Supporting the Differently-Abled Part 2
In Honor of Autism Acceptance Month, last week we talked about how to support those on the spectrum in the nuances of social interaction in the church. This week we will take a step further than just those on the spectrum to the realm of mental health in general.
First a quick recap of why this is important :
"It is the church's call to reach out to all people; Mark 16:15, He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation."
This includes people whose minds and bodies develop differently than the "average" person. It is important that in our reaching out we support the whole person and try not to enforce our standards from a nonbiblical standpoint on our differently-abled.
Every person is unique. Everyone, Autistic or not, is different from each other which means what reaches one person isn't guaranteed to be the same for another."
Let me say it again:
What reaches one person isn't guaranteed to be the same for another.
Youth groups are the biggest source of outcasting the differently-abled, this isn't usually intentional but can make a huge impression on the children/young adults involved.
When you think of Youth Group you think of live music, interactive sermons, maybe even lights set up to catch their attention. This is great! The church is reaching out to the younger generation but as with everything, it comes with a cost.
Some on the Autistic Spectrum (plus all the people out there with claustrophobia or PTSD etc.) cannot handle crowds and feel left out needing to stay near their seats during worship or risking a panic attack by joining the crowd.
Students with Epilepsy literally cannot attend worship service for fear of strobe lights or spinning color patterns. Asking a Youth Group or big event to turn them off just for their attendance can lead to bitterness from other students and a feeling of unwantedness if they are denied their request. My eldest daughter has issues with Epilepsy and Migraines and would wear a scarf over her eyes to attend our yearly state Youth Conference. This wasn't always the greatest solution because in a crowd of people she would feel unsafe and unbalanced and even though she could not see she could feel people staring and judging.
It is really important, especially at a young age, that everyone feels included and accepted into the body of Christ. Don't lose the attention and attendance of your dozens of other students but make sure those students and your workers have open arms to the differently-abled. Even if it's just a safe place to sit nearby where they will not be judged for sitting out and a friend (same age or a church worker) to come to tell them when it's safe to join the group. Remind the congregation that just because someone's worship looks a little different than yours it doesn't change them in the eyes of God.
How do we balance this double-edged sword so all feel included? The church building and organization can't. It's up to The Church, big "C" as in the people of God, to reach out to those who can't participate in the same way. Schedule a sensory-friendly service every now and then or if your church (little "c") can afford renovations set aside a room where those who need it can step aside and be safe from sensory issues while still hearing the service. If you can't afford the renovations find a volunteer to do a smaller bible-study recapping that week's sermon with those who missed the service due to medical issues. This could be in a spare classroom in the church or at a retirement home or even their own home.
None of those things will happen if the Church doesn't take the time to look beyond themselves and reach out because "Acceptance is an Action." We must grow together as a body of Christ leaving no one behind us due to our own judgments.