How well do you relate to them? How well do your KIDS relate to them? Here’s the thing . . . when these kids are little, they are cute, and their “issues” are much more easily overlooked. A child born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and mental retardation, who is also on the autism spectrum, gets lots of understanding when he or she is a toddler. Believe me, I know. My oldest, “The Batman”, IS that child. He was adopted at age 2, and he isn’t a cute little toddler anymore. It’s so much harder for him now, because he KNOWS he’s different now. He regularly asks me (yet again) if his “friends” know he has these disabilities, hoping (yet again) that maybe they don’t, that somehow, he has successfully hidden it. And yes, he does try, so very hard, to act like the other kids who are teens, not really understanding that it isn’t working. He wants to be accepted so very badly, as do all kids like him, as do, in fact, all kids, whether disabled or not.
So. Do you have a kid, or kids like this in your church? Do you know how to treat them? Do your own children know how? Because if not, you need to learn how to accept them where they are, and for the person that they are, even when that means cutting them some slack if they are annoying. Most of the time, they truly do not understand that they are annoying.
If you have a family like this in your church, here are my suggestions:
- Befriend them. And I mean for real, not just in the superficial way that so often happens. Befriend them. Spend time with them. Have dinner with them. Take part in other activities with them. We’ve been fortunate enough to find friends in our church here who do want to spend time with us, people who have been to our home for dinner (on holidays, no less!), or who have had us to their homes for dinner. But, we’ve also, in years past, been part of churches where we felt very excluded.
- Learn about the disabilities their children deal with. You may find yourself surprised to discover that an awful lot of the time, what you think is bad behavior, annoying behavior, etc . . ., is directly attributed to the disability, or multiple disabilities working together against the child. I cannot even begin to tell you how many times over the years I’ve been told, either directly or in a round-about way that my child would be more pleasant to be around if I would “just discipline him more”.
- Don’t just befriend the child/children, befriend the parents. Do they ever get to go out without their children? We all know how important things like regular date nights are to a marriage, but do you realize that most couples with children like this RARELY get regular date nights? Do you know that there is a higher rate of divorce among couples with these children?
- Try harder to understand the behavior in kids like this, ESPECIALLY when they have reached the teen years and beyond. “Children with autism typically have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure activities. The disorder makes it hard for them to communicate with others and relate to the outside world. In some cases, aggressive and or self-injurious behaviors may be involved.” My son is pretty high functioning compared to many others with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, mental retardation and autism, which has been attributed to the fact that we took him out of school right after kindergarten and began homeschooling him, but even so, he still does, and always will, have serious problems when it comes to social interaction.
My child has battled these disorders for 20 years now, almost 21 years. He has problems when it comes to communication, he has difficulty with timeline, and definitely with social interaction. He is also, when you really take the trouble to get to know him, to befriend him, and help him to feel that he is safe to “be himself” with you, one of the kindest, most giving and loving people I have ever known, in my whole life. But, if he feels unsafe to “be himself”, he becomes anxious. He will pull his eyebrows out, and has, at times, pulled large patches of his hair out of his head. He doesn’t “get” social cues most of the time, and often, when someone is “joking around”, he doesn’t get that, either, and thinks they are serious. Sadly, sometimes they actually AREN’T just joking, because they themselves don’t “get it” when it comes to kids like this.
There are children like mine in many, many churches, and if they are fortunate, they are loved, accepted, and have friends. Is this the case in YOUR church? Are these kids included, loved, and treated as though they truly are your children’s friends? Are you teaching your children to be kind and caring, even if those children are “weird”? Because you do your children a disservice if you aren’t teaching them this. In all of their life, both now, and later when they are grown, your children WILL have interactions with people who are “different”. Will they be kind to them? Or will they be intolerant of the differences? Will they stand up for them? Or will they join the bullies, because they themselves fear being bullied?
I have other kids who do not have as significant disabilities as “The Batman”, and it is my goal, which I hope I’m being successful in, to make sure they are learning to help their brother, and other kids like him. To stick up for them, to befriend them, to care about them. I believe this will make a difference in THEIR lives, even later, when they are grown and on their own, which I believe some of them will be able to be. I want my less disabled children to grow up with empathy, and caring hearts.
As believers, I think we need to be aware of these things. My kids, just like all those other kids who are “different”, will never be “safe” to just be themselves in most settings, but more than anything, if you are a believer, I want you to know and understand that outside of their own home and family, the one place they should never, ever have to worry about being able to “be themselves” is when they are with their church family. Look around your church. Are there kids like this? Are they REALLY safe to be themselves? With you? With your children? With their Sunday School teachers? With ANYONE? Because they should be, and if you’re not sure you agree, then maybe you need to read more about Jesus, and how He was with children. The church isn’t just a social club. It is a family.