Don’t judge a book by its cover.
We say it glibly. But we sure don’t live by it.
Because boy, do we love to judge each other by our covers. Even when we don’t think we’re doing it.
There’s much talk these days about inclusion, about disabilities, about autism awareness and acceptance. It’s 2016. We like to think we’re out of the dark ages when it comes to special needs. We’ve come a long way.
But unfortunately, we still have a long way to go. Especially when it comes to invisible disabilities.
There’s a young single mom I’ve had the privilege to get to know. Her son is young and most likely on the autism spectrum, although he doesn’t yet have an official medical diagnosis.
I reached out to the boy’s mom because I felt extreme sympathy for her. I remember what it was like in those early days.
- Noticing my child was different.
- Wondering why he exhausted me so much but at the same time loving him fiercely.
- Discouraged by the fact that he was “getting into trouble” everywhere he went.
- Confused by behaviors that were so out of the norm and shocking to me because he clearly knew better.
This young mom is a fighter. She loves her son and will go to bat for him when needed.
But there are people in her life who are still telling her it is a behavioral problem. That autism is an excuse, not a disability.
Oh, how far we still have to go.
It reminds me of the conversation I had with the woman we affectionately call “the donut lady,” who referred to autism as “that disease” and expressed her anger at the behaviors that accompanied it.
Let’s be clear, here. I am not and will never make excuses for poor behavior.
Children (and adults, I might add) need to learn to be polite and kind and engage in socially appropriate behavior. Children need incentives and consequences. They need to be taught and trained and disciplined.
But some kids have a harder time conforming to social norms. This is pretty much a textbook definition of high-functioning autism (formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome), which is what my son has. He looks normal, is developing normally, and communicates well. His social skills, though, still need work.
Social lessons don’t automatically ‘click’ for him like they do for my other children.
So the teaching and the training and the discipline and the reminding become tedious, as we have to continue the same lessons over and over and over again, hoping for the day it will finally ‘click.’
Bad Behavior Isn’t Always Sin
There’s a dangerous situation in church settings regarding these invisible disabilities.
It’s the tendency to equate a young child’s inappropriate behavior with ‘sin.’ In a Christian environment, where we teach certain values and social norms as being aligned with God’s Word, it’s all too easy for us to look at the behavior of children and assume they are willfully disobeying.
We look at a four year old throwing a temper tantrum and label it as sin. And sometimes it is.
But all too often the behavior we label ‘sin’ is part of normal development.
Four year olds are hardwired to seek independence, to try to buck the system and see what they can get away with. It frustrates the heck out of us, but in truth, they are often doing exactly what they are developmentally designed to do at this age.
Same with teenagers. I’m struggling mightily with my two pre-teens and my teenager. Their attitudes are often atrocious, their moods surly, and they have intense emotions over what seem like insignificant things. I wonder where I’ve gone wrong as a parent.
And then I read that it’s a normal part of adolescent development, beginning this separation from their parents in the journey toward independent adulthood. We talk to them about it, we have discussions about sin and about asking for God’s help. We teach about the need for self-control and kindness. But the behaviors are hard to control.
And why do we expect behaviors from children that we often aren’t capable of ourselves?
We insist on “first-time obedience” from children when told to do something they don’t want to do. But how often do we obey the first time we’re told to do something we don’t want to do?
- How often do we turn off the TV and go to bed at a decent hour because we know we are supposed to?
- How often do we resist that sugary dessert or second helping of chips and dip, because we know it’s not good for us?
- How often do we get off Facebook and interact with the people around us without being interrupted by every ping and notification that flashes across the screen?
And yet with children, we judge those little books by their covers all the time.
The Problem with Invisible Disabilities and Bad Behavior
This idea gets especially tricky when it comes to kids with invisible disabilities, because their behaviors are often symptoms of their disability.
Tantrums and inappropriate behaviors aren’t always willful disobedience. Undesirable behaviors can occur for many reasons: sensory overload, fear, anxiety, or inability to communicate are just a few. Kids with invisible disabilities have brains that are actually wired differently.
You might think they’re faking it because they ‘look’ normal. But the research shows otherwise.
Let’s say for instance, that you were running from a large angry bear. No one would judge you for the ‘socially inappropriate’ things you might do or say in that situation. We would understand that you were running for your life and that your primitive ‘fight or flight’ mode had taken over the rational-thinking part of your brain. We would understand how you were simply trying to survive.
This is how our kids with invisible disabilities feel much of the time. They are often in ‘fight or flight’ mode, because of the perceived threats they see and feel all around them. Sure, we can dismiss these ‘perceived threats’ as silly and nonexistent, but their brains cannot tell the difference.
When our kids with invisible disabilities behave inappropriately, they often feel as if they are fighting for their lives. This is what their brain tells them. And so they fight or shut down or run away. They do what their brains tell them to do in order to survive.
When Children Behave Badly in Public
Here’s how we can respond better to misbehavior, especially when it comes to special needs kids:
1. When you see a child misbehaving, don’t automatically assume it’s the parents’ fault.
Let me tell you something: most parents teach their kids right from wrong. My autistic son has been taught repeatedly about appropriate and acceptable behaviors. But that doesn’t mean he always goes by our rulebook. All children break the rules at times. This doesn’t mean they haven’t been taught or that they have bad parents.
By this standard, God would be the worst parent ever. Just look at how so many of his kids turned out.
2. Don’t judge the child as a ‘bad kid.’
This one breaks my heart. My autistic son has been called and treated as ‘bad’ for so long, that he’s internalized it. He believes he is a bad kid, and we are working diligently to try and teach him differently. But it’s a constant uphill battle.
Despite what you may think or how it may have been when you were growing up, there are no ‘bad kids.’ Behavior doesn’t occur in a vacuum. There’s always a reason behind it. And it’s usually not the child’s fault.
3. Don’t stare.
This one always gets me.
I remember being at a church music program where my son was struggling. A young couple kept turning around and staring at him every time he made a sound. These were people who knew of his diagnosis. And yet they kept making a point of turning around to stare in disapproval.
Staring doesn’t stop the behavior. All it does is make the parents feel worse, shaming them for a situation they are already desperately trying to solve. And the children are oblivious to those stares.
Since my son was diagnosed years ago, I have forced myself to learn new behavior. I purposefully do not turn my head whenever I hear a child other than my own making noises or crying in a public place. It is a conscious decision, but it is the least I can do in support of parents who are struggling. Even if the sound bothers me, I refuse to turn and stare. Instead I pray silently for the parents and the child.
4. Don’t offer unsolicited advice.
Want to know what the parents of the misbehaving child need?
They need your love, support, and encouragement.
- They don’t need your advice or condemnation.
- They don’t need you to tell them how it was different ‘back in your day.’
- They certainly don’t need you to minimize their child’s struggle or real disability by blaming it on willful disobedience or calling it ‘sin.’
Instead of advice, offer a smile. A hug. A word of understanding such as, “I remember those days,” or “How can I help?” Acknowledge that parenting is hard work and let those parents know how you see them working hard at it.
What Grieves God’s Heart
Several years ago, there was a little boy the same age as one of my children who attended a church program one evening and struggled. He had attention problems, difficulty following directions, and was easily overwhelmed. In typical ADHD six-year-old fashion, he ran around a lot and ignored the teachers.
It was the first night of a new program. They were still working out all the kinks. Many of the kids and all of the teachers were a little frazzled by the time the evening was over.
But what I witnessed when this little boy was dismissed that night broke my heart. As the teacher released the child to his father, she gave this report: “Your son had a hard time tonight. He has a problem with a disobedient spirit. If you want him to come back, you’ll have to attend with him and make him obey.” The father laughed it off and responded, “Yeah. He’s always been the bad one.”
The family never returned.
Friends, that’s a sad story. It’s a heartbreaking story, not just for us, but for our Savior Jesus Christ who specifically said, “don’t hinder the children from coming to me.” And yet we close doors to them all the time because we can’t get past a hyper six-year-old’s behavior.
Scenarios like this grieve the very heart of God. Especially when our responses drive entire families away from our churches and from connection to the very communities who should be building them up.
Don’t let it be your church.
And please, whatever you do, don’t let it be you.
Have you ever faced a similar situation in your church or in a community gathering? Ever been stared at for your child’s behavior? Ever been asked to leave? Share your stories with me in the comments below. We find strength in numbers, and in knowing we aren’t the only ones who’ve had these experiences.
So tell your story, won’t you? Your story matters!
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