Special Heart

The Autistic Child and Discipline

Although I have had two children with special needs, and although one of them had some autistic tendencies, I have never raised a child diagnosed with autism.  But I have observed from afar what the parents of such a child are faced with, and it is often a daunting task to raise, nurture, and seek to have this child’s gifts be appreciated by the rest of society.

And to make matters even more difficult, it’s hard to discern how to correct, discipline, and establish boundaries for the autistic child, knowing that he or she is “wired” a little differently from most kids.  What is fair?  What is effective?  Is there a different standard for children who are on the autism spectrum?

There are many sides to these questions.  Let me offer first the side of compassion:  When I was very, very ill with an autoimmune condition several years ago, there were symptoms that were amazingly similar to those experienced by many autistic children–severe food sensitivities and allergies, environmental sensitivities, intolerance of man-made fabrics, of florescent lights, and a hyper response to strong smells and loud sounds.  As a result, I can somewhat relate to and definitely sympathize with the child who endures these disturbing sensations.  I could hardly handle it as an adult.  I really do feel for any child who struggles in this way.

At the peak of my illness, God directed me to a kind doctor who said, “You are very fragile, like a piece of fine china or crystal. We need to treat you with this in mind.” How relieved I felt that he saw me in this way rather than as a person with imaginary problems! Thankfully, since then, my hyper-responses have calmed.

Looking back at my experience, my doctor’s words can be advice to parents of the autistic child:  to treat him or her as a piece of fine china.  Don’t be afraid to parent and guide with boundaries, accountability, and the kind of structure that all kids need.  But do it all with an extra dose of care and gentleness.

So that is one side.  The other side is two-fold and has to do with discipline.  First, God’s standards, commands, promises, and blessings apply to all children. For example, God says,

“Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.

Honor your father and your mother (which is the first commandment with a promise) so that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth.”  Ephesians 6:1 NASB

Notice that God’s intention for having standards for children is so that “it may be well” with them. They may even live longer, according to this verse!  So God’s commands do apply to the autistic child, although getting to the goal of obedience and a sense of “otherness” will without a doubt be a longer and harder road than for the more typical child.

The other factor in disciplining the child on “the spectrum” is that although she may not know intuitively how people around her are responding to her behavior, she can be taught and can learn through rules, or you might call them “guidelines.”

Temple Grandin, in her book, Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, emphasizes that although as an autistic child, she had trouble understanding appropriate social behavior, she did benefit from consistent expectations and consequences.

When I was a young child, everything pretty much got me equally upset.  My thinking patterns were more rigid, more black and white than shades of gray.  I was fortunate that  our home life was structured and Mother and the nanny were consistent in their expectations of me and the consequences they attached to my behaviors.  That sameness was calming to some degree, it allowed me to experience a sense of order and control.

Throughout the book, Temple describes that she had to learn things, particularly things that were social in nature, that other kids might know intuitively.  However, she did learn, as she describes it, like putting data on a hard drive on a computer.  But it did take time.

Sean Barron, Temple’s coauthor who, like Temple, demonstrated “classic autism” at a very early age, writes this about manners and how he had to learn about being others-aware:

The rule of displaying good manners extends beyond please and thank you.  It’s not enough to make good eye contact and be sure the shirt is tucked in. Good manners also incorporate  inclusive conversation. 

Realize that Sean was quite language delayed when he was young, so any conversation was hard for him!  But he eventually learned  to say things like “Well, I’ve talked enough about myself.  I’d like to learn more about you.”

All of this progress was slow in coming, but the end result was that Temple and Sean are now able to bless others with the gifts they possess, and able to enjoy the satisfaction of being a very positive contribution to the society in which they live.

I’ve noticed that parents of kids with autism are often able to see beyond their “condition” to the giftedness that is within them.  A combination of compassion and discipline, will help to draw out that treasure that is assuredly there for all to see and experience.  I encourage you to not give up.  Your child has so much to offer, and your labor of love will eventually be a blessing to you, to your child, and to the many others who benefit from getting to know him!

Bev Linder

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I don’t think Greg liked The Special Gathering. He was enthusiastic when he called me inquiring about becoming a volunteer.  Special Gathering of Indian River is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  We do classic ministry, evangelism and discipleship.  Greg spoke about his ministry in northern Florida and was eager to come and be a part of our Vero program. 

After attending one chapel program, he took me aside for a serious talk.  “Your members aren’t able to participate and join into the worship,” he said.  “They can’t enjoy what you do.  You have to loosen up and let them be a part of the ministry experience.  You should let them come to the front and sing during praise and worship.”

Of course, I understood where he was coming from.  There seems to be two schools of thought in ministry to people who are developmentally delayed.  The first is the lassi faire school that believes that mentally challenged people should be allowed to have free rein over the ministry.  They should be able to come and go as they please.  They should be able to interrupt the speaker with questions and comments.  They should be able to come up front to “lead” in praise and worship, if they desire.  Whatever they desire is fair game. 

This can be an effective way to minister to this population.  There is a wonderful ministry in Canada that allows this kind of freedom of movement and expression during the ministry time.  The members are effectively discipled and trained in Christ-like living.

On the other hand, there is the more structured and discipled type of ministry.  This is much the way The Special Gathering functions during our chapel time.  There is a program leader who conducts the meetings.  Members, who are among the leadership, elected by the members, are invited to conduct our prayer lines.  Members take up the offering.  Choir members may be asked to help with praise and worship or they may sing special music.  Members are not allowed to interrupt or come to the front without permission.  They are discouraged from leaving the room during worship.

During Bible study and the small group studies, however, the members are invited and encouraged to discuss the lesson.  They ask questions. It’s exciting for our teachers to see a member press an opposite point of view regarding a Scripture.   

I personally like the form of worship to which SpG subscribes.  There are several reasons.  One stems from my childhood.  My father had a mentally challenged cousin who occasionally visited us.  He was also a self-proclaimed evangelist.  On the Sundays that he would come to church with us, he would sit on the podium with the preacher.  Even as a child, I felt that this was out of line and that the visitor should’ve been corrected and asked to sit in the pews with everyone else.  But because of his disability, our pastor never corrected him.   I guess that even at 7 years old, I made a pretty good pharisee.

Later, as I become an adult, I saw non disabled children and adults who were allowed to push and shove their way “to the podium” demanding attention during worship in a way that was rude and inconsiderate of others.  Often, their behavior wasn’t corrected and people generally tried to avoid them. 

I appreciated that the members of Special Gathering and the volunteers were asked to follow the same rules.  Volunteers aren’t allowed to interrupt and rudely take up everyone’s time–neither are our members during the chapel programs. 

At Special Gathering we have found that our members act in a discipled manner and they are able to behave appropriately.  Even those who don’t have much disciple at other places seem to enjoy the limits.  In fact, staff and volunteers seldom have to remind the members of the rules because our members effectively monitor each other. 

What is the form of ministry that you feel is most effective?  Why do you feel this form works best?  What Christian principles do you think are being taught in the manner of worship your program uses?