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The Autism Gospel – Members as Friends

The school year was almost complete and I was at our last IEP meeting. While these events once struck terror in my heart, this year we have been blessed with a wonderful team. Before we began, one of his teachers said, “Oh, wait! I have to tell you what happened at recess! I’ve never seen anything like it.” This is the story she told.

 

One of Noah’s best friends is a little girl who is blind. Each morning Lauren greets him in their homeroom by running her hands over his face, being gentle around his glasses. Then she quickly moves her hands to tickle his stomach and announces, “That is a Noah!” They play together at recess. She mostly sits and listens to the other children play or enjoys walking hand-in-hand with friends on the playground.

During the last week of school, his teacher looked up to see Lauren and Noah having a conversation. Noah, standing in front of her, had her cane in his hand and seemed to be asking her a question. The teacher observed Lauren smile and laugh, then nod at Noah. But what happened next was described as his teacher as something she has never seen before.

Taking his friend’s cane in his left hand, Noah placed his hand over his eyes with his other hand. Using only the noise of his friend’s voice, Noah began navigating the playground. The teacher said the girl would laugh as Noah would stop and call out something he had run into. This went on for ten minutes or so. Then Noah went back to her and took his place at her side.

When asked about what happened, here is what Noah said: “I just needed to know what it is like to be Lauren. If I am really going to be her friend, I think I have to understand her. Pretending to be blind helps me be her friend.” 

I believe this reveals something crucial to us about how to include people “other” than us in our membership. Many times the first reply to involvement in a disability ministry is that the training of volunteers is problematic. We feel that there is no way that a volunteer can be appropriately trained to handle every potential situation that might occur when encountering someone with a disability. After all, they are so different an other than me. How can I prepare myself for such a task? 

I think the answer lies in that very assumption – that it is a task. Yes, tasks require preparation and training. Friendship, however, does not. How much training have you undergone before beginning a friendship? Think of a particular friend. Did you read books to prepare yourself to have a relationship? Did you attend a seminar? Was there a training to undergo to plan for every eventuality and potential circumstance that a friendship might endure? 

The answer is no. To be a friend, you do what Noah did. You take an interest in that person. You learn that person. What is it like to be them? What do they enjoy doing? You make an effort to identify with them. You spend time with them.

Benjamin T. Conner, in Amplifying Our Witness, writes

“Friendship shows a way of relating to a person with developmental disabilities beyond the medical model of care – an etiology, signs and symptoms, or a technical solution to the ‘problem’ of disability. In the medical model, disability is often characterized in a way similar to an illness; a specific, definable pathology and an individual problem to be eliminated – this model does not address the human, as such….Christian friendship – the affirming presence of another – transcends relational boundaries of likeness, instrumentality, or social exchange.”

Noah has no qualifications to be friends with Lauren. She is merely a friend. Are their exchanges atypical? Yes. But reviewing many of my friendships, I imagine our exchanges could also be described as atypical. Additionally, those social exchanges we define as critical to friendships vary from relationship to relationship. Honestly, there are some of my friends with whom I discuss my passions of theology or disability ministry in detail and others with whom I do not. That kind of social exchange is not necessary for me to consider one a “friend.”

Noah did not attend special training to acquire his friendship. Instead, he merely observed Lauren and learned her. He took this learning so far as to position himself in an environment where he might fully identify with her. Anyone who has sat by a friend in a hospital waiting room or funeral home has done the same. We can’t be prepared ahead of time for these situations; we learn as we become members of one another.

Memberships that are built on friendship are long lasting. They endure. When you become a member of another in this way, there are fewer ways this person is “other” than you. There are fewer opportunities for fear or misunderstanding based on differences and more room for a grace that flows from brotherly love.

Noah is a member of Lauren. He is her friend. Who will we extend the hand of membership to?

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Author:

Vangie writes, teaches and speaks about her experience as the parent of a child with Autism. She holds a B.S. in Christian Ministry and an M.A. in Contemporary Theology. She seeks to synthesize perspectives in theology, disability and ministry.

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