I have four amazing children, two are self-sufficient Christian adults living on their own and two are teenagers with ADHD and are on the Autism Spectrum living at home. There are many challenges and pitfalls raising children in the Church, but raising children that are non-typical can be very difficult and lonely.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a chronic, complex neurological condition that begins in childhood and for many people continues into adulthood. It is displayed through persistent inattention, hyperactivity and many times impulsiveness. It affects a child’s ability to learn and get along well with others.
Some of the Signs and Symptoms of ADHD:
- Difficulty paying attention, staying on task, organizing themselves
- Forgetting daily tasks, often losing things, making careless mistakes
- Not seeming to be listening when spoken to
- Fidgeting or tapping hands or feet, not able to stay seated
- Running or climbing where it is inappropriate
- Unable to play or do anything quietly
- Talking too much, blurting out answers before the question is finished
- Always on the go, as if driven by a motor
ADHD is a brain-based, biological disorder in which there is a breakdown in the connectivity and communication networks in the brain and no two individuals with ADHD will look the same in their struggles.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is well, a spectrum. It has a wide range of symptoms and severity that can be all the way from inability to speak to relatively mild problems in social interaction. There is no cure but with intensive, early treatment many children can lead independent, productive adult lives.
Some of the Signs and Symptoms of ASD:
- Resists cuddling and holding, prefers to play alone or “in their own world”
- Poor eye contact, lacks facial expression
- Fails to respond to their own name or appears to not hear when spoken to
- Can range from very low intelligence to normal or very highly intelligent
- Doesn’t speak, delayed speech or loses previous ability to talk
- Speaks with an abnormal tone/rhythm
- Repeats words/phrases verbatim, but doesn’t understand how to use them
- Doesn’t appear to understand simple questions or directions
- Doesn’t express emotions or feeling, seems unaware of other’s feelings
- Difficulty recognizing nonverbal social cues
- Difficulty with social interactions by being passive, aggressive or disruptive
- May have limited, repetitive patterns of behavior or interests
- Rocking, spinning or hand-flapping
- Biting, head-banging
- Develops specific routines, becomes disturbed at the slightest change
- Problems with coordination, may have odd movement patterns, clumsiness or exaggerated body language
- Can be fascinated by details of an object and fixate on it
- Unusually sensitive to light, sound or touch, yet may be indifferent to pain or temperature
- Very specific food preferences, may only eat a few foods, may have difficulty with certain textures
The cause of Autism and ADHD is still unknown. There does seem to be a possible genetic link as both seem to run in families, but not always. There is much research going on with both disorders regarding environmental factors, but there is no known single cause at this time.
Although both of my sons have official ADHD and ASD diagnosis’ they have different challenges. Jonathan is now 16 years old and is a very outgoing, happy teenager. He loved to be held as a baby and has always enjoyed a good (or even bad) joke. When he was younger he struggled with eye contact, talking constantly about whatever was his current interest (I know more about Pokémon than you can imagine), interrupting, coordination difficulties- especially writing, hair twirling when stressed, and textures of certain foods. He has never been interested in animals, but has always cared about other people’s feelings. Ryan who is currently 13 really struggled with his behavior when he was younger. He always had great eye contact and facial expressions, but he could go from 0 to 60 in seconds. One minute he was smiling and next minute he was hitting, biting or screaming. He was like holding a wild animal. Now we know that he was overly sensitive to touch, light and sound, but back then he was very difficult to care for. He had very restrictive tastes and we were very limited on what we could get him to eat. His coordination was much better than his brother’s, but still not on target for his age. Ryan was very literal in his understanding of language and he did not get jokes at all, but he started reading at 3 years old without ever being taught. He didn’t understand that other people had feelings, but he loved animals, although it took him a long time to learn how to touch them gently. They both love computers and electronics, but have no interest in sports or out door activities.
It was quite a challenge to get them diagnosed. On the surface they both appeared to be growing and developing normally, but they processed information, stimulation and life very differently from typical children. We finally were blessed to have them sent to Stanford University for assessment and diagnosis. It made a huge difference for us once we had a direction.
My husband and I both grew up regularly attending the Turlock, CA Church of Christ. Eric, my husband has been the regular song leader, preacher, teacher and an elder at the Waterford, CA Church for several years. We raised our first two children there, too. I thought we knew about being parents, I thought we were experienced, I thought we had it together until… Ryan, our fourth and last baby. Jonathan was a bit wigglier in church than the first two children, but we could distract him, he would talk someone’s ear off about whatever he was interested in, but other than that he managed pretty well during and after services. Ryan was a different story.
Ryan struggled from day one… and so did we. He would smile adorably at the people behind us and then scream at the top of his lungs a moment later like someone had pinched him. He could not stay still no matter what interesting toys or books we had brought. Food didn’t work, juice didn’t work, nothing helped to keep this boy quiet and relatively still. We had always sat up at the front of the building because we found out early on that most people would sit near the back. Since Eric was the song leader every meeting we figured that we could at least keep the front of the building filled. This was fine with the first three children. By the time Ryan was 2 years old I was in and out of services as many as 6 times in one worship service. He could not whisper. He just could not make his voice quiet. He would throw things, pull my hair, scratch and bite. I finally told Eric one Sunday that I was moving to the back permanently or I was not going to church anymore. I was so tired of putting on a show for the people behind me. Some people were kind and told me they could see how hard I was working to try and teach my son to sit in church, but many people seemed to avoid me or make comments about giving a good spanking would take care of the problem. Believe me the child did not lack from discipline. I once overheard someone saying that we were “helicopter parents,” meaning that all we did was hover over our precious children. It is true that we would follow Ryan around after church, but I guess they didn’t realize that it was to try and protect their children from ours. We never knew what he would do. When I look back my heart hurts for all the times that he was struggling with sensory issues while I was struggling to discipline him into behaving. Those were really rough times. I dreaded going to church.
Once we understood some of their challenges and the boys got old enough to express their needs, it did get easier. We are very open with them about their autism and ADHD. When most parents were telling their children not to do what the other kids do, we were telling ours to watch how other people behave in a situation and try to copy it. We have encouraged them to pause and think through a situation before acting. That took a lot of practice and sometimes there were some obvious reminders that their brains work a bit differently. One Sunday when Ryan was about 8 years old he needed to go to the bathroom during the assembly. I thought about it and decided that he would be fine going on his own. I whispered to him to come right back when he was done and not to be disruptive when he returned. I gave him about 5 minutes before I started to worry and finally went to find out why he was taking so long. I could not find him anywhere and started to panic. I glanced back into the auditorium to see if I had missed him, when I noticed that my husband who was currently in the pulpit had a strange look on his face. I hurried back in to find that Ryan was crawling under the pews all the way to the front of the auditorium. I was so embarrassed at the time. Now I can look back and see the humor. When we questioned him, he said that he didn’t want to be disruptive by having people see him walk up to where we were sitting so he went under the pews amongst everyone’s legs. Such is life with a child on the Spectrum.
It has been a journey, just as every parent’s life is. All children have different, unique needs, but when you have a child with “different-abilities” sometimes the journey can feel lonely. A good support system can make all the difference. I will never forget one time when I was so embarrassed as I struggled with the boy’s behavior in church while it seemed that every other child in church behaved like angels. I just wanted to give up. After services one of the elderly ladies came up to me and gave me a big hug. She told me that she just wanted to let me know that she loved my boys and us. She said that I was doing a great job and it would be okay. I so needed that at that moment. Church family can go a long way in helping families feel supported and loved. Just a few words of encouragement can make all the difference.
By Tamara Wallers
Tamara Wallers is a labor and delivery RN. She and her husband have 4 children, 1 son-in-love and 1 grandson. She has taught children’s Bible classes for over 30 years. Her favorite things are her family, reading pretty much anything, traveling, animals, ice cream, teaching nursing classes, the wonder of birth and visiting her brother and sister-in-law in Oklahoma. She and her family have worshiped with the Waterford Church of Christ in California for the last 20 years.