What is going on with Josh? He is a twelve-year-old boy in your church’s youth group. He doesn’t seem to fit in with the other kids; he is awkward and uncomfortable in social situations. He often sits by himself and has a hard time entering into conversations. When he does, the conversation quickly becomes a lecture as Josh shares obscure details about The Lord of the Rings. Josh is a walking encyclopedia on the subject, but he seems oblivious when people grow bored and want to walk away.
That’s not the only thing Josh seems to miss. He can’t seem to connect or empathize with the feelings of others—their joys or their sorrows. He can be brutally honest, bluntly stating his opinion (“That hairstyle looks horrible!”) without an ounce of tact. If he thinks it, he says it.
Josh speaks well and has a good vocabulary, yet he has a hard time understanding what others communicate to him, verbally and nonverbally. Subtle humor goes over his head; so do figures of speech. He often takes literally things that are meant figuratively. He gets upset easily and has a tough time shifting gears in the moment. His emotions sometimes seem out of proportion to the situation.
Why does Josh struggle this way? Can we give a name to his difficulty?
A brief description cannot do justice to Josh’s experience (or to the other children who struggle like him), but it is possible that if Josh were evaluated medically, he would be given a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome.
How should we as Christians think about this experience and diagnosis? How can we minister to those who exhibit these behaviors?
Ministering to Asperger Syndrome Children
While there are many aspects of your child’s AS that you may struggle to understand, you can be sure of one thing: your child is a body-soul image bearer of the Living God. What does this mean in practice?
AS children have a spiritual nature as well as the body (brain-based) weaknesses associated with social difficulties. Recognizing both aspects of your child’s personhood keeps you from going to extremes in relating to him. For example, we don’t want to ignore any brain-based aspect to AS and focus solely on spiritual and sin issues. (“Asperger Syndrome is just an excuse for him to sin.”) Nor do we want to overemphasize the physical component and downplay a person’s responsibility before God and others. (“I know I just hurt that person, but I have AS. That’s just the way I am.”) Instead, we seek to make biblically wise distinctions between spiritual or sin issues (the realm of the heart) and bodily or brain-based issues and weaknesses.
Approach each person as unique
Too often we want ease and comfort in our relationships. That’s one reason why we prefer to hang out with people like ourselves. But ministry to AS individuals (or to anyone different from us!) means a commitment to know and understand them as comprehensively as we can. We don’t minister to generic body-souls, we relate to Frances or Tom or Susan or Josh. Each has unique facets to his or her personhood.
Not Everything Socially “Odd” is Sinful
AS persons do need specific training to improve their social awareness and interpersonal skills, but we who are more neurotypical must not jump to conclusions about what is sin and what is not. Our tendency may be to shade the truth a bit to protect our reputation, or to tell someone what she wants to hear to avoid a conflict. We are not innocent. We should take to heart Jesus’ admonition, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7). There may be something to learn from someone with AS. After all, he finds it difficult to be sneaky or deceitful. His honesty catches us off guard.
Let’s not forget the strengths that AS individuals can bring to the table: unique and creative insights, passionate and exhaustive knowledge of favorite subjects, intelligence, and a quirky sense of humor, to name a few.
Ministry to Josh, then, would not mean rebuking him for his preoccupation with The Lord of the Rings. Instead, it might involve helping him connect his interests with other topics, like the parallels between the gospel and the plot and characters of the book.
Use Clear Communication
Give simple and concise directions in short, uncomplicated sentences. Do not use metaphor, slang, and figures of speech. Do not use vague responses like “perhaps” or “we’ll see,” or “maybe later.” It is better to say, “I don’t know the answer to that question right now. Ask me again tomorrow.”
Remember the Ultimate Goal
The goal of parenting an AS child is the same as parenting a non-AS child: to shepherd his or her heart in relation to the living God. The task is far more challenging in AS children, but in the day-to-day press of life’s challenges, the basic fact remains: God has given those who minister to AS individuals the task of “testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” in their lives (Acts 20:24).
Targeting the heart involves more than addressing sinful behavior. It includes that, but it also includes teaching, instruction, encouragement, and “vision-casting” (“Here’s how I saw Jesus at work in your life today!”). Targeting the heart stresses the benefits of our redemption in Jesus. It marvels at how God has included us in his story. When we as believers discipline our children, we do well to remember that it is the kindness and mercy of God, given to us in Christ Jesus, that moves us toward faith and obedience (Romans 2:4).
For more tips on ministering to and parenting a child with Asperger Syndrome, check out the minibook, Asperger Syndrome: Meeting the Challenges with Hope.
This post is an adapted excerpt from Asperger Syndrome: Meeting the Challenges with Hope ©2005 by Michael R. Emlet. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.
ASPERGER SYNDROME: MEETING THE CHALLENGES WITH HOPE
Michael R. Emlet, combining his experience as a physician and a biblical counselor, explains Asperger Syndrome and highlights the unique place each person, including those with AS, has in God’s family.