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How Often Will I Meet a Child Diagnosed with Autism in My Ministry?

Have you ever heard of a church that turned away a little boy because he had red hair? What if a mother was greeted at the children’s ministry check-in with news her redheaded son had to go back home? No, you can’t imagine. If any church ever sent home a child because of their natural hair color it would make the evening news!

Now, have you ever heard of a church that turned away a little boy because he was on the autism spectrum? What if a mother was greeted at church check-in with the news that her son with autism couldn’t be accommodated? Yes, you can imagine. It happens.

Did you know that the percentage of Americans with red hair¹ is roughly equal to the percentage of 8-year-old boys diagnosed with autism? I think it’s fair to say that, statistically speaking, a children’s ministry should have the same number of participating boys with autism as with red hair. That’s pretty sobering. People would go nuts (justifiably) if families of redheaded kids had to figure out which churches were “redhead friendly.” The reality is that this same scenario is happening now for families of kids with autism. While many churches are working to become special needs-friendly, there is room for improvement.

Recently a megachurch leader said to me, “We just don’t have any kids with significant special needs in our church. We haven’t seen the need to create a ministry or think about doing anything special to accommodate students with disabilities.”

I didn’t say anything in response. But given the size of the church, this statement seemed doubtful. Intuition told me that this leader was disengaged and inexcusably unaware of what was going on in the lives of church families. I also wondered if perhaps this leader had somewhere along the way earned the reputation of being “unfriendly to special needs.” Once a church or church leader has earned that reputation, impacted families go elsewhere or nowhere.

Okay, back to my point. In church world, we’re at a fork in the road. Up to now, it’s been an accepted norm that not all churches could or should accommodate kids with autism and other special needs. (And I share in my book that not all churches can accommodate to the same degree.) But times are a-changin’. It is no longer acceptable for any church to be unaware of and unprepared to welcome families with special needs. Every church needs a plan for inclusion. And the best place to start is by hiring a special needs-friendly family mininstry leader.

Autism Facts

  • About 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)²
  • ASD occurs in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups.²
  • ASD is almost five times more common among boys (1 in 42) than among girls (1 in 189).²
  • Parents who have a child with ASD have a 2%–18% chance of having a second child who is also affected.²
  • ASD tends to occur more often in people who have certain genetic or chromosomal conditions. About 10 percent of children with autism are also identified as having Down syndromefragile X syndrometuberous sclerosis or other genetic and chromosomal disorder.²
  • Almost half (46%) of children identified with ASD has average to above average intellectual ability.²
  • Most children identified with ASD were diagnosed after age 4, even though children can be diagnosed as early as age 2.²  

¹ Number of Americans with red hair: http://health.yahoo.net/experts/dayinhealth/weird-facts-about-redheads; Total US Population: https://www.census.gov/popclock/

² http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html

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afentonlee@churchleaders.com'
Amy Fenton Lee is a writer and speaker focused on helping churches successfully include children with special needs. She is a regular contributor to children’s ministry publications and a variety of other Christian and secular magazines. Amy is a passionate children’s ministry volunteer and the daughter of a church senior pastor. Amy is a frequent speaker at children’s ministry conferences. Amy blogs about special needs inclusion at The Inclusive Church.