My Body Has Autism, But My Spirit Does Not

by Cathy Barson February 16, 2014

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven”—Matthew 19:14. 

Two and a half years ago we relocated to Philadelphia. After planting and pastoring a church in Manhattan, my husband, Deryck, had enrolled to pursue further studies at Westminster Theological Seminary. We found great schools for the kids, a perfect job, a lovely home, and of course an excellent seminary! Now all that was left was to find a church we could call home—no small feat for our very particular family. 

On our list was: 

  • Excellent preaching, clear gospel proclamation and robust theology (thank you, Dr. Goligher!).
  • An invested community (evident in so many ways from our first visit to Tenth).
  • A wonderful children’s program (exceeded our expectations!).
  • A church that was outward-focused, a place where we could feel comfortable inviting neighbors or friends from work, a church that cared about reaching the city.

Of the many (and growing) ways in which Tenth is blessing and reaching out to those in our city, one that stood out and delighted me was to discover that we had a ministry for children with special needs. As a parent, I deeply appreciate children’s ministries: dedicated workers who love God and his Word, who come alongside parents in their biblical mandate to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). In addition, it allows me to fully participate in a Sunday service and be discipled under the Word of God, having peace of mind that my children are in good hands. For those who have tried to listen to a sermon while looking after a squirming toddler, you will, like me, have caught about 10% of the content at best! Imagine this multiplied for parents of children with special needs.

The Center for Disease Control’s latest statistics show that one in 88 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It is estimated that 14% of all children will have a disability of some sort. I love that as a church we are prepared and committed to teaching all children the Word of God, doing what we can to make church a safe and fun place and coming alongside these particularly courageous families. Barb Newman, in her book Autism and Your Church, tells the story of Jessica, a young woman diagnosed with ASD who insightfully says, “My body has autism, but my spirit does not.”

Just over a year ago I moved from admiring this ministry at a distance to actively serving in the classroom. I have been humbled and inspired by the parents as I get to know four of the children and how they make Sundays such fun! We learn God’s Word through stories, songs, and hands-on activities. We get to blow bubbles, smear shaving foam on the table, dig for objects in giant tubs of rice, and sing our favorite songs at the tops of our voices with actions to match! One is a great friend, always ensuring that the other three boys have what they need. Another never tires of listening to a Dr. Seuss book or singing a rousing version of a beloved song. And one has taught me all I know about bugs and continues to astonish me with how smart he is. And then there is the gentle, smiling soul who puts me to shame by having memorized Psalm 23! 

A great blessing to all of these families is that their children love to come to church! When you have a child with special needs, life is unpredictable, and the simplest of errands can become fraught with difficulty. To be able to come to church to listen to the Word of God, fellowship with friends, and know that your child is happy, safe, and growing with God is priceless.
Working as a pediatric occupational therapist at a local children’s hospital, I unashamedly brag about our Children with Special Needs Ministry! In a world where people are so cynical about the church and can list so many of her faults, it is wonderful to mention this as one of the ways we are blessing families in the city.

For more information about special needs ministries at Tenth, including volunteer opportunities during both morning services, email [email protected].