As part of a military family, moving frequently is a fact of life for Tonya Nash and her two autistic sons. This has brought a unique challenge to their lives as Tonya’s sons try to adjust to a new church family with every move. Tonya was curious as to why support wasn’t readily available in more churches, and so started the Autism Awareness Month Faith-Based Initiative.
Tonya shares with us the story of her journey to support her sons’ needs…
I have two sons with autism, Daniel and Nicholas. Daniel is 10 years old and was diagnosed in 2011. Nicholas is 4 years old and was diagnosed in 2016. I didn’t understand how difficult it could be for persons with autism to attend church until Daniel was born.
As a military family, we moved around quite a bit. Each move led to us finding a new church home. I watched Daniel struggle with social interactions and with abrupt changes in sound and lighting. Just walking into a church sent him into sensory overload. We were once even told by children’s church staff that, “We’re not equipped to handle that.” In 2013, a church we attended, Bethesda Church of God in Sumter, SC, started a special needs ministry for Daniel. He thrived in the new classes and even participated in the church Christmas play!
I began to wonder why this support isn’t readily available in most churches? I started doing research on autism and found that African-American and Hispanic children are more likely to receive a late diagnosis of autism than White children. This disturbed me as an African-American mother. I also found studies that stated that 32% of parents of special needs children changed their church because their child was not welcomed or included and 56% did not take their child to church due to a lack of support. I realized that I was not alone and that many other families experience this issue!
My passion for this topic led to the creation of the Autism Awareness Month Faith-Based Initiative in 2016. With the faith community being a major part of African-American and Hispanic communities, I figured that the initiative could help reduce late diagnosis rates.
Daniel loves to draw and created the logo for the Autism Awareness Month Faith-Based Initiative
The initiative encourages churches to do at least one activity in the month of April, which is Autism Awareness Month. I provide a toolkit with educational resources and a list of suggested activities. My ultimate goal for this initiative is to:
- Create autism awareness
- Promote early intervention
- Encourage screening for autism
- Eliminate stigmas about autism
- Promote autism acceptance and inclusion
Since 2016, we have had 23 churches participate, with over 5500 persons learning about autism! Most of the churches are predominantly African-American, with many commenting that they didn’t know much about autism until the initiative began at their church. Some were even able to identify children that needed screening! Several churches have started special needs ministries. My work for this initiative opened doors for me to speak about autism awareness in the black community on the behalf of Autism Speaks.
My desire is that faith communities will take the lead in breaking stigmas and promoting autism acceptance and inclusion. I also hope that this initiative will create more knowledge about autism and increase screenings, especially in communities of color. Every family affected by autism should be able to attend a welcoming place of worship within their local community and we hope to make that a reality.
Many thanks to Tonya for sharing the story of her inspiring work. Our next post will showcase a very different story of a woman who is forever thankful for a wonderful nurse tech, who she credits with saving her husband’s life!