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. However, the study does not provide data for specific types of religious communities, such as evangelicals.

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 children with no health conditions.

But children with conditions that limit social interaction, 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.”

Whitehead, who himself has two children with autism who are non-verbal, currently attends a Wesleyan church, though it hasn’t always been easy to get to church. “We have had a church tell us that there was no way for them to serve our child’s needs and that if we were to attend it would have to be either my wife or I providing him care every Sunday,” he said. “We’ve also spent over a year not attending because we just didn’t have the strength to try and navigate a new place of worship, try to advocate for our children’s needs, on top of all the other care-work we are involved in throughout the week.”

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.

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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 children with autism spectrum disorder never attending services were 1.84 times higher than for children without a chronic health condition.

• The odds of children with depression and anxiety never attending services were 1.73 times greater.

• The odds of those with a conduct disorder or oppositional defiant disorder never attending were 1.48 times greater.

• The odds of children 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 1.19 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.

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. One CT Women contributor shared how her church, pastored by her husband, adapted and accepted their autistic son. Whitehead 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.

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It starts with planning and preparation.

But it ends with making a theological and ethical commitment to welcome children with all kinds of disabilities and even including their contributions in ministry.

“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.’”

David Briggs, a former national writer for the Associated Press who holds a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School, writes the Ahead of the Trend column on new developments in religion research for the Association of Religion Data Archives.