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.