Autism and a Gracious Response

It was a Sunday evening I will never forget. Letting my child be in his Bible class without checking on him throughout the night proved harder than expected. Sitting in the adult service, tempted to walk down his hallway to peek in the classroom, I resigned myself to maintaining boundaries with those helping my child. I kept my phone close, checking constantly for text messages, but none were sent. When the service ended I thought to myself with relief, maybe this was the best night he has ever had.

There was so much I did not know. My son refused to come in from the playground after their outside activity. His teacher, a personal friend, had the entire 5 and 6-year-old class without the aid of a helper that evening. Left with the impossible dilemma of either leaving her entire class unattended in the building or one child on the playground without a fence, she opted to physically bring in my child. There was no way anyone could call it “forcibly,” yet for his own safety it was all she knew to do. My son struck her with his fist – more than once – all while I was glancing back and forth at my phone in the auditorium.

She absorbed the physical response of my son that evening, and we all learned that physically restraining him made him feel threatened. I also learned the amount of shame I could hold in my heart before it spilled over. My son had only hit one person ever, so I never thought to mention it to anyone.

I felt terrible it had happened. (Even writing this story a year and a half later still makes me well up with tears.) He felt sorry for it later that evening and gave a tearful apology. He was met with such love and grace from her. I fell apart in the arms of the person who had been hurt by my child, and the love of Christ was extended to me. She allowed me to say what was in my heart and ask these tough questions while she cried with me and avoided answering me too quickly:

His world is getting smaller and smaller, and as his does, mine does too;

If he doesn’t belong at church, what am I gonna do?

Is there a place for him here…will he ever know Jesus?

How can people judge me for a behavior I cannot change or control in my child?

Hearing other’s stories of how churches have responded negatively to their child for far less than what my child did, I feel beyond grateful for this one teacher who pushed beyond her own reaction to show my child (and me) great love. She could have told everyone what he did. She could have told me that I was never allowed to leave my child in any class again. She could have said, “I don’t care if he has Autism…he just cannot act like that!” …but she chose a different path!

Now, I am closely involved with my son’s teachers and caretakers – not in the I-hope-he-has-a-good-night way of the past, but an intentional, helpful involvement where we look at his needs together now and in the future. It includes me being honest about whether my child should be in certain activities or classes. It demands I assess trigger activities and creatively find alternatives for him. It requires me to hear difficult reports and say things clearly to those who willingly, voluntarily serve my son. Perhaps most importantly it necessitates I view every situation with discernment (for those rare moments that I need to be confrontational with teachers and parents who are not trying) and more often grace (remembering I too am in constant need of it)!

My heart was broken to pieces that night. This single event, however, spring-boarded new plans for our children with needs, new procedures and considerations for our teachers and helpers, and new ways to advocate, aid, and be a front-liner as a parent. Most importantly, it set the precedent that whatever we face in developing and executing Special Needs ministry, we will do whatever it takes to meet the needs of families and children and to show grace in all decisions and shortcomings. If my son’s teacher had responded with harshness and judgment (like she was entitled to feel), we might have felt so defeated we would no longer allow our child to participate anymore; we might not have started the Buddies Ministry at our church; the teacher and I might have entirely lost our friendship and ministry together. Who knows the blessings we would have forfeited if my son’s teacher had responded any other way? As a result, I want to show that kind of grace to others!

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, Who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NIV)

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