Study: U.S. churches exclude children with autism, ADD/ADHD


Archbishop Desmond Tutu welcomes children

America’s religious communities are failing children with chronic health conditions such as autism, learning disabilities, depression and conduct disorders.

And they have been doing it for a very long time, suggests a just-published national study following three waves of the National Survey of Children’s Health.

The odds of a child with autism never attending religious services were nearly twice as high as compared to children with no chronic health conditions. The odds of never attending also were significantly higher for children with developmental delays, ADD/ADHD, learning disabilities and behavior disorders.

Sanctuaries were much more sympathetic to children with health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, epilepsy or vision problems. Those children were as likely to be in the pews as youngsters with no health conditions.

But children with conditions that limit social interaction, those youngsters and their parents who are often excluded from other social settings and have the greater need for a community of social support, were most likely to feel unwelcome at religious services.

“I would like to think that this research could serve as a wake-up call to the religious communities in our nation,” said Clemson University sociologist Andrew Whitehead, the study researcher. “In many ways this population is unseen because they never show up, or when they do, they have a negative experience and never return.”

Persistent neglect

A series of studies of children and adolescents with chronic health conditions have found regular attendance at religious services was generally associated with improved mental and emotional health, higher self-esteem and overall well-being.

Studies also have found family members of children with chronic conditions benefit from finding such welcoming faith communities. They report increased social support and better physical and mental health, Whitehead noted.

His study was designed to provide the first large-scale, longitudinal analysis of religious service attendance among children with chronic health conditions. It analyzes data from the 2003, 2007 and 2011-2012 waves of the children’s health survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study was published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Many of the findings are disturbing:

• The odds of a child with autism spectrum disorder never attending services were 1.84 times higher than for children without a chronic health condition.
• The odds of those with a conduct disorder or those with depression and anxiety never attending were 1.5 times greater.
• The odds of youngsters with a developmental delay or a learning disability never attending were 1.36 times higher.
• The odds of children with ADD/ADHD never attending were 1.2 times higher.

The reasons for not attending can be complex, but prior research indicates barriers put up by the congregation are a major deterrent. They range from lack of training and programming to attitudinal barriers that can include patronizing voices asking if such children “really get anything out of participating,” noted Whitehead, who himself has two children with autism who are non-verbal.

Family members themselves can become victims as church members with words or hostile looks communicate messages such as, “Why can’t the parent just control the kid?”

“It can just wear on you,” Whitehead said.

What can be done

There is no one way of preparing for children with chronic health conditions such as autism or learning disabilities that affect social interaction.

“Every child with a chronic health condition is different, so there is no effective, cookie-cutter approach to welcoming them,” Whitehead said. “However, having a system in place where families are seen, heard and valued will go a long way toward preventing a religious community from becoming yet another bureaucracy these families have to navigate. Instead, these communities can become places of rest and refuge.”

There are a number of examples of congregations who are accommodating and distinguish themselves from the majority. He said when church leadership is open to having conversations about how a family can be served, they signal they are willing to work with children who learn in different ways.

It starts with planning and preparation.

But it ends with making a theological and ethical commitment to welcome children with all kinds of disabilities.

“Families with children with chronic health conditions will be able to determine very quickly if they have any hope of being a valued part of a religious congregation,” Whitehead said. “Preparation and planning tell these parents, ‘We see you, and your child matters to us.’”

Image by St. James Church, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

5 Responses to “Study: U.S. churches exclude children with autism, ADD/ADHD”

  1. Our congregation made a commitment to include all children including those on the autism spectrum, ADD/ADHD or any other health/disability issue. It was not easy or inexpensive but we now have a full inclusion program where all children are both in worship and in Christian Education. To manage this program requires specially trained full and part-time staff. The gift of our congregation is that they were and are willing to not only accept, but embrace children who might cry out in worship, slide down the center isle or any number of other actions that might not be acceptable in other congregations. All of us on staff understand why congregations find full inclusion difficult, but i will say it is worth the effort because it truly helps us be everybody’s church.

  2. Melodie Robison says:

    Our church began a ministry for special needs children and their families. It is such a blessing for these families to have a place for their loved ones to be in a setting that is especially for what ever they need in terms of their autism, Downs, or a variety of behaviorial or medical needs. It takes volunteers and professionals who are somewhat trained and have a heart for special needs. These families, many of them could never attend church due to the issues they faced, are now coming to our church specifically for this ministry to them. It’s a community for them now. It must have the support of a church staff and membership that recognizes this great need.

  3. […] continue reading here: Study: U.S. churches exclude children with autism, ADD/ADHD | Ahead of the Trend […]

  4. […] U.S. houses of worship are excluding children with autism and other developmental conditions but not those with epilepsy. Association of Religion Data Archives […]

  5. Thank you for drawing attention to this matter….if you or Mr Whitehead would like to do a follow-up on some churches that are trying to correct this problem, please consider us: https://gracechurchsc.org/connect/discipleship/mosaic/

    Since Mr. Whitehead is in our geographical area, it would be an easy research assignment.

    All the best,
    Scott Mozingo – Pastor

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