For kids on the autism spectrum, this change can be debilitating!
Right now I sit with Josh in church and all is well with the world. He is polite and not even very wiggly. The same was not true when Caleb moved up to 5th grade. At first it was a novelty for him to worship with the adults. He sat proudly next to me and felt quite grown up. The honeymoon didn't last long! Before too many weeks passed, He got more and more fidgety, more and more noisy, and more and more agitated. He started saying things quite loudly on purpose to be heard by those around him. "I'm bored!" "This is stupid!" "How much longer?" He wanted those around him to know that he couldn't sit still this long and was ready to leave. At first I thought he would get used to it. But his behaviors only got worse.
I knew very few people really understood why he behaved the way he did. I was embarrassed. Everyone else who had a new 5th grader seemed to be adjusting to being in the sanctuary together. Sure, all kids wiggle and squirm and ask if the service is almost over, but mine rocked so hard the pew shook and he wanted the pastor to hear him when he said, "This is so dumb!" He knew church wasn't dumb but just couldn't sit through what he couldn't understand. Whereas most kids can adapt to the needs of a given social situation, Aspie's can't. I was at a loss to know what to do with him.
True to every part of our life, God had a plan in mind all along. Within months of Caleb going onto the 5th grade my husband was asked to take over a position that schedules all of the ushers and greeters. He also organizes a security team and takes attendance in Sunday School classes all over the building. He uses radios to communicate all over the church and is never in one place for more than a few minutes. Over the next few weeks Caleb began spending less and less time in the service and more and more time helping dad. Before too long all of my husband's responsibilities became a father and son service to our church. Each Sunday, Caleb knows which responsibilities are his and is a faithful servant. He no longer comes to church just to worship but to serve! Caleb has always had a servant's heart and now he has a weekly way to use that gift. He also helps in the children's ministry by running the sound and video once a month for the program that he loved so much when he was little. In all honesty I think that serving for Caleb is his way of worship.
We recently went to a Homeschool convention in Ohio where the Late Chuck Coleson was scheduled to speak via Skype. We were really excited to hear and be encouraged by him again. It was not until we got to the convention that we learned that he was gravely ill. While walking through the expo hall a book at Mr. Coleson's booth caught my eye. I had known of it for some time and always wanted to read it.
"Dancing With Max" was written by Chuck Coleson's daughter, Emily. Max's autism is much more severe than Caleb's. Much more. After talking to the rep at the booth about why the book caught my eye, Caleb called me. (His cell phone is a security blanket of sorts when we are away from him.) He and the other two kids were home with Grandma for the two days we were gone. Caleb was having an anxiety moment over not wanting to switch from one set of grandparents to another. He had locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn't come out! So, while I had a cell phone counseling session with him, Cory explained to the rep who I was talking to and why. The rep was so moved over the similarities between us and the book he gave us a copy!
I started reading it that night in the hotel. Right away I knew that Emily and I would be friends if we ever met. Her wit and stories about raising Max were truly a balm to me! If she could raise Max then surely I could raise Caleb! I read the entire 2 1/2 hour trip home as well. Little did we know at the time, but as I was reading about Chuck Coleson baptizing his grandson, Max, that Chuck would pass away that afternoon. I was so heartbroken when I found out that evening. I felt like I had been a part of his family just a few hours prior.
I read the most inspiring part of the book just a few days later. I immediately had to read it to Cory. Emily wrote a chapter on her struggles with Max in church. She soooooooo validated our need to do church differently. Max does not worship like everyone else either. He goes to church to serve! For Caleb, God provided his dad with a position he loves. For Max, God provided a group of loving men who took him under their wing. They found jobs for Max to give going to church purpose. Purpose. That's what Caleb needed too.
Over the past two years our decision to not make Caleb sit in the service has been met with much approval. (If there had been any disdain, I am not aware of it.) The older men at church comment often that they love to see him serving along side his dad. It blesses us greatly to know that God is always there providing for Caleb. He may sit in the sanctuary some day, but until then I can rest assured that it's ok to do church differently. It's ok to serve as worship. It's ok to be different, even at church.