or ostracized, we realize there is room for everyone. When James pulls up a seat at the table and joins them at the banquet—when they actually see him—the entire church culture can change in miraculous ways. 

When our church sees James, they see the image of God in him, and they learn to see the image of God in everyone they meet. We once had an older church member tell us, “I was at the grocery store and saw a boy flapping like I’ve seen James do, and I knew why!” They learn, like the disciples did in John 9, that disabilities aren’t the result of sin on the part of the parents or the person with a disability. Jesus said, “This came about so that God’s works might be displayed in him” (v. 3b). They see the work of God through the life of James, the life of every member that makes up our church body, and the life of every person they meet in our community and beyond.

When our church sees James participate in corporate worship time and group Bible study because of the accommodations we’ve made for him, they make room for other children and teens with autism, with sensory processing disorder, and with obsessive-compulsive disorder. And as they meet his needs—as they make the gospel accessible to him—they know they can meet the needs of the 6-year-old with ADHD, the 9-year-old with visual impairment, the 15-year-old with Down syndrome, the 32-year-old with social anxiety, and the 73-year-old with dementia. 

When our church sees James use his gifts to build up the body, they know they are needed and valued too. They see the truth in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 and step into their place of service, “Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different ministries, but the same Lord. And there are different activities, but the same God works all of them in each person.” They know it isn’t just the pastor on the stage or the teachers in the classrooms who are equipped to serve, but that everyone has a role. 

And when our church takes these steps, they are able to see themselves more clearly. They don’t have to say they are doing fine Sunday after Sunday, because they see that perfection isn’t a prerequisite for belonging in our church family. They see strength, perseverance, and faith lived out right in front of them, and they ask God to produce those qualities in themselves as well. They see their need for the good news of the gospel each and every day.

I’m so thankful for how our church in Pennsylvania responded to James’ needs after his diagnosis. I’m thankful for how our church here in Texas welcomed him and our family a few years ago when my husband became the pastor, and overnight they had to build a special needs ministry. I’m thankful for the churches I communicate with each week in my role as the special needs ministry consultant for the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention. And I’m praying for the day that people with disabilities have a seat at the banquet table in every church in our world and that their absence is noticed and missed. Because when my church sees James and your church sees members with disabilities, we reflect God’s purpose for the church and the beauty of heaven.     

By / Oct 17

Every church has socially awkward Christians. I parent one of them. Our son has level 1 autism, formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome. Autism Spectrum Disorder is often paired with Sensory Processing Disorder or even Giftedness. He looks and smells like your average middle schooler but he processes information in a very different way. Most people don’t realize anything is different about him until they socially interact. They may leave an interaction happy, mildly annoyed, confused, impressed, or astounded depending on what took place.  

Though time should also be made to discuss and address those with more severe disabilities and how the church should care for them, I’d like to discuss the more subtle, socially awkward or belligerent adults and children of your church family. Most people from my generation who aren’t neurotypical don’t carry around a diagnosis or vocabulary for their struggles. We can sense that something is “off,” and our natural inclination may be to avoid interacting with them. Many in the church feel ill-equipped to deal with the young child with behavior issues or the socially awkward adult, both of whom could be on the autism spectrum. Here are a few things about those with Autism Spectrum Disorder that will help you understand a little bit about them:

  • They don’t easily interpret social interactions or facial cues.
  • They may have extra sensitive nervous systems.  
  • They may have incredible capacity for knowledge and details.  
  • They may struggle to predict behavior.
  • They may struggle to regulate their emotions.
  • They function mostly from the left brain where “data” is stored.

So how can you embrace and encourage those like my son in your church and community? 

  1. Be patient. Give grace, as they are often confused. Whether it’s a social cue or a spatial issue, like being too close to other people or hanging on them, my son tells me he spends a lot of time confused about what’s expected of him. The way his nervous system processes information also causes him struggles. When he was young, just hearing a car start up in the distance would cause him to scream because his brain couldn’t interpret that the car was far away. New research is discovering that the autistic brain has more nerve synapses than is typical, so everything is felt more acutely. The world can be a threatening and confusing place for these brothers and sisters.  
  2. Be honest. Be direct. One great thing about our son is that he can handle the stone-cold truth. We can be blunt and honest with him about things, and he’s actually appreciative of the feedback.  
  3. Be aware. Pay attention. As Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, pastors, and elders, one great thing you can do for the neuroatypical is to watch for what makes them come alive. They often have special interests that feed their brain dopamine and help their worlds feel ordered. And in the midst of that, you can get a peek into the gifts Jesus gave them in the midst of the disability. 
  4. Be attuned. Joyfully connect. It’s easy to want to avoid the socially awkward person at church, but they need belonging and a people group. They need to be able to identify with the body of Christ. Conversely, respect their need for social disengagement. They may become overwhelmed easily and need to retreat from social interactions.
  5. Be intentional. They need to learn relational skills by being in relationships and social skills by interacting in various social settings. Just like the rest of us, they need to live in community, in a safe environment, where they can learn what they lack through the body of Christ. What’s more, any relational skills that weren’t absorbed from families, communities, or churches at a young age can still be learned. But it requires immersion into life with someone who has that skill. A person who has never built the skill of connecting joyfully can learn from someone who will joyfully connect with them. Or a person who doesn’t realize they are overwhelming others can learn to recognize this if they have an intentional example. And this brings with it a call for humility (Eph. 4:2).  

When intuition is missing, intention is required. And our intention is not to change behavior so that we are more comfortable. Instead, it’s to reflect Jesus so we can all grow in spiritual maturity. We aren’t trying (nor do they need us) to impart more head knowledge. Instead, our brothers and sisters need relational connection where they can deepen their understanding of their own personal relationship with Christ.   

With love and intentionality, seek to understand and build joyful relationships with those in your church family who are made differently.

In my family’s life, we have seen the love of Christ displayed through our church. They’ve helped me remember that Jesus was with me when I was carrying a screaming young boy from the auditorium during a service. I’ve seen it in the empathy and humility of Sunday School teachers who have asked for guidance on how to handle my son. I’ve heard it in the proclamation of the truth that my salvation is based on Christ’s work alone, not my ill-equipped parenting skills. And we’ve been blessed by our pastor and youth leaders as they’ve rejoiced with us in the growth that’s occurred in our son.  

We must remember that our autistic brothers and sisters in Christ are so much more than their autism. And if there’s one thing I can testify to after almost 14 years of parenting an autistic child, it is this: They can learn, but they won’t learn this from a book; they need you. So, with love and intentionality, seek to understand and build joyful relationships with those in your church family who are made differently. You will grow in the process and make a world of difference in the unique and divinely designed lives.  

By / Apr 10

Autism. It’s not an issue on your heart unless it strikes your family or someone you love. It’s not a topic on your radar unless you live with it day in and day out. It’s probably not something you think of in terms of ministry in your local church unless it affects those in your membership.

This month is Autism Awareness month, and it is an issue that every church should be aware of. 

Autism and its prevalence

Autism as a diagnosis has undergone some changes in the past year or so. In the most recent release of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the name and criteria for diagnosis of autism was changed. Classical autism, Pervasive Development Disorder NOS and Asperger’s Syndrome are now included together under the same class, called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

ASD is defined as a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction, communication and repetitive behaviors. It includes symptoms on a spectrum ranging from mild social challenges to that of more severe autistic symptoms, such as having a complete lack of speech. Its typical onset occurs around age three and continues throughout a person’s life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 68 children in multiple communities in the United States have been identified with (ASD). It is five times more common in boys than girls.

Autism and church ministry

With numbers like that it seems as though our churches should be bursting with children affected by ASD. Mine isn’t. Is your's?

Perhaps it’s because families who walk through the church door on Sunday morning with a child with ASD have different concerns. If their autistic child is highly sensitive to sounds, their child may struggle to sit in a sanctuary filled with the loud sounds of singing and musical instruments. If their child does not speak, they may be hesitant to send them to your children’s program. And if they tend to have tantrums in response to new environments and situations, this family may not walk through your doors to begin with.

But families who have children with ASD need the church. They need the support of the body of believers. They need gospel encouragement. They need to hear the preached word and be fed spiritually. They need the peace and rest that comes from being united to Christ.

So how can we serve such families?

  1. Educate Yourself: The best teachers about the issue of ASD are the parents themselves. Parents of children with ASD are used to advocating for their children. They are used to standing up for them and getting their needs met within the educational system. Ask them to teach you about ASD and what their child needs. Include them on decision making in developing programs, services and classes to meet those needs.
  2. Care for their children: The service and care that a church can offer depends greatly on its size and resources. For small churches, providing a class/nursery solely for a child with ASD may be the best option. I have attended churches where a nursery is provided for an autistic child. Trained volunteers stay with the child so their parents can attend the worship service. In larger churches, you may be able to provide an entire class for special needs children. If you have higher functioning children with ASD who are able to participate in a children’s church or Sunday school class, consider developing a “buddy system” where another helpful and responsible child is assigned to help them feel at ease and learn the ways of the classroom.
  3. Provide Respite: Parents of ASD children are tired. They are always on guard and always alert to their children’s needs. They are constantly advocating for their children. They are weary and worn and it impacts other areas of their life. Consider ways you can provide respite for these families so that the parents can go out on dates or go to needed appointments for their own needs or simply get needed rest.
  4. Consider it a ministry to your community: With the number of families impacted by ASD, it is a huge need in our communities. Consider specific ways your church can minister to those in your community. You can start by offering space for a parent support group. Make it known that you desire to help and serve such families. Parents who have children with ASD are more likely to attend a church that is aware and sensitive to the needs of their children.  

One in 68 children is a large number. Many families affected by ASD have to live life in isolation, apart from the church community. Take time today to consider how your church can create a safe and welcome relief to these families and show them that the hope and peace they have longed for and need is found in Christ.