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What churches can learn from the case of the autistic child dismissed from King’s College, Cambridge

Mark Arnold, theadditionalneedsblogfather, responds to the recent story that an autistic child was asked to leave evensong at King’s College, Cambridge. He asks: “Are you are a meerkat or a lion?”

A father took his two sons to evensong at King’s College, Cambridge last Sunday. One of his sons is autistic and expresses himself vocally, sometimes loudly, and was excited to be there. One of the ushers approached the family and instructed them to leave as the boy’s expressions were apparently interfering with the enjoyment of others gathered there.

This isn’t unusual, it happens in churches across our country, maybe it has happened to you or someone you know. Maybe it’s happened in your church.

 

But what happened next was extraordinary: the father, Dr Paul Rimmer, wrote a powerful, witty and stinging letter to the dean of the chapel at King’s College, and then posted it online. It was so challenging, honest and brutal that it went viral. The dean responded.

There is hope that the offered meeting between this family and the dean will help everyone to be included in future, that this kind of situation will never arise at King’s College again. However, the many similar stories rarely end like this. It is far more likely that they will end like the story that follows…

I’m sure you can picture the scene: the church service has been going for about 15 minutes, and seconds after the service leader has said “We’re going to have a few moments of reflective silence now…” A child who has additional needs responds to the promptings of the Holy Spirit moving in them, or succumbs to the overwhelming feelings that she or he is experiencing, and starts to express them vocally, VERY loudly. As you struggle to try to help them, thinking of all the coping strategies that have worked in the past (for your child AND you), pulling out a range of sensory toys, food, your mobile phone, ANYTHING that might help calm them, you suddenly notice something…

The reflective silence has now long gone (who, in their right mind, would introduce that during a part of the service when most of the children and young people are still in the service anyway?! But still they do.) and the congregation has neatly split into two groups, the meerkats and the lions.

During the first nano-second of your child’s outburst, sometimes almost beating the speed of sound, a forest of heads shoot up and, as if part of some strangely choreographed Serengeti based synchronised dance team, the heads then swivel round in perfect unison to glare in your direction. These are the meerkats…and what follows is the ‘Unholy Trinity’ of responses.

The Tut

Meerkets often give out a sound so short, but which can leave a lasting impact. People tut when they disapprove of something or someone, when they wish to show distaste or dislike. A ‘tut’ can be like a dagger to the heart of a family of a child with additional needs. It condemns, it judges, it articulates opinion in a cruel and harsh way. When trying to support a child who is overwhelmed and having a meltdown, the tut says to parents: “You have failed to control your child and now you are inflicting their issues on me, and I disapprove…” That simple sound is often accompanied by…

The Look

A harsh stare often follows the tut. The meerkats give a glowering, accusatory, frowning, purse-lipped look that make families with children with additional needs want to hide from the glare. It reinforces the sense of helplessness and hopelessness that the family will be feeling as they try to help and support their child, just at a time when what they really need is kindness and understanding. But then often the third part of the bullying ‘triple whammy’ comes swiftly along…

The Loud Comment

Ostensibly aimed at someone nearby, but made loudly enough to be heard by the family and probably most of the church congregation, the meerkat comment frequently starts with “Well...” and continues with something like “if they can’t control their child they shouldn’t bring him into church…” (control is just about the last thing possible during a meltdown), or “I wouldn’t put up with bad behaviour like that if she was my child” (this isn’t bad behaviour, it’s could be a response to sensory overload).

I could add many other examples here, perhaps including the Smug Smile when the family drag their distressed child out of the church so that they aren’t subjected to any further abuse.

Many have seen people do one or all of these things in our churches, seen the impact it has had on families and their children. We can see how our churches, our churches for goodness sake, might add to the stark statistics about additional needs bullying.

We need to be better than this, to model a better way to the rest of the world, to make a positive difference to these statistics rather than adding to them. It needs change – change to come from the top, from those with positions of responsibility in our churches. Good practice needs to be preached and poor behaviour needs to be challenged.

But sometimes there is a different end to the story; sometimes it doesn’t conclude with the family escaping from the bullying of the meerkats and fleeing the church building, never to return again. Sometimes we see an alternative ending…and this is where the additional needs lions come in.

Lions

Lions are very protective of their pride, they defend their pride, they fight for their pride. If there is danger around, the lions will group together and see it off. Lions aren’t afraid of much (people with guns, rampaging elephants, maybe an angry bull buffalo, that’s about it), and they aren’t afraid to have a go at anything or anyone who threatens their own.

There are additional needs lions in our churches. We need more, families with children with additional needs definitely need more, but they are there and their influence is growing. Additional needs lions who, when a meerkat is starting to launch into the ‘Unholy Trinity’ calls them out for it and tells them that they have no idea how hurtful their response is to a family who are already struggling.

Lions who remind the meerkats that for this family, actually making it to church at all was a huge achievement. That instead of showing irritation and displeasure they should stop thinking about themselves for a moment and imagine what it is like to walk the journey this family walks, shaming the meerkat into pulling their neck and their comments back in.

Lions get alongside the family that is trying to cope and turn the ‘tuts’ into offers of support and help, the ‘look’ to become one of friendship and encouragement, the ‘loud comment’ to be “how can we help you?”

Jesus was bullied, ridiculed and treated harshly, so he understands what families with children with additional needs go through. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that he reminded us of those verses in Leviticus 19:9-18 which he summarised as “…love your neighbour as yourself”. Loving our neighbour as ourselves talks about fairness, justice, generosity, righteousness, forgiveness, and honest to goodness loving.

So, let’s follow this teaching and let it change us, change our congregations, change our churches, and change the experience for many families with children with additional needs. Let’s all be lions in church this weekend, shall we?