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Getting His Praise On: How Our Neurodiverse Child Gave Us Resilient Faith

Bright Living Room with a Wooden Color Shape Puzzle

In this three-part series, Pastor Elizabeth Pule delves into a crucial yet often overlooked aspect of community life: the inclusion of individuals and families affected by autism within the church. This first article explores the Pule’s personal journey with autism and challenges the reader to reconsider perspectives on inclusion with the church community.

“Oh God, please let this be a peaceful session,” was my regular prayer before our son’s weekly speech therapy appointment.  

Before Samuel was even diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, he was enrolled in a “quick start” program for families waiting to receive assessments and therapy. We thought it prudent to add speech therapy since he was unable to communicate verbally. He was two years old and did not meet some of the age-appropriate developmental milestones. Our speech and occupational therapy appointments were unpredictable at best. Because he was unable to speak, he often became frustrated, throwing himself on the ground and screaming.  

So, every week, I prayed the same prayer: “Let this be a peaceful session.”  

At the beginning of our autism spectrum disorder (ASD) journey, many things were uncertain. Thoughts bounced around in my head all the time: “How will he learn? How will he make friends? What happens if people are unkind?” 

Added to that was the stress of navigating the social system, program funding, and finding therapy providers. It was a maze of applications and research. As we waded through the process of diagnoses and waitlists, we prayed constantly.  

Every morning during family worship, we prayed that Samuel would “use his words.” For over a year, our other two young sons would include the same prayer request as they talked to Jesus. We had a jar filled with slips of paper—every time God answered a prayer, we would write it down and put it in the jar.

One morning, as we prayed to close family worship, something awesome happened. Samuel spoke in an adorable three-year-old voice: “Gabriel pray.”

All of us were shocked at his direction. After Gabriel prayed, Samuel chimed in again and said “Isaiah pray.” This went on until he had told all of us to pray—by name. That day, we added “Samuel used his words” to the jar of answered prayers.  

The world of autism is a diverse and awe-inspiring spectrum full of possibilities. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that can affect language, social interaction, and communication skills. Individuals with ASD may exhibit repetitive behaviors, rigid routines, and focused interests. ASD is typically identified in early childhood, with boys being diagnosed at higher rates than girls, according to Canada’s Public Health Agency.

Although church was often a place that Samuel found overwhelming, he enjoyed singing and any kind of music. Every week, he sat in the front row getting his praise on—clapping, dancing, and staring at the words on the screen.  

We also noticed that Samuel was extremely visual. One day while he was playing with wooden letters, he spelled the word “hallelujah.” We could hardly believe it, as Samuel was only three years old. This confirmed that his little heart and mind absorbed everything, regardless of his developmental delays.  

We must remember that children living with special needs are not oblivious to spiritual matters, biblical teaching or worship. George Barna wrote in his book Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions: “…Seize the opportunities that God provides to you, as a committed disciple of Jesus Christ, to enable your home and those of other believers to be places of victory in the turbulent and relentless spiritual battle for those young hearts, minds and souls” (pp. 136-135). 

Recognizing and accepting the inherent value of every person, as created in the image of God, challenges the societal hierarchy of worth. When the body of Christ functions optimally, church communities recognize and empower every individual, regardless of abilities, age, or gender. 

“In ministering to those with special needs, it is important to understand the world in which they live and how they view things,” says the author of a paper on cultivating awareness of autism and special needs within a church (Brooks 2019, 16). The potential for an inclusive church, where diverse personalities and abilities collaborate, and where all individuals feel a sense of belonging, is powerful and profound. However, for individuals and families living with ASD, these possibilities are largely unexplored. 

The prevalence of autism spectrum disorder is significant, with one in 50 Canadian children and youth aged 1-17 being affected (Public Health Agency of Canada). Yet, there remains a scarcity of intentional efforts within faith communities to create spaces of inclusion and belonging for individuals and families living with autism. This is particularly true in the Seventh-day Adventist community, where little research and attention have been given to ministering to and with the neurodiverse.

Our journey will be different from other families living with autism, but here are a few things we are learning along the way:  

1) Jesus is a necessity and a priority. Demands on a special needs family can be taxing due to the high needs of the child, including therapy, and specialized care. If we build our schedules around time with Jesus, then we do not have to squeeze Him in at the last minute. This takes intentionality and tons of support. If possible, tap into your respite services and trusted friends and family to organize a family schedule that includes Jesus. We are trying to hold firmly onto the promises that we can rely on God’s grace and power (Proverbs 30:5; Psalms 59:17; Philippians 4:14; Isaiah 49:4). For the seasons and moments when we feel far from Jesus, claim the promise that he is still near.

2) Speak your child’s language. Children learn in different ways; we cannot expect our children to sit still and be quiet for hours at a time. God made them to be active, and to engage all their senses as they experience life and worship. Use your family activities and worship at home to meet those varying learning styles. Engage kinesthetic learners with an active object lesson and utilize arts and crafts for children who are visual learners. We cannot forget the power of music. Music is a universal language that reaches all people and provides wonderful opportunities for learning and development. Utilize social stories, technology, tactile activities, movement, and gestures to communicate a child’s value and God’s love.

3) Connect with other special needs families. It is crucial to understand that your family is not alone. Because special needs families are at risk of isolation, we need to be deliberate in making friendships. Kristin Briener in her book, Help! I’m a Parent: Parenting Kids with Different Abilities, writes: “Perhaps you are in a similar place, raising a child or children who happened to be born with something that makes them different. Perhaps someone in your circle of relationships has a disability or cares for someone who has a disability. Perhaps you are curious about what life with a child with different abilities looks like. Whatever your reason, you are part of a community…” (p. vi). Through family groups and parent connections, fresh encouragement and support can be found. 

God has used our experiences as a special needs family to teach us about resilient faith, the importance of growing our children in him and reaching out to other families and children who need to hear they are not alone. I think about the many families living with autism and other neurodiverse individuals who do not find support and fellowship in their faith communities. We can do better. This matters because…

Because we are all wonderfully made

Regardless of ability, our value comes from God and being created in his image. 

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. Psalm 139:14 

And have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Colossians 3:10 

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10 

Because there are people who need to be restored and remembered

There are many families and individuals who can be overlooked or forgotten, and they need a church community where they are welcomed, included and belong. 

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35).

Don’t be afraid,” David said to him, “for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table (2 Samuel 9:7).

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).

Because we all have something to contribute

The body of Christ has no small or unimportant members; we all have a vital role to play in God’s plan for redeeming and restoring the world. 

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (1 Corinthians 12:21-27).

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God (Romans 15:7).

As you read through the resources and reflect on the experiences of autism parents in this three-part series, consider the lasting impact a true church family could have on families and individuals who often go forgotten. 

About the author

Elizabeth Pule is a Toronto, Canada native with a background in political science, marketing, and theology. She served over two decades in pastoral ministry as associate pastor at the College Heights Adventist Church on the Burman University campus. She holds a master’s of divinity and doctor of ministry degree with a focus on supporting families living with autism from Andrews University. More from Elizabeth Pule.
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