It’s a powerful word. Most of us have some experience with church. Most of us have expectations about what church means, how it sounds, what it looks like, who should (or maybe some think shouldn’t) be there. Pastor, preacher, priest, the music, the message, the crying babies, the hands in the air, the sitting, the standing, the interesting outfits and sometimes more interesting hairdos, the sleepers, the clock watchers, the litany, the liturgy, the sermon, the communion, the mass, the scripture, the bathroom breaks, the hymns, the call to the altar.
So far, I’ve never heard anybody mention the autism.
CJ and church. It’s an interesting combination. Not the first place you’d think of, or the first choice you might make when figuring out how he should spend a Sunday morning. Think about it. A church experience makes sense to you because you’ve been exposed to it and you understand the reasons behind it. But any religious service is going to be a strange, confused event to someone from another religion or culture. Now imagine what it must seem like to someone with autism…another planet. It’s a weekly trip to sensory overloaded irrationality.
It’s required patience, persistence and occasionally a change of church to get us to where we are today. When CJ was a toddler, we were asked not to bring him to the nursery of the church where we attended at the time. They just weren’t equipped to handle him in there. Of course, I wasn’t equipped to handle him in the main service either. But, we are determined church-goers, so keeping him at home really wasn’t an option for us as someone would have had to consistently miss church. So we gritted our teeth and prepared ourselves to be the inevitable center of attention and let the chips fall where they might.
I have done an informal poll. It seems that most organized religious groups are pretty tolerant of this sort of thing. They are glad you’re there. They usually want to help. They just have no idea what to do.
I know the feeling.
CJ has grown to enjoy church, something I never would have expected. It’s not always easy for him to contain or control himself, but he seems willing to put up with our expectations that he sit in one place and keep the comments to himself as best he can. In return, he gets the worship music.
You’d have to see CJ during worship. There is no way to describe it with words. We attend a “contemporary” service (drum set, guitars, etc). He knows most of the songs by now from church and from the radio. The music starts, and so does he. He starts out slow. Soon, he may sway side to side. He’ll usually sing, and he’s always off by a beat and behind by a word. If you stop listening to the congregation and start listening to him, it will screw with your brain, and I’ve seen it happen to the people around him. If the song is a lively one, he will start raising his hands. While there are some people at our church who raise a hand or two quietly in a moment of great communion, we’re not exactly a Pentecostal hotbed of hosannas and hand waving. CJ did not get this memo. If he’s moved enough to put his hands up, he’s going to wave down showers of blessings even if it clears out the pews around us. And if it is a particularly inspiring song for him, he will start dancing. David danced before the Lord, and so does CJ. Sometimes, I’m tempted to hand him a tambourine, just to see what would happen.
Our musicians are known as “the Worship Team,” and whether they like it or not, CJ is their biggest fan. If they ever go out on tour, I’ll have to buy front row tickets. When they gear up to deliver the musical message, CJ has been known to yell out “Hit it!!,” more than once. To their credit, The Worship Team doesn’t usually react. Once or twice I have seen them caught off guard and someone will crack a smile.
Nothing will ever beat Easter Sunday a couple of years ago. It was standing room only in the church, as Easter often is. Halfway through the service, I looked over and CJ was literally dancing in the aisle.
I have asked other parents of kids with autism. Most have had at least one negative experience with a church. Of course, churches are filled with imperfect humans. We once had the minister of a different church we were members of at the time make a comment in the middle of the sermon about the occasional noises CJ was making. (In his defense, he did call me to apologize later.) But most of those parents have had wonderful experiences in churches, too. My friend’s nonverbal son was even allowed to have his Bar Mitzvah.
I’ve learned now to look for and expect the best from the people in our church, and to forget the sour notes. As soon as we are sure that we have scared someone new away, or annoyed an older person, those same people come up to us after the service and tell us how much they enjoy watching him. OK. If you’re going to take something on faith, where better?
My comment to the poor bewildered new people sitting around us is always, “There is no extra charge for the additional entertainment.”
Most leave with an extra smile.