Content Warning: Reference to the Holocaust
A truthful and vulnerable moment; I know that the medical and disability community has stopped using the phrase “Asberger’s Syndrome” to describe autistic people who need minimal accommodations. The phrase was removed entirely from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders in 2013. I did not learn until about a year ago the reason behind the change. Hans Asberger, the pediatrician who developed the classification, was associated with the Nazi Party. His diagnostic criteria were used during the Holocaust and led to the deaths of many. Once I learned the horrific story, I was embarrassed and ashamed I hadn’t known this history, having so many youth on the autism spectrum in my congregation. As Dr. Maya Angelou says however, “When we know better, we do better.” That’s what led me to learning all I could about supporting my children and youth with disabilities. I’m excited to share a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way!
Our translation of the Bible is filled with tales of disabilities being the source of horrible trauma and even the result of demonic possession. It’s easy to see how those stories could be harmful without very specific context. Also, think about how many of our songs and rhymes are full of physical language and references to “walking/marching in the light of God” or Father Abraham with all his moving limbs. How do those songs feel to a child with a prosthesis or in a wheelchair? Looking for ways to encourage attention that don’t specify using “listening ears” or “eyes up here” is much kinder and more inclusive. Slight rewrites of lyrics or a different song choice can help children with disabilities feel welcome.
I’ve also learned the helpful power of adaptation for the “plug and play” resources we use in many Sunday school of Vacation Bible School settings. I adapt choreography to have a “standing” and a “seated” version. I usually teach arm movements first then add leg movements children can add on if they wish. I also make sure to voice AND act out every instruction so children can follow along easily if they have challenges seeing or hearing. Of course, lots of repetition helps children with cognitive or developmental challenges. Using textured materials for crafts supports children with sensory issues. Having quiet fidget toys or bouncing/rocking chairs we make available for overstimulated children or kids with attention issues has been wonderfully life-giving. We ALL learn our memory Bible verses in ASL (American Sign Language) because the movements help more of our kids who excel with tactile learning.
Many disabilities are not obvious to a Christian educator or volunteer and may not be discovered until later in a child’s life (or even into adulthood). Practicing caring support with all our children and youth extends just the embracing welcome we want to show!