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A place to belong

Autism is on the rise, and it’s coming to church

By Christina Quick

Kerry and Rob Bozek always sensed something was different about their daughter, Erika.

Though she was a beautiful baby, she cried inconsolably for hours at a time and reacted to the smallest irritations. As she grew, she failed to reach developmental milestones, such as standing and saying her first words. Then came the hand flapping and odd, repetitive behaviors.

Concerned, the Bozeks had their toddler professionally evaluated. Not long after Erika’s third birthday, she was diagnosed with autism.

“It was hard to hear that diagnosis, but it was good to know something,” Kerry Bozek says. “Now we could learn what to do and how to find help for our daughter.”

The couple’s church, First Assembly of God in Woonsocket, R.I., rallied around them with encouragement, prayer and assistance.

“Everyone’s been extremely supportive,” Bozek says. “People in the church have offered to take Erika for the afternoon and invited us over for dinner. That’s meant so much to us.”

Now 4, Erika receives therapy and is making progress. Yet there are still numerous challenges.

“I can’t imagine going through this without knowing the Lord,” Bozek says. “There are days that are very, very tough, but faith, prayers and our love for Erika keep us going.”

A remarkable number of families today are living with autism. With diagnosis rates increasing at 10 to 17 percent annually, it is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States, according to the Autism Society of America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates at least one in every 150 children is autistic.

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects brain function. Symptoms, usually evident within the first three years of life, can range from mild to severe and may include repetitive movement and speech patterns, social detachment and difficulty expressing needs.

The cause is unknown. Theories have implicated everything from environmental toxins to childhood immunizations, but so far there is little scientific evidence to support such claims.

“From a biomedical standpoint, we have no idea what’s going on with these kids,” says Thomas Higbee, director of Autism Support Services at Utah State University.

Adding to the frustration for parents of autistic kids is a lack of education in the general public concerning the disability.

“It’s hard to go out to eat or go into the grocery store,” Higbee says. “Kids with autism look like normal kids, but they may have serious behavior problems. Everyone is looking at these parents wondering why they aren’t dealing with this.”

Higbee says many families carry business cards that say, “My child has autism. Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”

A syndicated talk radio host earlier this year threw fuel on the fire of public misperception when he said nearly every autistic child is “a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out.”

He further suggested autistic children should be told, “Don’t sit there crying and screaming, idiot.”

Dan Gottlieb, a psychologist who hosts a mental health call-in radio show in Philadelphia, says such attitudes are tragically common.

Gottlieb, a quadriplegic, is the author of a book, Letters to Sam, written in honor of his autistic grandson.

“I know what it’s like to feel different,” Gottlieb says. “Being disabled is a fact of Sam’s life and a fact of my life. This book is my prayer that the world Sam grows up in is more compassionate, more kind, more loving and less fearful.”

Judy Moll, a single mom of an autistic son, says Christians should be the first to extend compassion to families dealing with challenges such as autism. She is organizing a ministry at her church, Visalia (Calif.) First Assembly of God, to provide special care for autistic children while their parents attend services.

“Churches need to recognize the need to minister to these families and implement services so that somehow they can get in and sit in a worship service and get something from God because they so need it,” Moll says.

Moll’s son Anthony exhibited severe autism as a young child. Because he was often violent, Moll was told he would probably need to be institutionalized by the time he was 10.

“At times all I could do was pray,” Moll says. “The pressure is so great and it’s overwhelming and exhausting. Had it not been for God, I don’t know how I would have gotten through it.”

Now 11, Anthony has a relationship with Christ and is no longer violent. He participates in a regular school classroom, where he befriends other disabled and misunderstood students. He has expressed an interest in working with special-needs children when he grows up.

“I believe someday he won’t have any symptoms of autism at all,” Moll says. “We pray together daily and ask for God’s help. At night, we read the Bible together.”

Though Moll was told her son would never be able to participate in team sports, he has played baseball for the past four years. Last season, he hit a home run.

“It was a moment they told me I would never experience,” Moll says. “There have been so many of those. If I had listened to the doctors and not had faith in God, we might never have gotten here.”

Higbee says many families with autistic children stay away from church because their kids are unable to behave appropriately in services. He has worked with numerous churches, training staff and helping them set up classrooms for autistic children.

“The tendency is to let the parents deal with the child,” Higbee says. “But the parents need time away, time to recharge themselves spiritually.”

Nevertheless, the challenge of finding volunteers to work with autistic kids keeps some churches from providing such specialized services.

Ted Cederblom, co-pastor of Park Crest Calvary Temple Assembly of God in Springfield, Mo., says he has tried for the past several years to recruit someone to head a program for children with special needs, such as autism and Down syndrome.

“It’s certainly the heart of our church,” Cederblom says. “But it’s difficult.”

Cederblom, whose 14-year-old son, Brian, is autistic, sometimes has to walk around with the teen while performing his pastoral duties on Wednesday nights because there is no one else to care for him.

“It’s a struggle to figure out what to do with him, and I’m the pastor,” Cederblom says. “When you think about a regular parishioner or someone trying to find a home church, their struggles can seem insurmountable.”


CHRISTINA QUICK is staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Refrigerator Art (cquick.agblogger.org).

E-mail your comments to tpe@ag.org.

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