It can be very difficult for a child with autism to attend church and if they don’t want to be there, it can be downright impossible. I know this all too well from personal experience. Sometimes all it takes is one bad experience (something as simple as the music being too loud) to set them up to refuse to go. There are however, some things you can do that can help them adjust, tolerate, and hopefully, eventually enjoy church.
If your child has been attending church well in the past, and suddenly is not, take a look at what could be happening to make them not want to go. If it is music, try noise reducing headphones. If the pew is uncomfortable or they have trouble sitting still, try bringing a cushion to sit on, or a special seat wedge or disc that allows a little movement (a beach ball only inflated a small amount can be a cheap alternative to those special disc type seats). If they are bored sitting in the sanctuary, bring items for them to do (a fidget toy, a puzzle, even an ipad with the sound turned off, or a portable dvd with headphones). The goal needs to be just getting them to realize church is a positive place for the time being.
Be honest and upfront with your church leadership. Many churches are more than willing to make accommodations but just don’t know where to begin. Let them know the situation and don’t be afraid to ask them for their help. I know it can be difficult to let people into our personal lives, but it is important for your family to be able to attend church together. The leadership in the church cannot be expected to help, if they don’t know what the needs are.
Ask if you could bring the child into the church building when there is not a service going on. If you want your child to be able to sit in the sanctuary during a service, take them in when it is quiet and reward them just for sitting in the pew. Set a timer (starting at only few minutes if need be) and give them a special reward when the timer goes off. Be sure the reward is something they only get during this time so that it is worth the effort.
If you want your child to go into Sunday School or Children’s Church, allow them to go into that particular room. Reward them for just going into the room, sitting at the table, ect. Do this a few times before moving on. When your child becomes comfortable with this, ask if a children’s church worker can come in during a “practice” session and interact with the child (read a book, play a game, etc). Be patient, it maytake many times of doing this before they are ready to head back into service.
Once you feel your child is ready for the real thing, ease them in slowly. I find Sunday School to be the best place to start if your child is bothered by crowds. Usually Sunday School classes are smaller and a more relaxed setting then children’s church. Be willing to sit in the class with your child for a few times to help them adjust. You may need to start out again in small increments of time. Set a timer for 10 minutes, reward the child and then go home. Build your way up to a full service.
If there is a particular part of the service (or class) that the child does like, focus on that as a place to build. If they like the music, try coming in just for the music portion for a few Sundays and then leaving. Try to leave BEFORE it becomes too much. Slowly work your way up, always rewarding your child for completing the task you have asked of them (sitting in the pew for 15 minutes, etc).
If need be, consider working a backward approach to church. Come in for the last 10 minutes of service, When that goes well, try going in for the last 20 minutes and so on.
Whatever you do, just remember that keeping it positive is the key. It may happen in a week or two, or it may take much longer, weeks or even months, but remember that you and your child with autism are a vital part of the church family. The important thing is to find what works for your child and your family, and to allow each of you to find your vital roles in the church.