It's a beautiful summer afternoon, and although the warm sunny weather entices people to spend the rest of their day outside, many of them hurry back to their church to enjoy the evening service and to fellowship with one another. Large families, newly-wed couples, sweet elderly folks, and single ones too gather in the auditorium to praise God and delve into His Word for more truth.
The service is just about to start. One family tries to slip in to the back of the balcony unnoticed, but you can't help but notice them. At first glance, they look like a "typical" church family. The mother and daughter are dressed in pretty summer dresses: one of the boys carries his little Bible and flashes a mischievous glance at his mother before darting off to their pew. Then you see that one of the children in the family doesn't seem "to fit in." His shirt is buttoned haphazardly and is on backwards. Two more brightly-colored shirttails poke out underneath, and his shoes are so trodden-down in back that they keep slipping off his feet. He is gripping a small flashlight so tightly that his knuckles are white, and he keeps asking his mother questions in a loud, somewhat robotic-sounding voice.
The pastor is now reminding the congregation of upcoming events for the church family; so you hastily return your attention to the service. You try to focus on the announcements in order not to miss anything, but a thudding in the back row distracts you. The little boy that had so attracted your attention in the first place is lying on the floor, slamming his feet into the pew and doing some strange flapping motion with his hands. His father quickly puts a stop to his pew-pounding but makes no effort to get the boy to sit in the pew like the rest of the family. Meanwhile, a lovely woman gets up on the stage to sing a special. As she begins her song of worship, the boy clamps his hands over his ears and screeches at his mother to make the noise stop. "Momma, it's hurting my ears, make it stop!" he implores. His mother attempts to shush him, and frustrated, he rolls around on the floor, chanting gibberish and being incredibly distracting. His father finally convinces him to join the rest of the family on the pew. The boy, all fifty-some pounds of him, clambers up onto his father's lap and repeatedly squeezes his father's neck while slamming his head into him. The father holds the boy tightly and patiently endures the abuse.
By this time, you are thoroughly disengaged from the service. You notice the other two children break out in a little scuffle over the hymn book, and the mother quickly and firmly deals with them both. But the boy is back down on the floor again, slapping his mother's legs and talking to himself.
Tell me, what do you think of these parents and their son?
Do you wonder why they can't control their son?
Do you judge them for being so lenient with him while so firm with his siblings?
Do you wish they had chosen to sit somewhere else, or worse yet, had not come to the service at all?
Do you wonder why they would allow their son to dress that way for church?
Do you constantly find yourself staring at him even though you know you shouldn't?
Do you whisper comments about them to the person next to you?
Do you roll your eyes?
Do you think to yourself how you would handle that rowdy boy if you were his parent?
Go ahead - admit it if it's true. I did. Before I had a child on the autism spectrum, I judged. I stared. I wished them somewhere else. I was bothered. I thought I had all the answers.
And now I am that mother in my story. I wish I could say this is an isolated incident, but it's not. It happens in one way or another nearly every Sunday night. Some weeks I just want to stay home. I don't want to muster up the sheer energy to handle my son in the extremely public setting of evening church, let alone be present and positive for my other children, too. Some weeks I feel an overwhelming sense of shame at being embarrassed of my son's behavior.
I know that a lot of it - the whispers, the comments, the judgmental looks - is imagined on my part. We are blessed and fortunate to be part of a church where many people know our Beast's struggles and show compassion and love continually. For that, I am so grateful.
But I want you to know this. That little boy is not kicking the pew to get a rise out of you or to aggravate his parents. He is overstimulated, and his body is reacting in a way he can't control. He can't be disciplined for that. While a church service may be relaxing and encouraging to you, it takes great physical effort and strength for him to get through it. He wears those funny clothes because they help him feel safe and grounded. His parents are not ignoring his behavior; they are constantly doing their best to keep him from detracting from the church service. They have had to rework "the book of parenting" in their minds and are learning to accept that it's okay for him to be on the floor sometimes. His mother in particular is learning the painful lesson that it doesn't matter whether others "get it" or not. It doesn't matter what others think of her parenting skills. She has to do what's best for her son.
So, next time you see a child flipping around on the pew, talking too loudly, pummeling his parents with his fists, or maybe even "throwing a fit," surprise his mother with a compassionate glance. Give her a smile that says, " I know this isn't easy for you." Shock her by offering to sit with him for a few minutes so that she might actually get to hear what God has for her in the service that evening.
She gets the judgmental looks and negative comments everywhere else - the mall, the grocery store, the post office, the local playground. But at church, she needs to feel loved and supported, not judged or derided. Isn't that what Christianity is all about? We need to love one another, and demonstrate to the world the love of Christ.
"Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love, in honour preferring one another." Romans 12:10