That “dark period” occurred in 2014, after he and his family — his wife, Kelly, their two sons, ages 10 and 4, and their 7-year-old daughter — moved to Clemson. Faith is important to the Whiteheads, but in each of the various places they lived, they struggled to find a congregation that could accommodate the special needs of their sons, who have autism and don’t speak. Considering the demands of their family’s educational, health care and therapy needs, they had little energy left to devote to finding and cultivating a spiritual home for themselves and their children.
The search fell off the list of priorities for nearly a year. “We all suffered when we didn’t have a community to belong to,” Whitehead says. “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.”
Through those experiences, 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. The Whitehead family’s experiences were part of a troubling national trend. Whitehead’s years-long 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 says. “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 odds of children with a chronic health condition never attending religious services are 14 percent higher than those without conditions, while physical conditions 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. With publications in national journals and an article in The Washington Post, his research has earned national attention, so he hopes it can aid congregations who face growing numbers of children with disabilities to serve.
The Whiteheads found a church near Clemson, Alive Wesleyan Church, which 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.
It’s a far cry from a previous church in another state they were all but turned away from. Whitehead recalls the church’s children’s ministry director telling him, “There’s just nothing we can do for you.” Hindsight has mellowed his initial reaction to that statement. He now sees it more as a lack of preparation than a lack of compassion.
“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 says. “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.”