By Tom Stolle
“The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Proverbs 12:18 (NIV)
We have all experienced the truth of this verse. We all understand that words hurt. They can be weaponized with the intent to inflict damage. Usually, a speaker doesn’t intend to weaponize their words. Sometimes, a person believes their words provide comfort when those questions or comments actually bring pain. Sometimes a hearer believes the words are weaponized when they are not.
In the special needs community, this is a common discussion. As the father of a young man with developmental challenges, I can tell you that many people have said things to me concerning my son attempting to connect, communicate understanding, or just be nice. Sometimes these words have been wonderful. Other times, they have hurt. Words truly are piercing.
As Christians, we should be careful of our speech. It is a common problem for us all. So often, we do not know what to say, so rather than bridle our tongues and listen, we recklessly speak in a failed attempt to connect or show understanding.
This brings to mind a popular song from the 1980s (yes, I’m not a young man anymore) that included these lyrics: “I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say. I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be.”
If you are a parent of a child affected by an intellectual or a developmental disability, you know this all too well.
In the special needs community, many parents deal with issues that are foreign to others. Many of these families, while isolated due to their circumstances, want connection.
Committed followers of Jesus want to share the Gospel with others. Many people affected by disabilities need to hear the Gospel. They need to know that God loves them and that you care about them.
Put away the swords
You may have one chance to connect with someone. Do not let your words build barriers. Do not wield swords.
At the risk of perhaps sounding too sensitive, please allow me to share some of the comments which were directed to me personally and were painful, as well as my thoughts when I heard them.
- “So, you have an autistic son.” I have a son. His name is Jimmy. He is affected by autism. Please acknowledge his humanity first. If your son had cancer, I would not say, “So, you have a cancerous son.” God says that my son is special. God desires a relationship with Jimmy. God speaks to Jimmy in ways that Jimmy can understand. “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago” (Ephesians 2:10, NLT).
- “If you had more faith, God would heal your son.” My son was divinely designed with God’s purpose in mind. “For it was You who created my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will praise You because I have been remarkably and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, and I know this very well” (Psalm 139:13-14, CSB).
- “I know what you are going through.” With all due respect, you have very little idea of what my family or I am going through. If you have met one child with autism, you have met one child with autism. Not all cases are the same. If you are really interested, I will tell you what daily life is like in our home. There are times of great joy and times of intense suffering, some of which may be difficult to understand. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight” (Romans 12:15-16, ESV).
- “You and your wife should go out more.” We would love to do that! We would love to have a date night by ourselves and go on vacations together. We would love to take random day trips. However, my son cannot be left alone. Moreover, leaving him the care of another is easier said than done. He is not a baby and his needs are significant. Would you like to help so we can? “You obey the law of Christ when you offer each other a helping hand” (Galatians 6:2, CEV).
- “God never allows you to endure more than you can handle.” This is not true. There are plenty of circumstances individuals need assistance in handling or are much more than they can handle in their own strength. What is your definition of “handle”? Do you use the word “handle” here as centered on me and my abilities rather than on God and His abilities? “We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead. And He did rescue us from mortal danger, and He will rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in Him, and He will continue to rescue us” (2 Corinthians 1:8-10, NLT).
- “God only gives these special children to special parents.” All children are special, not just those with special needs. There is no ranking system. God created us all in His image! “Children are a blessing and a gift from the Lord” (Psalm 127:3, CEV). If God only gave these ‘special children to special parents,’ why is a higher percentage of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities never born due to an elective abortion upon discovery of their disability? Why is a higher percentage of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities placed into foster care? We need to think about our words and their implications before we speak.
Other common comments that are not helpful to a parent of a child with a disability include the following (I have heard all of these).
- “Your child needs more discipline to improve his behavior.”
- “Some people go through more than you.”
- “What’s wrong with your son?”
- “Your son looks normal.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “Is God punishing you?”
- “Was he born that way?”
I do not say these things to condemn individuals who are guilty of unwise speech towards individuals and families affected by disabilities. Rather, I want to make you aware of the harm that words and phrases like the ones above can cause. For, we are called to love one another (John 15:12).
What can you do if you meet a parent of an individual affected by a disability? Please consider these responses, which I believe will communicate love and respect.
- Acknowledge the person’s humanity. The child is a human being first, not a diagnosis or a disease. He or she is not a “disabled child” but instead a “child affected by a disability.”
- Speak to the individual like you would anyone else. Do not automatically assume due to their disability that they can’t understand or that they can only be communicated with like a small child, especially if they are a teenager or an adult.
- Do not act as if they have an illness. You cannot catch autism, Down syndrome, or any other intellectual or developmental disability from another person.
- Listen to them.
- Ask the parent if you can pray for them or help them.
- Most of all, be kind! Many of these families endure extremely painful circumstances daily that you may not understand. Many of these families are isolated and feel alone. Many are afraid that the future holds little to no hope for them.
Alistair Begg, the senior pastor of Cleveland’s Parkside Church and the voice behind the Truth For Life Christian radio ministry, said, “There is no one who is insignificant in the purpose of God.” So many of these families feel insignificant.
You have the opportunity to love well to make them feel loved, respected, and valued. That gift will likely cost you nothing but your time and patience. For these families, it is a precious gift that many receive far less than you would believe.
Tom Stolle serves as the associate director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware and volunteers as the executive director of The Banquet Network.