Child Anger or Autism?

A friend of mine recently e-mailed me the detailed outline her church pastor provided for his previous Sunday’s sermon.  Based on the pastor’s outline and my friend’s notes, the message on the subject of parenting was insightful, Biblically grounded, and representative of widely held views in evangelical America.  The entitled sermon “The Christ-Honoring Home” first covered 10 things that parents unnecessarily do to provoke anger in their children.  The pastor’s points and scriptural references regarding discipline, inconsistent parenting, favoritism, neglect, unrealistic expectations, and pride were excellent and personally convicting.  The second half of the teaching highlighted the signs a child may exhibit if they are being unnecessarily provoked to anger by their parents.  The pastor’s intent was to show that children posing behavior challenges might be the product of scripturally unsound parenting.  The following was taken from the pastor’s provided outline:

Signs of parent provocation in a child:

  • When you see kids pulling away from their parents
  • Angry outbursts from a child
  • Lack of joy in a child, seldom smile
  • Rebellion against authority
  • A child who says mean things to their parents or others

Now, let me share some facts I’ve come across from my research on special needs.

Possible warning signs of a child with an autism spectrum disorder:

  • Lack of interaction
  • Lack of warm, joyful expression
  • Lack of sharing interest or enjoyment
  • Disruptive and physically aggressive at times
  • Tendency to “lose control” when angry and frustrated
  • May at times break things, attack others, or hurt themselves

These “signs” were taken from First Signs Incorporated and The National Institute of Mental Health

So as I was reading the sermon notes outlining the warning signs of poor parenting, it struck me that the church can be a place of great misunderstanding for a child with a neurological disorder and their family.

Looking Forward

As the need for special needs accommodation grows in churches, the responsibility for education and awareness is often landing in the hands of the children’s ministry team.  Kidmin volunteers are typically the first responders to a child’s unusual or difficult conduct.  And if the children’s ministry workers are lacking in special needs awareness, they may be operating on the premise that a child’s misbehavior is always the result of a rebellious heart or poor parenting.

Churches successfully including children with neurological impairments and even mild learning disabilities are recognizing that “one size doesn’t fit all” when it comes to interpreting behavior challenges and commonly held notions on parenting.  Very often, a child’s inability to communicate is at the root of a behavior dilemma inside church programming.  And while conversations may be warranted and wise between the children’s ministry team and the parents, the dialogue can start much differently (and with a greater chance of generating a positive outcome) when the church considers the possibility that an undisclosed or undiscovered disability may be driving problematic behavior.

For more on this topic, see CNN’s April 2009 article: “Autism parents’ plea:  Understand kids’ meltdown” 

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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.