One of the more memorable stories relating to this topic occurred back in 2008, when a Minnesota Catholic priest banned a child with autism from church because of unruly and even violent behavior. The case became so heated that the priest even threatened the mother with jail if the child returned. The story made national headlines and had many divided over the issue of how to deal with autistic children at church.
Churches are viewed as safe havens by their congregants and cases like these can erode trust by both believers and non-believers alike. Christians are called to be Christ-like and the love of God is to be reflected through the church body. The turning away of these children directly contradicts Jesus when He instructs adults not to impede the children from coming to Him. And throughout scripture, He displays significant compassion and love for the disabled and infirmed and churches are called to do the same.
So why are there so many incidents of children with autism and other special needs being made unwelcome or forced away from churches?
The answer could lie in the numbers.
According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, nearly 60% of all churches in the United States have less than 100 attendees on a weekly basis. The reality is that most churches are just not equipped to handle children with autism and other special needs. Small churches mean limited staff and volunteer members, which translate into a shortage of those who are able to handle children who have behavioral issues. Although this is the unfortunate reality, it’s still no excuse.
It is vital that churches and other places of worship become more accommodating to the special needs population and do whatever it takes to make families and children feel welcome. This should involve placing help wanted ads, enlisting shadows, or calling on volunteers to step up and do whatever it takes to ensure all families have a positive experience. Otherwise, like in so many other instances, families of children with autism will be left feeling isolated, rejected, and distraught. This is not what God intends and it’s time for His people to start acting more like Him and less like the rest of the world.
This begins by taking care of the "least of these" and it starts in the church.