That dark period occurred in 2014, after Whitehead and his family — his wife, Kelly, and their three children — moved to Clemson. Faith is important to the Whiteheads, but the family couldn’t find a church that could accommodate the needs of their two sons, who have autism and don’t speak.
“We all suffered when we didn’t have a community to belong to,” Whitehead said. “We knew from experience that it’s a difficult search. We just weren’t ready yet to take the inevitable ‘walks of shame’ to retrieve our children from a church nursery because they were having a meltdown.”
Whitehead began to turn his academic eye on what his family was going through. By viewing his family’s struggles as a sociologist would — on a macro scale — he emerged with findings that revealed an unseen population and tragically underexplored issues in faith communities. Whitehead’s yearslong examination of national data found that children whose disabilities affect social interaction are the most likely to be deterred from worship.
“I hoped my research could serve as a wake-up call to religious communities,” Whitehead said. “In many ways, this population is unseen because they never show up, or when they do, they have a negative experience and never return.”
The likelihood of children with chronic health conditions never attending religious services is 14 percent higher than that of those without conditions, while physical conditions alone have almost no effect on attendance, Whitehead discovered.
The difference becomes more pronounced in disabilities that affect social interaction. One in 4 children with developmental delays, learning disabilities, anxiety or conduct disorder never attend church. That ratio becomes 1 in 3 for children with autism, depression, speech problems or brain injury. Citing prior research, Whitehead notes that 1 in 3 parents of children with disabilities changed their places of worship because they felt the child wasn’t sufficiently included.
Whitehead’s findings related to attrition in church attendance confirmed a hypothesis and helped him put his own experiences into perspective. After publications in national journals and an article in The Washington Post, he hopes his research can aid congregations in serving growing numbers of children with disabilities.
The Whiteheads found a church near Clemson that has been open to their needs. Their sons have a “buddy” during church whom they’ve grown comfortable with, and Whitehead looks forward to working with the church to fold their sons more completely into worship activities.
“If congregations rarely have children with chronic health conditions who show up to worship, that doesn’t mean they can’t still be prepared,” Whitehead said. “Having a system in place goes a long way toward preventing a religious community from becoming yet another bureaucracy that families have to navigate. Instead, these communities can become places of rest and refuge.”