Not that long ago, I went through a period where I didn't want to go to church.
Yeah, I know. Me, you, everybody; this isn't much of a confession. But this wasn't because I wanted to sleep in or catch the early NFL game. No, I didn't want to go to church because most of the time I would come home crying.
This is our usual Sunday morning routine. Get up and get ready for church. Eat breakfast, making sure that our son had a high-protein, low sugar balanced meal. Sometimes we'd pray in the car on the way there. If it wasn't out loud, I would always pray silently before dropping off my son in class. We would take him to his classroom, he would grip tightly to our hand or our leg, and we would have to pry him away to get him to go in. He'd try and escape back out the door, sometimes stopping to sit just outside in the hallway. Other times, he would find a chair off by itself and plant himself there, pull his knees up and bury his face safely behind them.
About a half-hour in to our church service, a volunteer would come and tap me on my shoulder to tell me my son was having problems. I'd leave worship, sit him down and try to talk to him one-on-one reminding him of the importance of following directions and not being disruptive to the other students. Sometimes I'd let him go back to class. Other times, if it was really bad, I'd keep him out with me. I wouldn't dare take him in to the church service. So we would sit. Alone. Waiting for church to be over. I'd feel every glance and glare from people walking by. I'd smile politely but I can read their eyes: "what's his problem?"
Let me for a moment define "really bad" which unfortunately was much of the time. My son would crawl under the table and kick the mechanism that folds up the legs. It made a neat sound, rattling against the metal. It fascinated him. Other times he would start tearing up his paper into little pieces, just to see how small he could make a rip. Sometimes he'd wonder what those pieces of paper would taste like, so he would proceed to eat as many as he could before a teacher could intervene. He wouldn't join in circle time when everyone would be singing together. He wouldn't sit still in his chair. A teacher could only put up with this for so long before they would have to call for reinforcements- me.
So while sitting outside of class and outside of worship, my son and I would have deep talks. Sometimes I'd take him outside just so he could run around in circles to burn off all of his extra energy. Sometimes we'd talk about God and Jesus. Most of the time we'd talk about what made my son tick.
But by the time church was over I would be near tears, crawling out of my skin. "Why didn't we take two cars?" I'd ask myself. The silent, invisible wounds from every comment and sideways look were killing me.
- Boys will be boys. He'll grow out of it.
- If you kids are going to be disciples of Jesus, they need to be more outgoing. You need to teach them to not be so shy.
- You need to do something about your son, there's no reason at his age he shouldn't be able to sit still.
- No, there's nothing wrong with him, you just need to teach him self-control.
- I don't think you're disciplining him enough at home.
- Remember, spare the rod and spoil the child.
But there were others in our church who watched this from a distance. They recognized it. They felt our pain. And soon we'd have parents giving tips of what worked for their children and share the struggles they have had. One mom, a parent of two teenagers with autism, said that she recognized it as soon as she met our son. Affirmation! Relief.
Some teachers also understood. One makes a point to assign my son to be a helper- keeping him busy and out of his chair. Others know that when he's sitting off by himself, that they just need to leave him be until he is ready and acclimated to his new environment.
And we changed our habits too. Yes, a high protein and low sugar breakfast is still a must. But now we also give him coffee every morning. While that may sound strange, caffeine is a natural stimulant that has the same effect (in principle) as ADHD drugs. Explaining this to one parent changed his life- he noticed that when he'd drink tea or coffee he wouldn't feel as much anxiety and could focus better. He is know on ADHD medication and you'd think he was a completely different person.
This isn't just my son I'm talking about. Teaching class a few weeks ago, the lesson was on Palm Sunday. The kids were restless so I suggested we go outside and have a parade for Jesus. We marched around our church building singing as loud as we could, shouting "Hosanna in the Highest!" But there were two boys who dragged along behind, covering their ears. Even outside in the open, this was too much stimulation for them. My son hung back with them. He understood.
Chances are, there are children at your church, in your Sunday-school class, friends with your children that have either ADHD, autism or maybe even both. It might be your child and you don't know what to do. It used to be said that one in 88 children would have autism. That rate has recently been raised to one in 50. More than one in 10 have ADHD with boys twice as likely as girls to be diagnosed, a percentage that has increased 70% in the last five years. A 2009 study suggests that one in six children have sensory integration issues that impede their daily functioning.
Let me repeat:
- 1 in 50 children have some form of autism.
- More than 1 in 10 children have been diagnosed with ADHD.
- 1 in 6 suffer from sensory integration issues.
As I continue to say in this series of posts, you are not alone in dealing with this. Talk about it. Share what works and doesn't work. Don't be afraid of the label and have your child checked out.
For the church, one of the most important things to do is to educate others. Sunday-school teachers are volunteers; they are not likely to be professionally trained teachers or have degrees in special education or developmental psychology. If it looks like your child's teacher doesn't know what to do, it is probably because they really don't. And this was the hard lesson for me- don't take their lack of understanding personally. Be kind. Share. Offer encouragement.
Most of all, have hope. It does get better.