This story disturbs me greatly. I have a five year old non-verbal autistic niece, who, like Tristan, shouts and laughs and makes other loud noises. Once when attending church with my parents she suddenly ran to the front of the sanctuary and started walking up the steps, counting them loudly as she went. But the pastor barely batted an eye because in that church, children (and adults) with disabilities have always been welcome. When I was growing up there were several kids with various disabilities who came regularly. They participated in Sunday school, VBS, children’s and youth choir, and youth group like any other kid. Worship was often punctuated with their exclamations, clapping, and laughter, especially during the hymns. I’m sure that over the years there were probably complaints from people who thought those sounds disturbed worship, but those in leadership made it clear everyone was welcome, and families were certainly never asked to leave because of the noises their kids made.
Since leaving my hometown and going through seminary, I’ve discovered that my home church was a rare exception, not the norm. Talking to families of kids with disabilities I’ve learned that attitudes like what the Rimmers encountered at King’s College are all too common. Many such parents have given up trying to find a church where they won’t be judged and asked to leave because their kid makes too much noise or doesn’t sit still. Many churches make claims that “all are welcome” but in most cases that welcome doesn’t extend to autistic people and others who express themselves outside of neurotypical norms. People like Tristan are only welcome if they can learn to conform to neurotypical patterns of behavior. What makes it even worse is when families are asked to leave or sit outside in earshot of the kid, because people assume that disabled kids don’t understand anything happening around them. As Rimmer said in his letter, “My son might not be able to talk, but he knows perfectly well what is going on around him.”
Autistic people and others with disabilities struggle for acceptance and inclusion everywhere they go. Lack of understanding among neurotypicals and ableds means people with disabilities are subjected to judgment, probing questions, lack of accessibility and more on a daily basis. Our churches have to do better. We have to be educating our congregations on disabilities. We have to make our buildings and our worship accessible. We have to ensure our churches are as welcoming and inclusive as possible. We can’t say “well we’ll just wait until people with disabilities show up and then we’ll address it.” These things have to happen now, so that when they do come, they find a place that is already welcoming. No one should ever be asked to leave a church because they or their child don’t fit into some arbitrary box of what is acceptable church behavior. It’s long past time to make our churches into places where people with disabilities can go to be free of the judgment and exclusion they face everyday in the secular world.