April and her son Zachary

April and her son Zachary


….

Eleanor’s babysitter April has a son who was diagnosed with mild Aspergers at 16. He’s now 19 and has received his twelve-week mission call to a neighboring mission area–roughly two hours away from home. He starts October 10th.

At the end of the twelve week period, Zach, April, and Zach’s mission president will meet to discuss whether a two year mission is manageable. If so, Zach will get a new mission call with time served. If not, Zach gets to return home and resume his normal activities.

There are only three differences between Zach’s twelve weeks and an average two year mission:

1) Time serving.

2) Zach does not take out his endowments until after the twelve weeks are over.

3) Zach does not go to the MTC prior to his twelve weeks, nor is the MTC a part of his twelve weeks.

The goal of the twelve weeks is not any tangible number used by regular missionaries to measure success. Rather, this trial period is all about Zach. Does Zach feel comfortable in the environment of a full-time missionary? Can Zach meet the demands of missionary life?

If this all sounds new to you, it is.

April sat down with Zach’s Mission President–again, something not done under normal circumstances– a couple of days ago and was told this is an experiment. Because of the lack of precedent for this situation, the Mission President could not answer most of the questions she had. One of which was, will Zach come home in between the twelve-weeks and two year mission if the trial period is a success? The good news is, the Mission President was able to say April will be present when Zach gets his endowments.

This is new territory for families with young adults with special needs. In years past, a potential missionary with any degree of Autism was not allowed to serve a mission. I know of one family that agonized over their son’s mission application because it asked for any diagnosed conditions. Their son had been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome but was an excellent student and was expecting to go on a mission because every boy should serve a mission, right? That is what we teach our children. The father didn’t want to acknowledge their son’s Aspergers because yes, he was a bit quirky about things but he was sure his son would be fine. The mother said they needed to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. They told the truth – yes, their son had been diagnosed with Aspergers but it was very mild and he took no medication for it or needed special support.

Their son was denied. Their stake president kindly explained that any potential missionary with any degree of autism, no matter how small, would not be allowed to serve as a full-time missionary. To say their son was devastated by this official decision puts it mildly. It took over two years, longer than if he had served, for the young man to overcome his grief about being shut out of the opportunity to serve a mission.

The happily-ever-ending to the story is their son is now fine, an accomplished musician teaching music at a large University. He writes hymns for fun and enjoys his students passion for music. His experience with missionary requirements happened less than 10 years ago.

Iowa has never had a trial mission before. I do not know if there have been other twelve-week missions, but I know for adults on the Autism Spectrum even 5 years ago this would not have been possible.

Since the mission age has recently been lowered, and the MTC skyscraper plan officially abandoned for over a year now, could this twelve week trial period become the rule for all missionaries rather than the exception due to space constraints?

A friend from my teenage years was released from his mission for obsessive compulsive disorder, something he was not diagnosed with prior to leaving, and now takes medicine for it. I know of several other missionaries who had mental/ emotional illnesses appear while serving and were sent home.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, based on a study published in 2005, half of all lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14. Three-quarters by 24. Based on this data alone, it can be assumed by decreasing the minimum age the church can also be inadvertently increasing the rate of missionaries serving with mental illness.

With Zach’s mission, he will not only change the life of those he serves but those he sets an example for. I hope if this is found to be a success, twelve week trial periods will become the norm for all adults who wish to serve as missionaries for the church. At the very least, his courage in being one of the first missionaries with acknowledged Aspergers Syndrome serving in the field is a gift to all families following his lead.