The week we officially confirmed what we knew, that our son has autism, I had a funeral for a former pastor of the church. A busy week to say the least and I should have reflected on keeping the Sabbath, but I am pretty sure I am no expert on that subject. I can tell you that the hardest part of the diagnosis, from the team of doctors who lovingly examined and tested him, was the statement, “we hope it is high functioning.” It is hard simply because it could be what is not hoped for; “functioning, or low functioning,” etc. What will that mean for our son and for us, his parents?
I did not have time to think much about that disturbing statement, and certainly did not have the time to dwell on it because of the funeral. During the family hour I was present with the family of the deceased. The room was quieting when a lovely older woman and her husband came forward to give her condolences to the daughter of the deceased. As usual I was introduced as the preacher, and I soon discovered that this woman considered the church I served her church. She talked about how she was in that church since she moved to that town with her parents. I figured she must have moved to another town, but I then heard her say they moved to another church for Billy. Well, I was pretty sure that her husband’s name was not Billy, but sometimes names go right out the other ear, something I am working on. She then said Billy is her son with Downs Syndrome.
I then shared with this woman that I just found out my son is diagnosed with Autism. They are very different of course, yet there is a similarity. I could tell she understood why I shared that with her. Of course Billy was there but as he was 46 his parents had been going to more services which had been making him very nervous, which she shared with me. Billy waited in the vestibule peeking around the corner. So I discovered that she found a Sunday School class where he felt comfortable and included at another church years ago, when he was a young adult and thus moved to that church.
A little later after she left she came back in and waved to me to come to the vestibule. She wanted to introduce her son. We had a wonderful conversation and he even shared that he was scared. I reassured him, and befriended him, as she mothered him. It was a lovely conversation.
I was reassured that my angst about the statement, “hope for high functioning,” should not hijack my life. If my son is very happy and loving in his own way, and if he is not able to function on his own, it does not mean it’s the end of the world. It means we will have a different life that is certainly centered on love. I could see in my new friends how their reality was a special reality, and it will be fine. It was wonderful to meet a pioneer of raising a person with special needs (especially in a rural area).
Yet what interested me the most is how she had to find a new church for her son with special needs. I do not know exactly why she moved her family, but I must ask the important question: how do we welcome children with special needs? My favorite example is the leadership my wife, Mindi, showed as an associate minister in a church near Boston, for there was a family that had a child with downs syndrome in her youth group. The family had been going to an open and affirming church, a church that took pride in welcoming everyone; however, the parents continually received reports that their son was a problem. They did try to work with staff and volunteers, but it became too much. I am sure that church was relieved that they went to the church my wife served. They asked after a few Sunday School Classes and Youth Group, how he was doing, which my wife assured him he was doing well and making friends. I am sure that was a gospel news to the parents. To involve the youth in the worship service Mindi would have them read scriptures. She would prepare them by making them practice. She did the same with this boy with downs syndrome, and often he would do quite well and other times his pronunciation was not clear. She did not give the assignment of the scripture that was being preached on to any youth that was not consistently clear and articulate, but she had all the youth who were willing read during a service.
At that church there were many retired ministers and professors of the seminary, and one day a professor asked Mindi, after an inarticulate reading by this boy, “There are people, including myself, that believe that it is not proper for him to read the scripture, as it ruins the worship experience. Maybe I am wrong, but...” Mindi interjected, “Yes you are wrong.” That was the end of the discussion.
“[God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (Ephesians 1:5-6) To welcome all we most see ourselves, equally as adopted siblings. We need to be the voice for those with special needs, thus I commend the professor, who spoke the prophetic words, “maybe I am wrong.” There is great joy in being wrong when it opens the door for God’s Divine Light.