In November 2010, Sandra Peoples took her son James to the pediatrician and received a life-changing diagnosis – her little boy had autism. Having noticed the warning signs in his behavior, the diagnosis brought a mixture of relief and pain, while also promising many difficulties ahead. But through the challenges, Sandra has learned so much about God’s grace and how to find joy through the simple moments of life.
In this interview, Sandra will give hope to parents of children with special needs. She’ll talk about how to find a supportive community, as well as provide advice for connecting with God during the difficult days.
I mean, you you walk into this building, you with your son with your family, you walk out and you have an autistic son and you are a special needs family that changes everything. Welcome to the focus on the family broadcast, helping families thrive. Sandra people’s knows firsthand what it’s like to have a family member with special needs and her experiences have really shaped her life. She’s got encouragement for you today from her life. This is focused on the family. Your host is focused president and author Jim Daly and I’m john fuller john according to the last census, almost one in five families, one in five, that’s 20% in the US includes someone with a disability ranging from autism to Alzheimer’s that’s a significant number. And so there are families who need hope and they need help and they need to know that they’re not invisible to the rest of us and maybe you have felt that way you are that family. You’re that one in five. We need to do a better job of offering these families encouragement and help and hope. And that’s the core of the discussion today. I’m really glad we’re having this conversation. I’m looking forward to talking to our guests. Sandra peoples is really a leading voice in the disability community. She serves as the special needs ministry consultant for the southern baptist of texas convention and as the inclusion coordinator for special needs families in her own church. Sandra has written a really insightful book. It’s called unexpected blessings the joys and possibilities of life in a special needs family And we have copies of that here at the ministry, click the link on your screen or give us a call 800 the letter a and the word family. Sandra, welcome to focus on the family. Thank you. I’m so excited to be here. It’s good to have you, you’re coming up from Houston, I am, you have great friends in that area and we love Houston. So it’s a great place. It is, it is Sandra. Let’s paint that picture for the listener of who you are. Um give us an idea, you’re working in the church. Why is this need about special needs families so important to you? Well I have been a member of a special needs family my entire life, my older sister Sybil, she’s just 14 months older than I am and she has Down syndrome. And so as her younger sister, I have never known life outside of a special needs family. We grew up in a small town in Oklahoma and because she has Down syndrome and that’s one of those visible disabilities, we were pretty well known in our community. In fact, I was often referred to as Sibyl sister instead of as Sandra. And so we because we were so close in age, we went to school together right there right? All my high school years were spent with her being her sister really shaped who I am and who I was. I remember the first time I heard somebody make fun of somebody with a disability. I mean I remember where I was standing on the playground, remember every detail about it and in that moment I had to decide am I going to stand up for her and for other people with disabilities, some of whom can’t stand up for themselves or am I gonna try to just fade in and look just like everybody else and and be just like my peers and so Growing up as her sister shaped so much about who I am now, well now and it’s so important. What was your decision in that moment and how old are you? 13? No, I was seven. I was in elementary school. I remember it really clearly. She was just the great in front of you. Yeah. And she and so I remember being on the playground and these two friends and they made fun of, they were kind of mimicking what a person with a disability would act like. And and uh and they used the art, we call it the r word we don’t normally say it, It’s retarded. It’s now not used, you know, as a in conversation. It’s all usually used as an insult now. And so I thought, and even at that point I thought I didn’t know that was a bad word. I didn’t know that was a word that you used to be mean to somebody else. I thought it was just a label. Um because you know this is in the eighties and and so I had to say to my friends that’s not okay, you, this is not how we speak kindly to each other, this is my sister and her friends can’t always stand up for themselves against this kind of talk and this kind of it’s not okay. And what’s interesting, the very first adult that I heard make fun of somebody with disabilities was one of these girls moms. And so you so you knew where it was coming from. It was something she heard at her home. But it was it was devastating to me in that moment to think, oh, we’re we’re really different. Like I thought we were just a little bit different, but all families have their works, but no, we were there were labels for what kind of family we were and how different we were. And again, that’s such an amazing thing that you had that upbringing, you know, that it was part of who you are, not just part of your family, but it’s part of who you are, your sister, who has down syndrome. She’s part of who you are in that way. And you know what I have found so often is people that grow up in those families where there is a special needs child. Um they’re they’re really pretty sensitive obviously and you were like that and I think that’s an amazing positive for people who grew up in families that, You know, have that situation. Yeah, I agree. What did the doctor say about Sibyl, there was some profound thing what happened and give us the circumstances. So she was born in 1977, just a couple of days after Christmas in the small town where my parents live now, she was their first child. And so they, there was no indication through my mom’s pregnancy that there would be anything different about her. Uh so when she was born was the first time that they knew they would have a child with a disability. So she not only had Down syndrome, she had an intestinal blockage and so nothing that she ate would process through her body. And so the doctors took her from the small town in Oklahoma where we lived to Oklahoma City where they were better hospitals. And a a young doctor took my dad into like a janitor’s closet and said, look, your daughter has two issues, she has this intestinal blockage, that’s fixable by surgery. She also has Down syndrome which will affect her and you every day for the rest of your life, the intestinal blockage will will kill her. And so if you don’t want to have a daughter with a disability for the rest of your life, we won’t perform this surgery, we will just let her die naturally from this intestinal blockage. And and you guys can have more kids and you can go on as if this, this didn’t happen and so you know, I mean it’s my parents first child, there’s this whirlwind of going to a different hospital and being in the janitor’s closet and I just can’t imagine being faced with a decision like that just just hours after your first baby has been born. And my dad said, no, we believe God has a purpose for her and has a purpose for her being in our family. And of course we want you to perform that life saving surgery and, and, and they did. And but it’s just that story has stuck with me when we’re talking about the value of somebody’s life, thinking that because of a disability, their life has less value than any of the rest of us, even though they are fearfully and wonderfully made with a purpose just like any of the rest of it. So demonstrates a worldly view versus a spiritually directed view. You know, God’s view, which is what we want to do as christians. And so that’s awesome. Your mom and dad saw that I’m kind of appalled at the number of times I hear about medical professionals and I know they’re trying their hardest, they’re trying their best and they’re laying out maybe the worst case scenario sometimes scaring those moms and dads into making what I would consider as a christian a poor choice, but man, it happens all the time and it’s so overwhelming to hear of these doctors that pull their patients or their the parents of that little baby into a closet to say, hey, do you want us to let this baby die? It’s not uncommon. It’s not. And you think people with down syndrome, if you ask them about their lives, they report a, a higher happy rate than even the rest of us. I mean they are happier with their lives than the rest of us tend to be. And so you’re eradicating, eliminating people who are pretty happy generally with who they are and what their lives are. Like senator. Let me, let me move now to, I mean again, people are going to drop their jaw when they hear this. You’re raised in this family, you have your sister that has down syndrome. You grow up, you know, being a champion for those people who have some, you know, limiting factor in their life. And then your second son, James, uh, he’s born. And what’s that situation? Well, he’s born and we go a couple of years and everything is, is pretty normal. Everything’s just right on. We have an older son, there’s, they’re two years apart. And so we started seeing after James’s second birthday, we started seeing some delays, uh, like in his language and we thought, well big brother talks a whole lot And so little brother just doesn’t get the chance to talk so much. Yeah. And so we just kept, but we just kept noticing and he even lost some skills, he lost some words, he knew that he couldn’t say anymore. And then when my husband lee would get home from work, he wouldn’t go to greet him, he wouldn’t make eye contact. And and so we, my husband was a pastor in pennsylvania at the time. And so that’s where we lived. And we had a good friend who was an occupational therapist and and she was seeing these things right? She’s a professional. But she was very kind and gentle with me and and didn’t bring him up until I said something to her. And so at James’s three year well visit I was very honest with his doctor about the things that I was kind of trying to hide or excuse up to that point. And and she said, well like she asked him questions, are you a boy or a girl? Well he couldn’t answer that question. And and just the more she asked the more I thought oh is is this what he should be able to do? The gap was bigger than I realized. And so she referred us to the school system for some testing that took some months. Uh and so it was finally november of that year. And and we sat in this school room and these little tiny chairs and he met with a psychiatrist and occupational therapist and a speech therapist and they did some activities with him. And then they walked out and they walked back in and they said we believe your son has autism and my husband and I are both fairly and I are both there. And, and for me, I thought, oh, this makes sense. Right. We’re seeing these deficiencies. There’s a label for them. That means there will be help. Um, and so some things, it kind of like a puzzle fell into place for me. But parents react differently. Lee reacted differently than I did. It was more of a shock because I had been doing this research and so together we had to keep going and figure out what that meant for our family. I mean, you you walk into this building, you with your son with your family, you walk out and you have an autistic son and you are a special needs family, that changes everything. It changed the way we spend our money because now we have to pay for therapies. It it changed who was in our house, we had this carousel of therapists and people coming in. It, it could have changed our lee’s position as a pastor. If that church wasn’t willing to care for a child with a disability, he would have had to find another job. It changed David, our older son because he became the special needs sibling. Like I had been my whole life. Um, and I knew right. And that like I knew The challenges that we would face because I had faced them well. And again, even with what we opened up with the one in five families are in that position. So it’s not a small number, I mean 20% of 300 million, that’s a big number. And in that context, um I want to address that autism spectrum a bit because that’s a that is a wide range and you know, it can be severe, it could be very light. So you do walk out different in that context. Um James’s diagnosis, How does that fit? Well. More recently, the D. S. M. Which is the book that we use to do diagnosis has created three categories for autism. So we used to just have this umbrella autism. Now we have autism level one which is what we used to call asperger’s but we don’t generally anymore. We have autism level two and we have autism level three. Those with autism level one needs some help. Level two needs moderate help. Level three needs significant help. So that’s a language that’s that’s really helpful to use. Like if you’re going to a doctor and I’m calling ahead and I say my son has level three autism, then they know that that’s different from somebody that just struggles in a different way. Uh so James is considered really close to between level two and level three autism. So his verbal ability is really impaired. There’s some words he can use some words he can’t use, like you can ask him what he wants for dinner and he might say pizza. But if you ask him what he had for lunch. He even if he had pizza, he might not be able to recall that word. And tell you one of the things that you observed, I’m sure with your sister, but also now with your son, James, I mean people can say the most crude, rude things even in the church, even in the church. Give us a couple of those examples, especially if you’re in a family that doesn’t deal with this. You think you’re being kind and you’re really being very insulting if I could be that blunt but share those with us. Yeah. There was one time we, we were still at our church in pennsylvania and another church came to help. And we were doing a potluck together and potlucks are really stressful because I’m juggling these plates and lee is the pastor is trying to talk to everybody and James, he was so he was four or five at the time. So he’s got his hand in the deserts, you know. So I’m juggling all this. So we finally sit at the table and James is with me and the lady across the table who, I don’t know, she’s at a different church. She looks at him and she says, is he going to grow out of that? And I thought, I wasn’t sure like what? And I said, do you mean his autism? And she said, yes, what did you do to make him like that? Those are the words she asked. It is so hard and and and especially when you’re young and new to the diagnosis that you’re just so tender, you’re so tender. Yeah. Yeah. And I I was speechless and I thought, well there’s there’s nothing I did. It reminds me of john nine when the disciples and jesus are walking and there’s the man who was born blind and the disciples stop jesus. And they say, who sinned was it this man? Or was it his parents that made him born be born blind. And jesus said neither none of the above this man exists to glorify God. And and and that the fact that the gospel writers include that for a parent like me brings so much comfort and hope because I can say there is no guilt, there is no shame. There’s nothing I could have done differently. There is as much of a purpose for James’s life as there is for David’s life or my life or lee’s life. This this wasn’t an accident. This wasn’t anything I caused or didn’t cause he literally exists like the rest of us to bring glory to God. This is focused on the family with jim daly and our guest is Sandra people’s what an affirmation of God’s design for every life. Um Sandra has captured a lot of this energy and passion and these biblical perspectives in her book, unexpected blessings. The joys and possibilities of life in a special needs family And contact us today. We’d be happy to send a copy to you. The link is on your screen or call 800 the letter a and the word family. Sandra, I think this is a good spot for the folks, the parents who are listening to hear from you. Okay, I just had that experience yesterday. How do you counsel them not to absorb that guilt and shame? What do you say to them? I think we have to again look to scripture which which brings us this hope and comfort. Maybe if you’re a new, special needs parent, you don’t know how much scripture has to say about disabilities. You can build a whole theology of disabilities on the stories that we hear. They start way back uh in exodus with moses. And so when God calls moses to go speak before pharaoh moses says, I can’t, I’m slow of speech. I have this impediment and God says, who makes man mute? Who makes them speak. It is I I do that. And so I can read that and I can again reflect on God’s good design and to say the world may see James as flawed. God sees him as good. And somehow these things will will work out for our family’s good and for us to become more christ like I think of the verse in James and James one where he says every good and perfect gift comes from our father. And it took me a while to consider autism a good and perfect gift at the beginning, I felt like I was waging war against it. I have to put him in every therapy and and pay for every solution that could come our way, especially when they’re so young. You don’t know what their future could look like. And then I thought somehow in God’s economy, it is for his good. It is for my good, it is for big Brother. David’s good. It is, it’s for the good of our church. It’s for the good of everybody who encounters him. And so there’s nobody in scripture who didn’t suffer in some way. We think we’re the first, we think we’re the first to get bad news. Yeah. And let’s zero in in those last few minutes about the church itself. And and you know, I have many pastors who are friends and I would think some of the most isolated people that are, you know, in the church are the families with special needs kids because the rest of the community doesn’t know how to embrace him or behave around them, frankly. You know, the outburst that might occur in in the, in the sermon or what, you know, not behaving properly at Children. And there’s just ways to work these things out. And you’ve made this your life’s pursuit now. So describe for us kind of that environment. I think if you’re the four out of five, you don’t really understand what’s going on. And unfortunately there’s a lot of impatience amongst us that may not have to deal with this every day. So you know, inform us, tell us the real deal. Yeah, it’s interesting because if you ask pastors is your church accommodating is of course they’ll say of course they say we have a ramp or we, you know, whatever they do. Well, well that that does meet the needs of a certain population. The ramps help the ramps helpful. I’m not saying don’t have a ramp but it doesn’t meet the needs of my family of origin or my family now and so and I know it’s overwhelming when you think of every person with a disability who could possibly walk in your church, how would you meet all those needs? It’s overwhelming. But but you don’t have to make that decision. You just meet the needs of the families that do walk in the door and you say there are ways that we can love this family and serve this family. So like specifically with James with autism, he’s got sensory issues like a noise sensitivity. And so our church has noise reducing headphones and they’re available to anybody who needs them and and fidgets which is becoming popular for lots of kids now, little like pop things that they pop those help kids with disabilities A. D. D. A. D. H. D. Lots of different things, they can focus better when their hands are busy. So we have what we call buddy bags and we have noise reducing headphones in their little fidgets and so families can pick those up, take them into the service with them and it helps their child be able to sit through the service longer. And really it changes the perspectives of those around them. So there aren’t as many judgmental looks or insensitive comments because they see us show up and they understand James is going to act differently and there’s a reason for that and then they’re able to give more grace to us and the next family who comes in the door. Yeah, I would imagine it also becomes a magnet for those families. It does when they find out there’s a church available that is not judgmental about their situation that is willing to work with them to, they want gives me tears. Think about this. Those parents want those kids to hear about the Lord as much as those of us that have healthy kids, right? And if we don’t do things to help them. I mean think of that barrier for those parents, you know, they can’t come to church because they’re embarrassed. They’re kids are disrupting things. So let’s let’s find a different way. There was a church in florida that I heard about and what they did was they matched an adult with the family. So when they came in the door there was an adult volunteer from the church, they would meet with the family real quick, say, I’ll take johnny and they would walk into the class and they would sit in the room, there’d be five or six adults in there with these kids that have special needs and sit there and just be there for them. And the teacher would do her his thing. And if they needed help distraction, this adult would engage them and then connect the parents with them at the end. I think that’s a great example of what to do. But so few churches or are able or willing, I guess, to do this. And that’s what you’re talking about it. Is that our church, we have something very similar to that. We have we call it our buddy ministry. We also have sensory rooms. So great. And then we have, uh, for our teenagers and young adults, we call it reverse inclusion. And so they are the classes designed for them. And then we invite typical teenagers to be in there. And so we have from every level from our little tiny kids to our adults opportunities for them to be fully engaged in our church life well. And that is again so good. And for the pastors listening, I mean, maybe that’s one good reason to get the book unexpected blessings because you frame some of this and what can be done. So that’s wonderful. And I guess in that context, Sandra, you know, talking about the pastor or the associate pastor what they might be able to do again. You’ve given your life to this now and you’ve lived in your entire life. Um, what would you say to them about how they can be of greater help to that community of families with special needs? Yeah, A big part of that is just being willing to ask questions just to have that family in your office, get them in there, say, what would help you be more comfortable on a sunday morning? What can we do? We’re willing to do whatever we can. I I feel like God builds his church in a way that there are people there, you likely have special ed teachers, therapist and and their members of your church. And it hasn’t even occurred to them. Oh, I could use my skills in this church setting. I mean at our special needs ministry. Our volunteers are helpers are teachers, their therapist, their family members. They grew up with a cousin with a disability. And so they know what life is like. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Yeah, nothing fazes them. Uh, and so just asking questions, praying that God would provide. He wants these families there. And especially I can say this is a sibling. If our small church in Oklahoma hadn’t welcomed Sibyl, they wouldn’t have welcomed me. And you think that’s because our church loved us so well before it was even popular cool to do. So they did the hard work and that changes, that changes a generation, it changes all of us, Sandra. Let’s let’s end on this question. The um, you know, we’re talking about the practical need meeting of these families to welcome them to do what you can to create, you know, volunteer programs and all those kinds of things to help. And that’s all good. But understanding the unique pressure of these families to these tired parents that are getting up at 2:00 AM and maybe not getting back to bed because their child is isn’t capable of going to bed at that time. They just have to slog through and they’re probably now so tired that they don’t explain it anymore. They just sit there and you know, they just looked bewildered. That’s a whole nother level of encouragement that we need to provide, so speak to that the bewildered parents that is doing their best. They do have this child with special needs. It’s exhausting. It’s all consuming. Some days they don’t know what to do. How do we go even further to help that family? Yeah, I think this is what’s beautiful about being in a faith community. There’s there’s a refrain throughout the old testament that I think churches would benefit from doing more of and it is remember and tell remember what God has done and tell others. And so when I walk in as a special needs family and I am honest about what my hardships are. I remember God’s faithfulness in every moment and how he has met me time and time again. That’s why I think if you’re a church that you look around and you don’t see a special needs family or people with disabilities, you’re missing out on a lot of encouragement. We comfort others with the comfort we have received. And that’s contagious. That that changes the whole church and, and and how other families can walk in and they think, oh, I don’t have to pretend to be perfect here. I don’t have to pretend that that there aren’t some hard things going on in our family because I can see that there’s hard things going on for everybody. Sandra, this has been so good. Thank you for your life’s work. I really mean that thank you. I’m so blessed to get to know you and to meet you and talk with you for your sister Sybil and defending her when you’re seven years old. My heart just goes out to you. That’s so terrific. And then carrying it right through, I’m not gonna tell you, I don’t know your age, but I won’t mention that again. But I mean just that idea. And then with your son James, I mean for you and lee and just God bless you. And uh, you know, for the folks, for the listeners. I think this is a great resource, unexpected blessings and what a great thing to know yourself. Get a copy for your pastor at church and start talking about it Now, here’s a little clue my brother was a pastor. Don’t go to the pastor and say, hey pastor, I think you should do something, do it yourself for the church, do what Sandra’s done. Just start welcoming families that have Children with special needs and then just absorb as much as you can about how to do it better and better. What a great place to start. And if you can make a gift of any amount to focus, we’ll send you a copy of the book as our way of saying thank you for being part of the ministry. Yeah. Your donation enables us to reach out and encourage parents in situations like this and equip those around special needs families. Sanders Book does have a lot of great scripture in it. It includes questions at the end of each chapter. So you can kind of work through and process and have conversations either as a family or maybe with your small group or your circle of friends. It’s a great book for any life struggle really. And again, it’s called unexpected blessings. The joys and possibilities of life in a special needs family, click the link on the screen or call 1 800 The letter A and the word family on behalf of jim daly and the entire team. Thanks for joining us today for focus on the family. I’m john fuller inviting you back as we once again help you and your family thrive in christ.