Project HELP Mental Health ASD families churches
Compassion Ministries

Experiences with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Encouragement for Families and Churches

More than three decades ago, my adorable, precocious, and behaviorally challenging young son was diagnosed with autism. Although autism was a fairly uncommon diagnosis in 1989, the National Alliance of Mental Illness currently reports that an average of one in every 59 eight-year-old children in the United States has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with boys being four times more likely to develop it than girls.

ASD is a developmental condition that affects a person’s ability to socialize and communicate with others. Autistic individuals can also have restricted and/or repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. The term spectrum refers to the degree in which the symptoms, behaviors, and severity differ between individuals.

While hearing Brock’s diagnosis was heartbreaking, and we faced many resulting challenges as a family, Brock is a joy, and I am honored to be his mom.

As I share lessons learned from my personal experience, my prayer is that families with autistic members would be encouraged and that church members would be inspired to personally minister, as well as engage their churches in ministry, to autistic individuals and their families.

ASD in Your Family

Focusing on the positives is critical. Doing so has several benefits. When I focus on the things Brock is able to do instead of what he isn’t, I can have reasonable expectations. It also enhances his ability to succeed, which boosts his self-esteem, something with which autistic individuals often struggle.

My husband and I choose to share positive stories and lessons we’ve learned from Brock on our social media platforms. This helps educate others about life with an autistic family member and lessens the stigma that often accompanies these individuals.

Most autistic individuals seek routines. Routines can be a good thing — for instance, Brock routinely does chores without question — but stretching beyond the routines is an important part of helping an autistic family member grow. My husband and I encourage Brock to try new things, like different activities and foods.

Speak softly, kindly, and respectfully to anyone with ASD. Doing so helps create a safe environment in which he or she can thrive.

From One Mom to Another

Knowing there might be a mom reading this article who’s recently learned her child has ASD, I want to share three things that have been especially important to me as Brock’s mom.

    1. I have made mistakes while parenting Brock, and I suspect you will occasionally make mistakes too. Instead of letting those mistakes paralyze me, I have had to learn to forgive myself and grow from my mistakes so I can be a better parent.
    2. Having some outlet for personal de-stressing and refueling is important for my emotional health as well as for Brock’s. Some people de-stress by taking a walk, listening to a podcast, or sitting on the porch. Simply find whatever brings joy. For me, it’s coloring. What helps you most when stress builds up (and it will)? Invest time in that activity. Let it soothe your soul. It will help you in immeasurable ways.
    3. Of utmost importance, seek the Lord and His strength. Scripture says, “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always” (1 Chron. 16:11 NIV). I could not be who I need to be for my son without the Lord’s help. Pray often. Sing worshipful songs. Read God’s Word. Seek Him, and allow Him to be your strength.

ASD in Your Church

Brock was diagnosed with ASD midway through my husband’s second full-time pastorate. Since that time, my husband has gone on to pastor four more churches and is currently an associational mission strategist, which means we attend 25 churches throughout the year. We have been blessed with church families who have loved us well.

Unfortunately, many families with autistic members feel uncomfortable attending church. They fear they won’t be accepted or that their family member could become disruptive. Their autistic family member might not have an opportunity to attend a small group. Sadly, in some cases, families fear attending church because they’ve encountered an unwelcoming church before.

When autistic individuals and their families arrive at your church, greet them warmly. Make sure they know they are welcome. Respect the needs of the autistic individual. Sit with or near the family. Offer encouraging smiles, not critical stares. Be a friend. And listen. Consider whether any changes or accommodations could be made to make their experience at church more positive.

With today’s prevalence of ASD, you’ll likely encounter it in your family or your church. Strive to love Brock and his peers well.

Jeanette Cloyd writes from a small town in Illinois where she finds great joy when people cheerfully say to her, “Oh, you’re Brock’s mom!”

Disclaimer: The information shared on this page is not meant to diagnose or treat a mental health condition. We encourage you to follow up with your health-care provider and seek a mental health professional for individual consultation and care.