Attending church is hard work as a parent of a special needs child. In fact, most of the time I don’t even want to go to church. It’s stressful and my mind is usually not engaged in what is taking place. If it wasn’t for the fact that my oldest son loves going and being with his friends we would probably skip church much more often. Now, this is probably really surprising to hear from someone who has a seminary degree but maybe my honesty will benefit someone else.
From the start, I want to give props to our current church, Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. They have been great and have an excellent program for special needs children. That was one of the main reasons we decided to become members. It is a 30 minute drive from our house but we feel it is worth the extra driving time.
Though our church does a great job at involving Austin, I still worry every time we attend. For two of our sons, church is easy. We just make sure they get to the correct location at the correct times. We never worry about them or what will happen when they are away from us. Austin on the other hand is a completely different story. I am always wondering if Austin is going to have a breakdown, is he disturbing the other kids or teachers in his class, is he going to try to lay down in the worship center and prop his feet up on the lady sitting beside us! (Yes, he has tried that on multiple occasions. You should see their face when this twelve-year-old boy lies down and props his athletic shoes in their lap.)
One Sunday morning during our first year attending Providence, my wife received a text during the middle of the service. Austin was having a little bit of a problem. When she arrived at his class, it was revealed to her that Austin got a little agitated and decided to strip down all the way to his underwear! The teachers and helpers were great and by the time my wife arrived, everything was under control. The teachers and helpers stood with my wife, shedding tears of concern with her. This was an extreme case which thankfully has never repeated itself.
When Austin becomes upset, it is usually because he is somewhere he does not want to be or we are making him do something he does not want to do. As an example, Austin, in a display of defiance, often sticks both of his index fingers up his nostrils and then walks around saying “Fingers out of your nose. Fingers out of your nose.” The more you try to make him remove his fingers, the more resolved his is to keep them shoved up there. I cannot count how many times we have been walking down the hall at church with him having both hands on his face with his fingers shoved up his nostrils! Most people we pass just smile and walk on by. What they don’t see is my heart breaking.
Another example is that Austin often will stick his tongue out of his mouth and just leave it there. Once we were getting our hair cut and it was Austin’s turn. He did not want to be there so he sat in the chair with his tongue sticking out of his mouth. Hair was constantly falling on his tongue causing him to gag and spit but he refused to put it back in his mouth. I tried using my finger to push it back in but as soon as I pulled my finger away, it was right back out.
The picture attached to this blog is an image of Austin in church one Sunday morning. He did not want to be there so he sat there, almost for the whole service, sticking out his tongue. He kept trying to grab my hand and lick it so I was constantly trying to fight him. He was even leaning over trying to lick my hand while it was in my lap. I grabbed my phone and adjusted the camera so he could see himself, hoping that would cause him to stop. Didn’t work. He just used it like a mirror, seeing how far he could stick out his tongue and if he could touch his nose. (He can, if you were wondering.) I did try to push his tongue back into this mouth but there is always a fine line with him. If you push him too far, he will let out a really loud screech. This was happening while the lead pastor is teaching and I was thinking “I don’t want Austin to scream out and have people think we were getting filled with the Spirit up over here!” (It was a Baptist church after all)
Back to the main topic at hand. Church is stressful because of the unknown, the unknown of how Austin will act in church and the unknown of how he will act in class. It is also stressful in the fact that we have to watch our middle school son like we watch our four-year old, walking him to and from class, always asking his teacher or shadow how he did and wondering if he was going to get upset when they asked him to put his iPad away in class to listen and participate in the lesson.
Despite the stress, we still go, almost every Sunday morning. It often feels like walking a tight rope over a canyon, but we do it anyway. Even though it is often filled with peril, embarrassment and worry, my love for Austin does not waver. Yes I am not always happy with the fact that he refuses to walk down the hall sometimes, or that many mornings he is hitting himself on the top of the head as we walk to his class, I still love him. I am his father and his actions do not determine my feelings. (Yes, there is a biblical message there.)