Going to Church with My Autistic Brother

If you’ve met my brother, right off the bat you would recognize, the guy is just different.  He doesn’t look normal and he doesn’t act normal.  He stands out.  He is weird to say the least.  It’s noticeable right away.

My brother is severely autistic.

I won’t lie, growing up with Kelly was sometimes a challenge.  He was my older brother, yet at the same time he was my younger brother.  He needed constant attention and oftentimes did things that would be seen as an embarrassment by most standards.  Among my friends and peers he was made fun of and mocked.  His autism would cause him to develop certain fixations that were, and still are, irritating and annoying.  What was worse is that he could not pick up on this.  Catching social cues is just not his thing.

Yet, I deeply love my brother, autism and all.  How did I get used to all these things?  I just did.  It was my life, it simply became what I was accustomed to.  He’s my brother.  For all of his annoying traits, there are many more enduring ones as well.  As someone whose mental development will never be complete, Kelly is in a sort of constant sate of child-likeness.  It’s fascinating to see just what fascinates him.  It’s great to see what delights him and lights up his face.  He’s someone who is constantly learning and I continue to be amazed at what he remembers and picks up.  To this day I still enjoy watching Sesame Street with him, spelling out words together and repeating various lines of dialogue from TV game shows he loves to watch.  He has the curiosity of a cat and loves to play silly little games.  And boy is that guy ticklish!

As much as I love my brother, let’s be honest, you expect that from me.  I’m his brother.  How cruel would it be for me of all people to look at him as weird?  But, that is exactly how most other people see him.  He’s different.  He’s a retard who acts strange.  Let’s keep the kids away from him just in case…  Let’s not be rude, and let’s not be rude from a safe distance away…  It’s always been difficult and awkward during those times when Kelly has to interact with others or even when we go out in public.  I notice the looks he gets and I think he does as well.

I would love to say that such experiences and attitudes were confined to merely secular confines, but I can’t.  My father brought Kelly and I to church every week.  Yes, every week.  And even there we got the looks and the awkwardness was plain for all to see.  Even the church leadership didn’t quite know how to handle my brother at first.  It took years for the church to finally be accepting of my brother and his disability.

With all of this in mind, I thought I would share a few thoughts about how to interact with children and families with such disabilities.  I am neither a doctor nor any sort of expert.  I am not a pastor, professional theologian or scholar by any stretch of the imagination.  I’m just a guy who grew up with an autistic brother.

(1)   Show Understanding toward Parents.  I cannot stress this enough.  My dad would be the first to admit that he made many mistakes in raising his two boys.  But, all fathers do.  But parents of disabled children need not merely sympathy, but good dose of understanding.  We all get embarrassed at the kids who act out in church or cause a seen.  Sometimes our first reaction is to criticize the parenting of that young hellion.  If they’d only teach that kid some discipline…  That kid just needs a good swat on the behind…  Come on, you know you’ve said it before – just not out loud.  But embarrassing scenes become common in these families but they never become less embarrassing as lots of misunderstanding looks are thrown in their direction.  I still remember the first signs of encouragement our church showed us.  It was a Sunday morning service and Kelly was acting up again.  The service was going a little too long and Kelly was ready to hit the road.  In his way he decided to let us know he was not happy.  So as his temper tantrum began erupting we did what we always did, got up and left as quickly as possible.  But this time, as my dad was leaving his pew, a woman in front us turned around and whispered with a smile, “It’s ok, Jim, we understand.”  That one little comment went a long way to a single, unemployed father at his wits end.  Reach out to these parents.  Don’t let the awkwardness of the situation prevent you from sharing the love of Christ with someone in desperate need of it.

(2)  Don’t Ignore the Child.  This is probably the most difficult to do.  It’s easy to love the little child or new born baby, buts it hard to communicate with someone who may not be listening or even understand what you are trying to say.  This will take work and effort.  But, the worst thing you could do is simply ignore the child.  Again, my brother is not entirely aware of the world around him, but I’m certain at times he is aware of the reaction of others.   In my brother’s case, there are two incidents that come to mind when discussing this particular point.  First, there was a black bald man in our congregation who broke through to my brother in a remarkable way.  Kelly, not having the social graces to know better, was fascinating with this tall man with no hair and a different skin color than his.  The other gentleman couldn’t help but notice.  Instead of being offended at this, this guy would actually let Kelly rub his head!  It was the oddest thing.  But, eventually Kelly began to look forward to it.  Every Sunday as the piano played and everyone else was shaking hand with each other, my brother would be rubbing this guy’s bald head and enjoying every second of it.  That not only went a long way with Kelly, but also with our whole family.  It was a sign of respect and acceptance.  It also was a signal to the rest of the church that Kelly could be dealt with.  The other scene that comes to mind was that of an older Assistant Pastor who served in our church.  Every Sunday this man would greet my brother, shake his hand, and give him a little piece of hard candy.  It wasn’t a huge gesture, but it meant a lot to Kelly.  He would look forward to it every Sunday.

(3)  Remember such people are not obstacles to ministry but should be the objects of ministry.  I recall a man in a church I once had contact with who had some sort of mental disability that was caused by some sort of trauma in his childhood.  The man was living in a home where he could be monitored but came to church faithfully every week.  You knew he was there because of the smell he brought with him.  His clothes were often dirty and his hygiene was not what it should have been.  Sadly, some saw him as merely an obstacle in the way of ministering to others.  His stench may drive others away.  Yet, these people failed to seem as an object of ministry.  Yet a friend of mine thought differently.  Faithfully he would make sure this guy was picked up for church each week and even stopped in on him from time to time to help out.  Sometimes we think of how to minimize the effect disabled people have from ministering to others and forgetting they are called to minister to them as well.

(4)  These are people made in the image of God, not mistakes.  In our arrogance, we often look down on the disabled with a sense of pity.  It’s too bad they’re that way…  My brother was not a mistake or accident.  My brother was born with autism because a Sovereign God declared it to be so. God did not make a mistake.  While I understand all disability and physical imperfections are the results of the Fall, my brother is still a part of God’s plan.  You bare the scars of Eden as well.  Your scars may just be more common…

(5)  Sometimes there’s no glory but lots of love.  Here’s what I mean by this – you will not always “break through.”  As a teacher, I love to watch movies about those exceptional teachers who find some way to reach their students and somehow get through to the rejects that everyone else gave up on.  When working with the disabled, that doesn’t always happen.  My brother will never understand the message of the gospel (though as a young child I got him to repeat the sinner’s prayer many times).  It’s not a matter of trying to break through the barriers and reach him on his level.  His mental capacity for such things just isn’t there.  He may not even learn to appreciate all the things that are done for him by others who make great sacrifices to do so.  He can be very demanding.  The payback isn’t much.  But, it’s a labor of love.  There’s no real reward.  This is real ministry.  So why do it if he’s not going to understand it?  Because he needs love too… He’s one of the “least of these” Jesus spoke of in the gospels.  Christ often reached out to those who would never accept His offer of love.  The only reason why some of us have embraced his plan of salvation is through the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.    By nature we are children of wrath warring against our Creator.  Our ministry to the disabled is a wonderful picture of the gospel.

(6) Grace is needed all around.  My temptation here is to sound like the guy who’s got it all figured out.  I don’t have it all figured out.  In fact, I’ve failed in this respect many times.  As much as I want people to be accepting of my brother, I’ve not been accepting of others I know who have similar disabilities.  In fact, I am probably guilty of gross hypocrisy when it comes to this issue.  (Ok, so strike the word “probably”)  I give the weird looks and have sought to purposefully keep my distance from these “weird” folks.  So, let me conclude this little blog post with a sense of understanding.  I understand how difficult, awkward and just plain difficult this whole subject is for people who don’t live with this on a regular basis.  Just as you may need to seek my forgiveness, I know I need to seek yours.  But, let’s also pray that this doesn’t end with merely forgiveness or a resolution to do better.  Let’s ask the Lord to break out hearts for the outcast s He loves so much.

Well, those are just a few thoughts off the top of my head.  I’m sure others have delved deeper into this topic than I have.  I also fear because I am posting this late at night without my wife’s wonderful editing… I hope this at least makes some sense.  I just thought maybe someone would read this and starting thinking about it a little more.

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