The Simple But Unexpected Thing That Changed My Life - Finds.Life.Church

The Simple But Unexpected Thing That Changed My Life

by Heather Brower

When you’re raising a child with special needs, your life can easily devolve into survival mode. Eat, school, meltdown, therapy, pep talk, sleep, repeat. Things like going to church or bringing your child to attend kids’ or youth events at your church can feel like “extras” you just don’t have the capacity for. But I got a text one day, and it changed my life. It changed my son’s life. It was unexpected. It was simple. And it still brings me to tears every time I think of it. 

Okay, let me back up a few moves for context. My son is 14 years old. He is autistic. In the past few years, he’s been going through a lot of social awakenings. He’s more aware of others and their perceptions of him. It’s awesome because it’s developmentally appropriate! YAY! It’s tricky because his social development is significantly behind his peers, and he’s realizing that. 

My son deals with a heavy load of anxiety each and every day. Much of it revolves around feeling uncomfortable in social situations. But he also loves people and desperately wants to have real friends. It’s quite the conundrum. As a parent, I’m stuck in the middle of wanting to help him branch out and find community and not wanting to overwhelm him with more than he can handle. 

My son knows his peers go to the youth programming at our church. It’s called Switch. He hears others talk about how fun it is, how they’re developing friendships, learning about God together, and just generally sharing life. Yet—it’s all too much for him. The energetic and socially rich atmosphere are just more than his sensory system and anxiety can handle. Whenever I would ask him if he’d like to go to Switch, he would get a terrified flash in his eyes and shout, “[Choice ‘salty’ word] NO!” He wasn’t kidding. He needed me to know that this was too much and to please not push him into it. 

But I knew there was still part of him that really did want a chance to be able to hang out with his peers, away from school, in a friendly environment, and even to learn a little more about God together. It was heartbreaking to watch his struggle. He wanted to be included, but he needed extra support. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to help my son. His self-esteem was reaching new lows. 

I can’t tell you how agonizing it is to hear your own child say things like, “I don’t know why I was born. No one knows me. And I can’t talk to anyone, so I don’t see how I’m ever going to make friends.” His therapists and his teachers were doing everything they could to give my son strategies for banishing those negative thoughts and for working on learning social skills like “joining a conversation” or “saying hello to someone you know in school hallways.” It was slow-going at best.

I began to do research on what helps other kids like my son to feel safe enough to enjoy themselves in church programming geared toward them. Two things popped up again and again: peer mentors and extra support. Students like my son need someone their age they can look to for social cues and who won’t leave them feeling alone and left out. They also need someone (like a patient adult) who can give them breaks when they’re feeling overwhelmed. Someone who understands and can help with sensory overload. Someone who is just there for the extra support when it’s needed. 

One day I said to my son, “What if someone told you they’d be your friend at Switch? What if they said they’d hang out with you? They wouldn’t ditch you, and they’d make sure you knew what you were supposed to do at Switch. If there were someone who invited you to Switch and said they’d stick by you like that—would you go to Switch?” 

The answer took a minute to form. And no expletives were involved this time! 

He looked me in the eye and said, “Yeah. I’d probably go.” 

You could’ve knocked me over with a feather. That was all I needed to hear. He really did want to be with his peers. He knew it would be loud, boisterous, energetic, and probably overwhelming. But he didn’t care. All he focused on was the thought of inclusion and the chance to make friends. 

So my church came up with a plan. It’s called Switch Support. It’s meant to help kids like my son find their place with their peers in the Body of Christ! And it’s free and available for any other church to implement, too! That’s what led to something unexpected that changed my life—because it changed my son’s life. 

A simple text. 

“Hi! I’m excited to meet you at Switch!” 

It was my son’s peer mentor. Another 14-year-old boy. He explained that they’d be in the same small group together. And it didn’t stop there! This peer mentor introduced my son via text to several other students, too! Switch hadn’t even started, and my son knew four kids already. The next thing I knew, he was getting texts from the wonderful young man who was going to be his new small group leader. Then, from another wonderful young man who was going to be his Switch Support leader. I’m telling you—there has never been a parent who was so excited for their kid to be texting at the dinner table! 

I wish there were some way I could stress to you how much of a difference it’s making for my son to be able to attend Switch. He’s doing better in every single facet of his life. Community and inclusion are powerful. My son’s main teacher at school has repeatedly told me how much of a change she’s noticed in my son this year. Guess what’s different? The only thing that’s significantly different in my son’s life compared to last year is that he’s being included and supported at church. He’s doing better academically, socially, and spiritually! And it all started with a text. 

And my son and I weren’t the only ones who were changed. My son’s small group leader is named Lance. He told me that my son’s peer mentor is also doing better at Switch this year than in previous years. He said he’s seen deeper emotional and spiritual maturity in this student since he’s befriended my son. Lance also told me that being a Switch leader has changed his own life. He said that it helps him not only develop the gifts God has given him, but also to understand them. He said, “Being able to encourage and bring light into darkness is what we [Switch leaders] are here for. Serving others has brought change and growth that I’ve never gotten anywhere else.” 

My son’s Switch Support leader is named Tyler. The first few times my son came to Switch, he wasn’t able to even attend the programming with the other students. He watched from a closed-circuit monitor in a quiet, nearby room. Usually, when my son isn’t able to perform a task his peers can, it causes a self-loathing spiral that can take weeks to get over. Somehow, Mr. Tyler made my son feel so accepted and loved that he felt like his alternate way to view the evening’s teaching was perfectly acceptable. (Of course it was!) That’s the power of God’s love! It pierces through lies like, “You’re not good enough,” and replaces them with truth like, “You’re loved and valued just as you are!” 

Mr. Tyler said something else that I thought was so powerful. It sums up my family’s experiences and story so well. I know that working with kids who need extra support might make others feel a bit intimidated. Maybe even unqualified. But I see the difference it’s made in every aspect of my son’s life. And I want to help other kids who need extra help to be included, too. I asked Mr. Tyler what he would say to someone who was thinking of learning to be a Switch Support leader but was too afraid to reach out to their church and ask for training. 

Mr. Tyler said, “Simply by hanging out with these students, you are making a major impact in their lives. And you have the privilege of making them feel valued, accepted, and loved.

That’s exactly what has happened for my son. It really doesn’t matter how much I tell my son he’s valued. If he can’t see it, if he can’t point to a real-life example of it, he won’t feel it. He’s being shown the undeniable love of Christ. And it’s changing his life. And it has absolutely changed my life right along with his! 

So, yeah. Here comes the hook! Are you feeling a tug in your heart? Maybe you’d like to learn how you can support teens in your community? Maybe you’re a Switch student and you’d like to be that person who reaches out to your peers with unshakable, unflinching friendship. But maybe you’re afraid you won’t know what to do or what to say. 

First, don’t worry. Mr. Lance asked me to tell this to anyone who’s afraid of working with students: “Perfect love casts out fear.” Mr. Lance is one of those people who just exhales God’s truth every time you speak with them! He was quoting 1 John 4:18. And he was also giving a perfect example of what God’s love is doing in my son’s life. It’s pushing back the fear that has been holding him back. My son’s no longer paralyzed by the thought that he’ll make a social mistake and will be further rejected. He’s being shown God’s love in such a tangible way by his community, that he’s beginning to walk in greater peace and godly confidence. His therapist has taken note! His teachers at school have seen the difference. And he’s even more confident at school amongst his peers! 

It’s pretty easy to underestimate the power of genuine kindness. Lovingkindness has the power to change a life. Are you someone who is flexible and patient? Can you be a good friend? If yes, then you’ve got what it takes to help a student like my son to find their place in the Body of Christ. My son has gifts to offer his peers. He just needed some help to unlock his fear and to know he’s safe. 

Want to learn more about how to recruit, train, and develop support for teens in your church’s programming? Check out Switch Support on Open Network. You’ll sign up for a free account, and you’ll gain access to (always) free resources and training for your church. 

Want to learn more about what it means to be a Peer Mentor at Switch? Check out this article

Curious about what it would mean to be a Switch Support leader? Check out this article

And finally, a note to parents like me! Is your child struggling with the fear that they’ll be left out if they try attending the youth programming at your church? Maybe you’re already quite sure your child would need additional support in order to attend. Reach out! Your church body needs to know that your family needs help with inclusion. There are others at your church whom God wants to develop in new ways through working with your child. And your child has unique gifts they can share with their peers. Don’t give up! If you try this year and it’s too much, try again next year. 

A simple text changed my son’s life, my life, and his leaders’ lives. You just might be amazed at what can happen if you take a bold step to reach out for support yourself or to be a support to others.