I was escorted out of a church service yesterday with my 9-year old autistic son.
Despite the fact I had heard of this sort of thing happening on the news more than once, I never expected it to happen to me.
You see, I’ve never been asked to leave anywhere with Max. Not restaurants, not movie theaters, or shopping malls or grocery stores or any other place I can think of. Not because he is 100% good all the time. No child is, never mind a child with a developmental disability, but because I have always left places when I felt things were getting too difficult for Max or he was becoming agitated.
Maybe I was naïve. Maybe I was expecting too much. Maybe. But I don’t think so.
No, this wasn’t my regular church.
I don’t have one, but I am looking. Attending church was a large part of my childhood, and as my boys grow older I have begun to realize it is something I wanted to expose my them to.
But I was nervous. Not just because of my older son’s autism, although that was a part of it, but also my own social anxiety disorder.
A church, in an ideal situation, is like a family, but to a newcomer attending one for the first time, there is no denying it is a large group of strangers.
With this in mind, I kept seeing these billboards for The Journey North that made it seem like an open and relaxed kind of place. On their twitter page it says, “Come as you are you’ll be loved…” Sounds good, right?
One weekend, when both boys were with their father, I decided to check the place out by myself. Coffee was served prior to the service and the people there seemed genuinely friendly. Most of the kids went to a program they called Kidventure for Sunday School, but I noticed a few who stayed with their parents throughout the service.
Kidventure seemed like something Sammy, my five-year old, could really enjoy. The service itself had a lot of music. Max not only adores music, but is musically gifted. I thought, ”This could really work out.”
So this last Sunday I decided to give it a try with the boys. My sister came along too, bringing her daughter Allison.
Sam and Allie went to Kidventure. I wasn’t sure if they were really equipped to handle Max, not to mention handing off your minimally verbal child to anyone can be a little scary. I explained to the woman who signed Sam into Kidventure that Max has autism and I wanted to keep him with me. It didn’t seem like it was going to be a problem.
We sat toward the back, which in my experience is the unofficial, “Families with loud Children” section of most churches.
The music was not the same as the time I had attended by myself. Rather than one man leading the congregation in song with an acoustic guitar, there was a full rock band complete with drums.
It was, to be honest, a more than a little loud for me, but Max absolutely loved it.
Was he perfectly quiet? Well, no. He sang along with the words projected on the screen. He chattered on in his way, but was in my opinion, not at all loud or disruptive. He made no more noise than any other small child, and as I mentioned before, the sound system was loud.
There was no danger of anyone not hearing because of him.
It wasn’t until we were about an hour into the service that we were ushered us out of the auditorium. At this point there couldn’t have been much more than twenty minutes left in the service.
A small group of people was waiting for us. It was clear they felt Max was a problem. It’s hard to remember everything that was said. I was stunned. I had honestly thought things had gone well up until that point. I was deeply embarrassed. My hands shook. It was hard not to cry.
They said they didn’t want us to leave, but we needed to find some accommodation so that Max wouldn’t disrupt the worship for everyone else. I said I felt Max hadn’t been disruptive. They didn’t argue with me, but made it clear they didn’t agree.
A woman offered to walk Max in the halls, but what would he get out of that? exercise? One of the Pastors suggested I take Max to Kidventure and stay with him. I said if I did that, I wouldn’t hear the sermon. More options were thrown out, but I don’t remember most of what was said. The pastor obviously meant well and felt he was doing the right thing. He couldn’t seem to understand why I was so upset. He seemed to think we could work something out for next Sunday, but it was very clear Max was not welcome to go back into the auditorium.
I said I felt awful being pulled out in front of all those people. I told him how shy I was. I told them how unwelcome I felt. I don’t think he ever really got it.
So we left.
Nothing they did or said at that point could wipe out how I felt being yanked out of that church service anyway. I would never feel welcome there again.
Sam and Allie weren’t happy at leaving. They didn’t understand. They had been having fun.
Once we got out to the car, I broke down in cried. This wasn’t how I wanted our first church service to go. I didn’t want to leave it at that.
So we decided to try again. That very day.
This time we tried a more traditional looking Lutheran Church.
The first thing I did was ask if they were special needs friendly. They were. Wholeheartedly so. Not only was a little boy with down syndrome attend with his family but also one another with autism. I was shown a nursery where I could take Max if I felt I needed to. In the nursery there was TV set so you could continue watching the sermon. But when I spoke to the Pastor he encouraged me to NOT take Max out every time he made a noise. ”If you do that, how will he ever learn how to behave in church?” There was no talk of accommodations and the word disruptive never came up. Max was never treated like a problem, instead we were treated with simple kindness.
This church really felt like a family. I can’t begin to tell you how good that felt.