The Whiteheads

The Whiteheads found understanding, acceptance and the community they had been longing for after their daughter, Sadie, was diagnosed with autism.

Topics: Family Discipleship | Community

When Sadie was born seven years ago, everything seemed normal. She was bubbly, loud and active. She ate a variety of foods, made eye contact and played normally. Her little brother, Max, was born only 11 months later, and Bob and Courtney Whitehead were thrilled with their young, growing family.

At Max’s one-year checkup, the doctor asked the normal questions: Is he walking? Sleeping? Making eye contact? Babbling? He was, but Courtney realized that Sadie wasn’t doing those things anymore. So they decided to schedule an appointment for their daughter.

At first, the doctor said it might be a speech delay due to hearing loss, so they put tubes in Sadie’s ears and put her in speech therapy for 30 minutes each week. In the back of her mind, Courtney began suspecting, but it would be another year before the couple’s firstborn would be diagnosed with autism.

Courtney began to see how things that came naturally to Max were the things Sadie had to work on: She couldn’t play with toys, she didn’t know how to pretend, she didn’t speak.

The diagnosis may not have been a surprise, but it was no less of a shock.

“We lost her. We had this happy little baby, and it wasn’t her anymore,” Courtney said. “She didn’t seem very happy, she wouldn’t smile, she wouldn’t look at us, she wasn’t saying anything. We lost all of that. And that was really hard.”

And it wasn’t just their home life that became more difficult. Courtney had never attended a Bible study before but was excited when her sister invited her to one at a local church in Midland. Courtney really enjoyed the study, but when she went to pick up Sadie and Max from child care, the teacher was less-than-understanding about Sadie’s behavior.

“If there’s not a place for Sadie here, then there’s no place for us either.”

Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident. Sadie was still about a year away from being diagnosed, and her behavioral challenges were viewed as a headache. Even at their home church, it became evident that their daughter wasn’t being welcomed or nurtured.

“If there’s not a place for Sadie here, then there’s no place for us either.”

A short time later, Bob’s job transferred him and his family to Fort Worth. Before they left, a friend told Courtney about The Village Church and its campus in Fort Worth. Finding a church was a top priority for them, so they agreed this would be the first one they visited.

She looked up The Village’s website and immediately saw a link for special needs. Her phone call connected her with someone in Flower Mound who explained the program and that Sadie would be partnered with an adult buddy. From there, she was connected with Charity, the Preschool and Elementary Minister at the Fort Worth campus.

The Whiteheads visited the Fort Worth campus the first weekend after they moved, and Courtney felt nervous throughout the service. Would Sadie be loved? Would she be accepted? Would they be able to keep attending the church?

Given past experiences, the Whiteheads were understandably nervous when they went to pick up their kids after the service, but the first thing Charity said was, “Everybody adores her!” In fact, staff and volunteers kept coming up to the Whiteheads to say what a joy Sadie had been. This was new and a welcome relief. On the drive home, the Whiteheads decided to become members at The Village.

“With autism, things can sometimes be very black and white. I want Sadie to know God, but I worried that she wouldn’t; how would we explain this Person that she can’t see to her? But she’s retained so much.”

“The staff have really made it amazing for the kids; they take care of both of them so well,” Courtney said. “And it’s the one time a week that I can go and learn about God and pray and I don’t worry at all. And I need that time.”

Courtney also said that it’s not just that the kids are being physically watched and taken care of, but they’re also learning about God.

“With autism, things can sometimes be very black and white. I want Sadie to know God, but I worried that she wouldn’t; how would we explain this Person that she can’t see to her? But she’s retained so much.”

Sadie can’t quite speak in full sentences, but she can sing and clearly pays attention in class. In fact, there’s a song they sing in Kids Village called “Boom Shakalaka,” and Sadie now refers to church as “Boom Shaka.” She’s even memorizing the stickers the kids get every Sunday.

“Jesus came...?”

“To save finners!”

“God is...?”

“Charge everyfang!”

Courtney also has been able to connect with several other moms at the campus in similar situations. They’ve started a Home Group for stay-at-home moms that meets during the day, and Courtney said it’s a relief to connect with other moms who simply understand her questions, concerns and frustrations. The Fort Worth staff even organized a lunch for families with special needs children, where they connected over food and drinks on a Saturday morning while their kids ran around in the gym. “The staff really has been amazing,” Courtney said, “We feel so loved and accepted here.”

For members, Courtney has some simple suggestions on how to serve and interact with families of special needs kids:

“Pour into these families. Love them. Love their kids. If a kid is throwing a fit, they’re just having a hard time, and they handle that differently. Be understanding, and ask questions. I’d rather explain what autism is or answer questions than have someone wonder or assume.”