an autism journey

Archive for April, 2013

How to Adapt a Children’s Church Lesson for a Child With Autism

Let me start out by saying that if you have met one child with autism, you have met one child with autism. Each child is unique and has their own individual needs and strengths. It is important to learn what works and doesn’t for each child. The best source is always mom and dad. As a parent of a child with autism, it NEVER offends me for someone to ask what is the best way to reach out to my son.  I am always excited to talk with someone who wants to learn how to connect with him. Don’t hesitate to ask how you can best help the child in your church to be able to adjust and learn in the best way possible.

Some churches have started specific classes for special needs children. While that certainly has its advantages, it is just not always practical for a lot of churches, nor is it the always the best solution for all children. I personally believe that both a child with autism and the other children in the church can benefit from an inclusive group. That however will require adaptations to help the child with autism benefit from the lesson.

1) Give as many visuals as possible to go with the lesson. You can use a story book (I like the Arch Books) and add a picture to velcro onto each page that coincides with the story. If you do not have a Bible story book to go with your lesson, you can make one up quite easily. I often take the lesson we are using and simplify it into a picture story book. (This can easily be done by using a graphics program like PrintMaster or even google images). I print it and laminate it onto half size sheets and punch holes attatched by rings. I then match a smaller picture that goes along with each section of the story for the child to find and Velcro onto the book. Have the child match the picture that goes with each page in the book.

It is really not as hard as it sounds, but if that is not quite your cup of tea, there are other ways…. You can look for pictures to simply cut out to go along with the story or use a flannel board set. Anything that gives a visual cue for the child is helpful. For instance, when teaching the story of the boy who shared his lunch. I simply used a paper basket filled with 2 paper fish and 5 loaves of bread (I found patterns on the internet).

3 D visuals are fantastic if you have something available. For instance, at Christmas, I purchased a Fisher Price Nativity set to teach with each lesson. As I told the story, the children were all allowed to place figures into their proper place and then were encouraged to retell the story using those same figures afterwards. All the children enjoyed this, not just my son. However, let’s face it, most churches are on a budget and we can’t go buy toy sets to go with each lesson. That is ok, it just needs a little creativity. When teaching the story of baby Moses, I brought in a small wading pool, a doll, a basket, and some plush animals (to go around the Nile as “dangerous animals.”)  It worked great for telling the story. There is endless possibilities.

2) Let the child with autism have a part to play. Give them a character from the story to place on the flannel board, turn pages of the book, read parts of the story if they are able…. Anything you can do to keep the child involved will help them connect to the story… even if they need assistance to do so. My son is asked to help pass out papers, snacks, etc. It is a task he cannot do alone, but it keeps him involved and gives him a valuable role to fill. Don’t underestimate the importance of the little things that matter. Remember many kids with autism can’t speak up to ask to do something…. Offer it to them.

3) Anticipate questions the child with autism might have. Even if the child is verbal, communication can be difficult . Think about any questions that a child might have during the story and go ahead and give those answers. From the opposite perspective, give the child the opportunity to answer questions EVEN IF THEY ARE NON VERBAL… but give them the means to do so. There again, go back to your visuals. Ask questions that have two or three options. For instance, How many fish were in the boy’s lunch? Place 2 cards in front of them (a simple index card works fine) one card with the number 2 and one with the number 8. If the child needs further assistance, show them a picture with 2 fish and help them count the fish and choose the right answer (give as much or as little help as they need) Keep in mind that sometimes it can all just become too overwhelming.  If it is too much, it is ok if they don’t want to answer. Let them guide you and follow their lead.

4) Adapt the method you are using to teach Bible verses (particularly for those who are non verbal). Break the verse down word by word (or groups of words depending on the verse and the ability of the child). Put each word onto a piece of paper cut into a shape or add a picture. I prefer to do this on PrintMaster and laminate, but it can just as easily be done on index cards or cut out construction paper shapes. Show the child the verse and how to piece it together, then mix the cards and let them put it in order. My son can read, but for those who can’t a simple picture works well to help them associate meaning to the words. You will be surprised at how well all the children in the class will respond to this method.

5) Give specific directions. For instance, if you pass out a coloring sheet and tell the children to color, most will do so. For the child with autism however, it may be too much. If so, ask the child to color the basket yellow. Color the fish brown. Color the boy blue, etc. Breaking it down like this can make the task seem less daunting.

6) Keep in mind that there is no wrong or right way for the child to do things. If during craft time the child would simply prefer to glue the figures all in one spot rather than all across the paper, that is ok. Trust me, mom and dad will not judge your value based on how amazing the craft looks. If their child is content and learning as they sit in service, they will be happy to take home whatever their child has made(I say that because my son prefers to glue one thing on top of another rather than each in its own spot…. That is ok with me) Too often as children’s church workers, we think parents want to see a perfectly colored picture, craft, worksheet etc in order for them to think we have been productive. We need to realize that each child (special needs or not) is an individual and they should be allowed to express themselves as such.

7) Keep the lesson structured. I cannot emphasize this enough. Free time to a child with autism can easily translate into chaos. Keep the lesson flowing from one thing to another. However, keep in mind that the child does not have to participate in every single activity you do. If they need a break to move around, fidget with a toy, or simply sit quiet for a few minutes, allow them to do so. Do not pressure them to participate in every single thing. Sometimes they need a break. Sitting through a lesson, using fine motor skills to color or cut, even interacting with a group may seem like a simple or fun task to you and the other children, but it can be exhausting work for a child with autism. Be sensitive to that.

8) Relax and have fun. Don’t get too caught up in worrying if they have learned each and every detail of the story. Of course we want them to learn, but the most important thing for the child with autism at church is to teach them that church is a happy and safe environment to be in. We want them to WANT  to come to church each week.  Keep them safe and comfortable and let them (and their family) know that you and the other workers care about them. That is the best way to show them Christ’s love. If you can accomplish this, than you have success. The rest will fall into place.


Jesus Loves Me

Early on in our son’s life, we knew he was going to be special. God seemed to have His hand upon him and we speculated what great thing he might do in his life. I think Daddy was hoping he might be a great preacher one day. So, when he lost his verbal skills and the word autism began to fly around in the air, it felt like a knife. Was this really the plan God had for our son? What if he never spoke again?  What kind of life was our son going to have if he couldn’t even communicate? Why would God do this? How would people ever know how amazing our son was if they couldn’t even talk to him? It never occurred to me at the time, that my son could have a gift so powerful that nothing, not even autism, could stand in the way….. that sometimes there is something so special deep within the soul that speaks louder than words……

As long as I can remember, he has loved music. Even back when he was still a toddler and had lost his ability to speak, somehow he was able to sing. The words just came out easier that way. I have cherished that sweet little voice through the years. It has been God’s gift to me even when it was the only time I heard my son’s voice.

It is often used by each of his therapists to get his attention when he otherwise seems lost in a world far away. Whenever someone starts singing, he connects. You can see it in his eyes…. The music reaches him in a place that is sometimes quite hard to get to. The therapists learned to use this to their advantage. I still remember when his speech therapist tried to sing with him those cute little toddler type songs. He just looked at her and began to sing  “Jesus loves me.” He didn’t want to sing anything else. She looked at me with pleading eyes and asked “isn’t there any other song he will sing?”

“Yes, but that is his favorite.”

She didn’t know the words, but she tried as best she could to sing it with him. It seemed unimaginable to me that this highly educated young woman with two children of her own did not know the words to such a simple song. She has since learned the song, thanks to my son continuing to ask her to sing it….. and so a life is touched.

It came up again when he started ABA. The first therapist they sent to us was a brilliant man and very good at working with kids with autism. His lifestyle however, by his own admission, was one far different than mine. He was very upfront about discussing his time spent partying with friends. I think he was a bit unsure how to handle coming into the home of a pastor week after week, even though I never discussed God with him, nor did my husband. We simply talked about my son and how best to help him. We didn’t need to discuss God with him, our son took care of that.

ABA works on a principle of rewarding the behavior you want to increase. His rewards at that point were usually time spent watching a movie or singing a song. His song choice? You guessed it…. Jesus loves me. The first time his ABA therapist was asked to sing that song, he rolled his eyes, but it is hard to turn down a mostly non verbal little boy’s request when he was working so hard, and so he sang it with him. The therapist  knew the words perfectly. Somewhere back in his past, someone must have taught him something about this God that he know wanted nothing to do with and our little boy was determined to reintroduce him. Even his movies choices seemed to be conveying a message. At the time he couldn’t verbally ask for a movie, he did so with picture cards. His preferred choices at the time, just happened to be Facing the Giants and Flywheel, both movies with a very strong spiritual message, and so, the two of them would sit and watch clips from the movie together. That particular man was only with us for a few months. He moved out of state and I later heard he was going through a very difficult time. He told me before he left that although he had never felt any need for God in his life, he had a great respect for me and my family and the way we lived….. and so a life is touched.

Our son got a new ABA therapist and sure enough, she learned early on to sing his favorite song too. The first time she heard him sing it, she actually got tears in her eyes and said it had been years since she had heard that song. She still sings it with him every time he asks. She also watches Christian YouTube videos that he picks out….. and so a life is touched.

His love of music has continued to grow. So much so that we started him in music therapy a few months ago.  He attends music therapy at a private ABA school. He just started learning to play piano and I couldn’t help but smile today when his music therapist told me what song he wanted to learn to play….. Jesus loves me……  My son may never preach from a pulpit like his daddy (although I will never stop praying for a miracle), but maybe….  just maybe, one doesn’t need a pulpit, or even verbal skills, to preach a sermon.

Beyond Awareness

April is Autism Awareness Month. An entire month dedicated to making society more aware of what autism is. There will be information about the suspected causes, the lack of insurance coverage, the need for research and funding. There will be discussion on diets and therapies, information on the symptoms and the need for early detection, but I just wonder if all that (as good as it is) is really going to be of any benefit to my son…. Probably not.

My son has been struggling with autism for 5 years now. He showed no signs until shortly before his second birthday when he began to lose previously acquired skills. I was one of those parents who counted 10 fingers and 10 toes and cried tears of joy with every well baby check up….. I documented dates for all the milestones on those cute little calendars, only to have it all slip away into silence.

So, what is it that my son does need at this point? More than awareness. How about understanding? How about acceptance? I want people to look at my son, not with pity, but with an admiration for the fact that no matter how hard life is for my son, he keeps fighting, he keeps smiling, he keeps his joy.

I want people to realize that my son is more than a statistic. He is a boy. A boy who laughs and cries. He has good days and bad. He likes McDonald’s cheeseburgers and hates green beans. He can quote any scene from Toy Story and he loves to watch YouTube videos. He gets scared and sometimes sad, but mostly he is happy.

He understands what you say, even if he can’t respond. The teasing doesn’t go unnoticed. He sees the stares even if he doesn’t make eye contact. He wants friends. He wants to love and be loved. He has so much to offer if only someone takes the time to discover that.

You may see flapping, you may see odd behaviors, and hear random noises. You may see him as different. You are right, he IS indeed different. He never lies, he doesn’t judge, he doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean, he doesn’t cheat, and he would never dream of rejecting someone. He doesn’t care what a person looks like, or what they can or cannot “contribute” to society.  He doesn’t even know how to be unkind. He loves life and he loves his family. He prays, he sings, and he gives the best hugs in the world. Perhaps, we could all try to be a little more ‘different’.

What do I want you to know about my child with autism? He is a son, a brother, a grandson, a cousin, a nephew, a friend, and if you listen with your heart rather than your ears, he is a teacher. Autism does not define who he is, rather, he is defined by every life that he touches. He is my hero.

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