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Creating a place for children with special needs to belong

Finding welcome in the church.

R. L. Seaton, adoptive parent

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Our son is an adult with non-verbal autism and a mood disorder. I have used the name “Ryan” to protect his privacy, however he gave hearty permission for his story to be told so others could be encouraged.

Last spring, while dining with us after church, Ryan sat and listened as our waitress expressed some recent struggles. After she walked away, Ryan became animated. Through his limited language and our normal bout of clarifying questions, we discovered he longed for her to know about our church and the life he’d found there.

When she came by to pick up our check, we conveyed Ryan’s message: He knew a place where she would be loved. And through the love of these people, his life had been transformed by Jesus.

Overcome with emotion, she stated that although she rarely attended church, she would consider visiting.

I marveled at Ryan’s huge step of faith. Only four years ago, he’d begun attending church again after years of intense anger at God.

Frustration with church

Almost 20 years ago, my first husband and I adopted Ryan through Bethany as an older child placement. Although our only knowledge of autism at the time was the movie “Rain Man,” some extraordinary circumstances cemented within our hearts that Ryan was to be our son.

We realized some people would have reservations about our decision, but we assumed any doubts from our church body would be overcome by their love for us and Christ’s love for Ryan. After all, we were family.

However, bringing Ryan into our close-knit church family greatly stretched everyone.

A few families tried to encourage their children to interact with Ryan through play dates, but many adults and most children seemed to be caught off guard by his unusual behaviors. They did not know how to respond, so it was easier to ignore him. The church leadership feared overtaxing the church body with special resources, so they let us know we’d be “on our own.”

Many efforts on my part to change their minds failed.

Eventually we became exhausted, shadowing Ryan so he could participate in church gatherings. Sunday school and later other activities went by the wayside. Frustration gave way to anger and bitterness as I grappled with feeling cast aside. For years, I wondered if I’d asked for too much.

We only wanted to belong.

As Ryan entered puberty, homelife also deteriorated. He insisted on “my way,” and I unsuccessfully attempted to corral his way to maintain some peace and control. Our distinct desires often collided, resulting in massive eruptions. During this turbulent time, my husband became very ill and passed away.

Ryan finds healing through residential treatment

Trying to make sense of adolescence, his adoption, and finally his dad’s death, Ryan’s behaviors increased to as many as 40 incidents/day. I feared for my sanity and his well-being.

In a state of complete exhaustion and grief, I felt the best option was for Ryan to participate in a residential treatment program. The seven-month ordeal to find a place that could meet his needs was the most excruciating thing I’ve ever done. God’s love and care became my only certainty.

Ryan spent six months in a psychiatric hospital, 14 hours away by car. Our monthly visits were tense and overwhelming with our grief and baggage; but for the first time, I’d been given the tools to set necessary boundaries for building a healthy respect for one another.

After six months of progress, Ryan moved to a facility within two hours of home. Our weekly visits, though still stressful, granted us the ability to briefly come together and then step apart for a few days as we slowly learned to trust.

After four years at this facility, at the age of 21, Ryan moved to within half an hour of home, and I could visit more often.

Since Ryan’s last move, I remarried, and my husband and I spend time with Ryan each week.

At first, time together felt like training exercises in respecting proper boundaries; over time this has given way to more and more moments of enjoyment. Healing is happening, and a new family is emerging. Ryan’s needs keep him from returning home permanently as he needs 24-hour care, but we are a family and always will be.

During these excruciating years, Ryan never stepped foot in a church. He was far too angry with God for either he or I to consider it.

Ryan is finally welcomed

Not long after my new husband and I married, we began looking for a church that blended our backgrounds, so we visited one recommended by a neighbor. With our first visit, I sensed God’s presence in a way new to me, although I’d grown up in church. These people loved with abandon and expectantly proclaimed the power of Christ to change any life.

Within a year, our young church formulated a special needs ministry for children. Although Ryan was now a young adult, we knew this was a place where Ryan would be accepted. This was the opportunity we’d been praying for!

We excitedly told him we’d found a place where he’d belong and invited him to join us. At first Ryan refused, but our encouragement soon gave way to a willingness to visit. He was so welcomed and loved on his first and following Sundays; the love he experienced drew him in.

The music can be loud in our worship time, so Ryan regularly wears ear protection. He doesn’t seem to mind, as they don’t bring shame there. During his first few years at this church, we stood at the back of the sanctuary so he could pace.

Although we’d been told since he was young he didn’t understand much, we often had to take him out of the service because he’d respond vocally to the sermon. Live feed in the foyer gave us the opportunity to follow the message where Ryan could be in a quiet place.

The Holy Spirit drew Ryan through embracing love and the Word of God. Almost three years ago, Ryan asked to be baptized.
When we approached the leadership about his being baptized, they understandably questioned us to ascertain his ability to comprehend his choice. We’d seen the changes in his life over the preceding three years he’d been at the church, and we assured them he did.

The leadership, taking into consideration his needs, designed a modified baptismal celebration for him immediately following a baptism service. About 50 people attended, including friends, leadership, and visitors who decided to stay and watch.

It was beautiful, and both Ryan and visitors were deeply affected. A first-time visitor later wrote to me, letting me know how touched she and her son had been as they stood and watched. For weeks after, when asked, “Did God do something special inside you when you were baptized?” he’d grin and reply with a hearty, “Yes!”

Expect God to work

Through almost 20 years, I’ve learned much about special needs and the church:

  1. A church’s willingness to embrace our kids comes through a work of the Holy Spirit—human measures will only bring division within the body and harm to our own souls.

  2. There are churches who will embrace our kids—some with and some without special needs ministries.

  3. Any church that embraces the Gospel and expectantly extends it freely to all will embrace us and our children as well.

  4. Physical features of the church building may affect how well our children function within the church body:

    1. Is the sanctuary darkened during the service, so our kids’ behaviors won’t be as noticeable?

    2. Is there an area within the sanctuary or just outside where a child who needs to move can more easily pace?

    3. Are there video feeds of the service in other parts of the building, so if you need to leave the sanctuary your family can still hear the service?

    4. Do you find the volunteers helpful and encouraging?

God made our kids; He knows how to reach them.

Even if we’re uncertain about our children’s abilities, we should expect (and teach our kids to expect) God to work in their lives.

Ryan has found a place where he belongs, and he has met the One who satisfies a hungry soul.

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