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 slight 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.
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.