A Facebook friend posed some thought-provoking questions to Sarah about her church experiences: “Did you attend church services as a child, and if so, what was that like for you? Do you currently attend? How can church be more autism-friendly?”
Her inquiry raises a great question for many of us who are touched by disability (in Sarah’s case, non-verbal autism). No matter the type of disability, I think most can agree that getting out into the community can be just plain difficult. We may encounter physical or sensory limitations, stares and ignorance, to name just a few challenges. Some special needs families won’t even attempt attending places such as church, for various reasons that we’ll explore in our series, while if they do, may leave feeling less refreshed and more exhausted or disillusioned.
The term inclusion is most closely associated with the school system. However, shouldn’t the most inclusive place for anyone be the church? What can churches do to make it easier for a family that faces challenges to simply try and do “normal family stuff” like attend church? In this series Creating an Inclusive Church Environment for People with Disabilities, we’ll ask:
Is disability a normal part of life or something to be fixed?
Is the current church model facilitating the needs of those with disabilities?
Just how can church be a better experience for special needs families?
Sarah Stup’s life looked quite different when she was a child than it does now. Diagnosed with autism at an early age and previously thought to be intellectually challenged, the use of a typing device offered by a speech therapist gave Sarah the typing voice she never had before. The ability to type & communicate allowed Sarah to show her family, educators & peers just how bright she really was, and how much she actually absorbed. Sarah writes:
“Real happy to be a typer. Before typing I was a silent soul who felt lonely and angry. I had things to say, but no sounding voice or even a body that could gesture with intent, so no one could find me. I was alone and alive only inside. A day came when my speech therapist figured out how I could type by pointing to letters, and then my life changed to a fulfilling one where I could have power and happiness.”
After graduating from high school with honors, Sarah now works from home where she advocates for people with autism, especially those who are non-verbal. “I am for those who are silent witnesses,” she says. Over the years, Sarah has written and published numerous books, gift collections, poems & essays for children & adults alike such as Do-si-Do with Autism, Are your eyes listening? and Paul and His Beast.
Sarah says that she “likes to send messages of hope and understanding from the real people who are inside bodies that work differently.” Sarah’s faith is evident in many of her writings, especially on her blog. Here, she says, “God is a friend who never hates autism. He is my friend when people can’t find me.”
As a child, Sarah attended services at the local Lutheran church with her mother, father and older sister in Frederick, Maryland. It was a time when most of the congregation knew Sarah personally and were familiar with the behaviors associated with her autism. She sat in service with the family throughout both worship and sermon, and enjoyed her time. It was a small church, but it felt to Sarah like being with family, and was a safe place to worship. Her parents had the support of one another and the congregation.
Today, as a 34-year-old, Sarah lives with her mother at home as her primary caregiver and receives job & residential coaching through the Arc of Frederick County. Sarah says she is “pleased to find ways to do prayers here at home with Mom. On Sundays, we do resting and prayers. After our lunch, we ask for time with scriptures and prayers. Sometimes we even sing off key.”
While no longer attending weekly church services, Sarah still finds practical ways to live out her faith in the day-to-day. Her mission for years has been to “make schools a better place for students with autism and other developmental disabilities,” but it is also important to see the church become a better place for inclusion and understanding.
Throughout the series, we’ll delve into what the Bible says about disability, examine the current models of how churches are ministering to special needs, and offer some suggestions for creating an inclusive church environment for people with disabilities.
We hope you will join us!