Autism and Serving at Church

This is the second installment in my Autism Awareness Month, 2015, series.

He sat on the cooler behind the table full of snacks, a smile on his face. But he wasn’t fully focused on what was in front of him. His darting gaze and imagesslight rocking movements told me his mind was far away. “You ready to do this, Ryan?” I asked. “Oh. Yes…ma’am,” he replied with a smile and a serious nod, coming back to the present. Part of me paused for a second, wondering if this was such a good idea.

It was Easter Sunday and our church was doing our annual Easter at the Civic Center. The goal was to be a welcoming place for people who might not set foot in a church comfortably. It was my family’s first year serving at this event. Finding a place for Kati, Jarod, and I to plug in was simple. Lucy was heartbroken that at age six she was too young to serve during a service. Bless her heart.

But what to do with Ryan?

Autism complicates things. One of the characteristics of autism is difficulty with social skills. Ryan is pretty high-functioning but I knew holding a door as a greeter was not the way to go. He’d need a helper to stand by to help filter whatever might flit into his mind and out his mouth. Oh the possibilities!

I approached Michael and Carrie, our children’s pastors, with my dilemma. Children’s ministry was where the rest of us were serving and they know Ryan. Hmmm. They agreed this would be a challenge but they wanted to help find a spot for him. God bless good children’s pastors willing to shepherd all kinds of kids.

Carrie finally came up with the perfect fit: Ryan could man the Snack Table, passing out cold water and restocking the goodies as they were devoured by grateful volunteers. It was in the small Volunteer Check-in Room, away from loud crowds of too many people. Ryan liked that idea. He had a place to serve.

He was cute when we signed in, heading straight to the table and offering suggestions on good snack choices for Carrie that made her smile. He sounded like a waiter. “Do you want protein? This breakfast bar looks great for that!” “Can I get you some water?”

Finding a place for an autistic teen to fit in at church can be daunting. As a mom, I can tell you it can make you self-conscious and nervous they are going to run into trouble. It can raise anxiety levels that they are going to say something wrong and offend someone who doesn’t understand they have special needs. Ryan has found his place in youth group and youth small groups thanks to great volunteers. But this was the first time I’d found a place for him to serve—especially without me at his side to keep an eye on things.

Ryan did great. He ate a lot which made Kristi, the volunteer coordinator, laugh. But he was polite and he chatted with people in a pretty normal way. And when the morning was over, Ryan got to say he was part of something amazing. There were 442 people who gave their lives to Jesus that weekend. And Ryan fed some of the 928 volunteers who made that possible.

God calls us each to serve as the Body of Christ. Not everyone is suitable for every job. Part of a good leadership team is plugging volunteers into the right spot. Finding areas where they can shine what talents God has given them and thrive with a sense of contributing to the work of the ministry. I’m thankful my leaders didn’t shy away from finding a spot to plug in my special son. He later told me it was fun and he’d love to do it again.

Everyone has something to offer the kingdom of God. He has given each of us something to contribute. Even with Ryan’s limitations, he has been created by a God who knows him and has a plan for his life. I’m honored to have good leaders who got creative in helping him find a small way to contribute. For an autistic teenager, that’s no small feat.ryan loves his church

If your church is looking for ways to include special needs kids and adults, feel free to contact me. I love training church volunteers on how to include special families like mine.


More than One in a Million

Every mom likes to think her child is one in a million. My son is one in 68. I can say this with certainty because my second son, Ryan, has autism.

April is Autism Awareness Month with April 2nd specifically being “Light it Up Blue for Autism” Day. Tomorrow I plan to wear blue. Wanna join me? Other than blue, it will be just another day around here. We’ve been living with autism for quite a while.

Here’s the quick and fast basics about autism. It is a pervasive imagesdevelopmental disorder affecting speech and language, behavior, and sensory needs. “Pervasive” just means it affects multiple areas of the individual’s life. In 1980 autism was being diagnosed at the rate of 1 in 10,000 kids in the US. When Ryan was diagnosed in 2002, the rates were 1 in 150 kids. In 2014, the CDC declared this a crisis as the rates reached 1 in 68.

While some may blame better testing techniques or a knee-jerk tendency to label everyone with something for the climbing rates, those reasons cannot account for this level of increase this fast. Statistically that’s impossible in 35 years. Something is causing these rates to rise and no one knows what.

In another post I’ll talk about theories on causes and treatments. But today I want to share from my heart about my 1 in 68.

Autism is a spectrum disorder. That means that no two individuals with autism manifest it exactly alike. It ranges on a spectrum from severe to mild. Some individuals are severe—unable to talk or having limited ability to communicate. For some, it is mild, manifesting in a few quirks. These individuals can grow up to have careers in specific areas they excel in. Think Sheldon on Big Bang Theory. Any mom of an autistic child sees the signs in that character. “You’re in my spot.” “It’s Tuesday. We have Thai food on Tuesday.” Ryan falls in the middle, leaning toward mild.

Buell Bunch (24 of 31)While Ryan has autism, I don’t believe autism is all he is. He is my child. Ryan is as much of a blessing to me as his siblings. He is quirky and fun, creative and smart. He’s hit 6’1” at age 14 and I’m not certain he’s done growing. He possesses many interests including art, music, landscaping, and a variety of sports with Special Olympics. He is thriving in the regular high school classes—just with a little help. Since his father died, when he picks up that mom is stressed, he tries to give me backrubs. It’s sweet.

He has taught me patience I never dreamed I could have. He has opened doors for me to share what I have learned with nursing students, children’s workers at churches, and with moms fearful of the warning signs they see in their own children. Because of what I have learned I can offer them advice and hope. I have learned how to navigate special education systems and understand parents’ rights. I’ve learned how to balance being his zealous advocate with being an ally of teachers who truly desire to see him succeed.

It’s because of Ryan my first freelance article was published in Children’s Ministry Magazine several years ago (Meet My Son). Taking him to church used to be an experience that caused me such anxiety. I found a way to help other parents by sharing what it feels like with children’s volunteers and pastors. I still enjoy doing trainings with churches—large and small—to help workers understand how to include special kids.

Raising a child with autism requires I have patience. It requires I notify him in advance of change or new plans. He takes many medications and vitamin therapies and is on a gluten-free diet. I need to calmly help him work through frustrations or disappointments that other kids can quickly let go. It means making exceptions or different expectations because his abilities are unique.

Parenting a child with autism requires a new learning curve. It’s one I embraced early on. God gave me this child with special needs therefore it was my job to be the best mom I could be for him. I mess up, just like with his siblings. But more often than not I do a good job with him. So this month I will relish in sharing what being Ryan’s mom has taught me with my readers. The more people who understand autism, the better off the world will be.

If you are with a church and you’d like me to come speak to children’s workers about including special needs children, please contact me. Church is often a scary place for special needs families to attempt and every child aba3554c8d3e2475d8f38f290e18419bshould feel welcome in God’s house.

Don’t forget to wear blue for autism on April 2nd!