an autism journey

Autism and the Church

For families dealing with autism, going to church can be difficult. Children with autism often struggle in new environments. Large crowds of people can be overwhelming to them. They are often bothered by certain noises, bright lights and even smells. Many of the individuals have limited verbal skills. There are safety issues for those who have a tendency to wander. I have talked to way too many families who said, “it is just too hard, so we don’t go” or “we can’t find a church willing to accept our child.” What a terrible shame. The families are not to blame. The children with autism certainly are not to blame. The fault lies completely on the Church. I am speaking about the Church as a whole. I don’t care what denomination you are…. The mission of the Church should be to bring people to Christ; to make each and every person aware of their divine purpose in life. We are each created in God’s image and we each have a divine purpose. The rates for autism are growing at an alarming rate. The time for acceptance is long overdue…. Especially in the church.

Individuals with autism (and their families) are often ostracized in our community. They are made to feel different, less than, and unwelcome. They struggle in schools, they struggle to make friends, they are laughed at and made fun of. It is hard for these families to go out. Many of them may be struggling financially to meet the growing costs of therapy, treatments, and adaptive equipment. The parents are often serving as full time caregivers with little to no help. They are tired, they are frustrated, and they are in desperate need of someplace safe. A place that makes them feel it is ok if their child makes odd noises or flaps their hands. They want and need to be accepted. They want their children to feel safe and accepted. If there is one place they SHOULD be accepted and feel most safe, it is in church.

So, what is the problem? Is it that churches really don’t care? I doubt it (if that is true, find another church to attend immediately).  I think the problem however may lie in the fact that churches don’t understand. They don’t make the family feel welcome and make accommodations for the individual with autism because they don’t know what autism really is and they don’t know how to help.  

I have a different perspective on this than most. I am not only the mother of a child severely affected by autism, but I am a pastor’s wife. I teach Sunday School and Children’s Church. For me, not going to church was not an option. I had to find a way to make it work for my son.

So, what can churches do? First of all, love and accept the individual and their family as they are right now. Get over the image of a perfect church where everyone sits perfectly still and quiet and obeys all the “rules.” A quiet pew is an empty pew. You want your church to grow? The mission field is right in front of you. However, if you put out unreasonable expectations, you will soon find an empty church. So there is a little more noise. Do you think God is not big enough to move in the midst of a little noise? So there is a child who won’t sit still. Get over it. One day we will all be held accountable to God for our actions. Do you really want to look God in the face and explain that you asked that family to leave because their child with autism was “disruptive” to your service?

Take a long hard look at the Bible.  Jesus never said someone had to be perfect to be accepted and loved.  Actually, we are told that we are all a part of the body of Christ. There is no one part more important than another…… if we believe the Bible, than that means, EACH INDIVIDUAL IN THE CHURCH IS JUST AS IMPORTANT AS ANOTHER. That child that maybe loud and jumping up and down everytime the sermon starts…. Guess what? They are just as important to the body of Christ as the pastor, the board members, the Sunday School teachers. Hmmmm…. So if they are just as important, than they have a vital role in the church. It is the church’s responsibility to be sure they have a role to play. They have a gifts and abilities to be used for God. Help them find those gifts and use them accordingly.

So, where do we start? The best place to start is to ask the family how you can help the individual feel more comfortable. Respect the wishes of the family

 If you have children’s church available, ask if they would like to attend. Let them know they are WANTED. However if the family wants to keep the child in service, let them know that is ok. If they want to sit in the back pew, make room for them. If the child with autism prefers not to be touched during greeting time, then abide by that. Many individuals with autism have difficulty sitting still. Perhaps there is an area in the sanctuary they could move around a bit if that makes them more comfortable. Just because they are moving around, does not mean they aren’t listening. Their bodies just often CAN’T sit still.

Make a room (or even just a corner of a room) available as a quiet area to go to if the child needs it. Put a bean bag chair and perhaps a box of fidget toys or books next to it. Often the child with autism can be easily overwhelmed and just having a quiet area to go to for a few minutes can be a huge help. That room (or area) should be “autism safe.” Be sure there are no sharp edges of furniture, no small parts that can be put into the mouth, and that electrical outlets have safety plugs. Be sure the lighting is soft and the area is clutter free.

If they choose to attend children’s church, welcome them in and make any accommodations that you can. That means you may need an extra helper for just that child. If your church does not have a “special needs buddy system” in place, start one now. I know that churches are often low on volunteers willing to help, but make the need known and pray for the right individuals to step up. Believe me, the blessings will far outweigh the burden. Each child that comes into your chuch with any special needs should be paired with a responsible person  to assist them in Sunday School and Children’s Church. My child is entitled to a full time teacher’s aide in the public school system. If the public school system has seen fit to make sure my child is safe and accommodated, shouldn’t the church be willing to do the same by providing a volunteer to sit with the child for a couple hours a week so they can attend church? Be sure the individual is responsible and well educated on autism (what they don’t know, they can learn). Provide them with training.  Remember that these children often have safety needs that the average child does not have, so the role MUST be taken seriously.

Take a look at your Sunday School/Children’s church for areas you can improve on. Structure is important for a child with autism. Provide a visual schedule (simple picture cards can be found free on the internet) that shows the child what to expect next. Stick to that schedule as much as possible. Consider using visual timers so the child knows how much time is left for things like snack time, crafts, ect. These can be purchased at most educational supply stores.

Provide visuals during the lesson as much as possible. Children with autism often learn better visually. Consider using a felt story board to tell the story or even just pictures that can be shown to the child regarding the lesson. If the child is not verbal, provide other means for them to express what they know. (ask the parent if the child uses PECS or a communication device and be willing to learn how to use those items if desired by the parent). Giving picture choices for a child to answer with are a big help. Even presenting items to them to choose if possible is appropriate. For instance, instead of just verbally asking if they want to use markers or crayons… put both in front of them and ask them to show you which they want to use. Giving children with autism choices as much as possible gives them more of a sense of control that can help prevent behavior problems in the long run. However, keep the choices simple. 2 or 3 choices is plenty. Don’t overwhelm them with options.

For things like memory verses, consider writing each word of the verse on a cut out shape and showing the child the order of the verse and asking them to do the same. My son learns his Bible verses this way (you would be surprised at how well the other children will respond to this method as well). I simply write out each word on a colored shape and cut it out and laminate it. He learns and “recites” his verses perfectly this way.

If the child has trouble sitting still, or does a lot of stimming (repetive movements like hand flapping or tapping items with fingers) consider purchasing some inexpensive “fidget toys.” You can find things fairly easily if you know what to look for. Check the dollar store or WalMart for things like silly putty (they can stretch and squeeze it), squishy balls, slinkies, Koosh balls, ect. Again, check with the parent for what types of things work best for the child, keeping in mind safety issues. Perhaps the child has a favorite fidget they would like to bring from home.

Know the child’s diet restrictions. Perhaps the parent would prefer to bring a snack from home if there are restrictions. Children with autism are often on special diets and are usually very sensitive to certain textures, smells, and flavors. If they need assistance, like a special cup, or cutting the food up into small pieces, ect, be aware of that as well.

Look around for things that might make the child uncomfortable. If the child is sensitive to bright lights, a cover can be purchased to soften lighting. If they don’t like loud noises, be sure to keep them at a distance from a cd player or instruments during music time. Often the things that overwhelm their sensory system are unpredictable so look to the child for cues of being bothered by something.

Try to include the child in as much as possible, but if there are certain things that the child is uncomfortable with, don’t push it. Give them an alternative. For instance if music time is too much, perhaps the helper could let them go to a quiet area during that time and join the group back when music is over. Ask the parents what works and doesn’t. We as parents are very happy to explain our child’s needs to someone who shows an interest.

Finally whatever happens, don’t judge. Autism is not some cookie cutter disorder where all kids behave the same way. There maybe odd behaviors. They are just trying to cope the best way their little bodies know how. Autism is often an uncomfortable and downright scary disorder for the child. When you understand this, you will understand their behaviors. See it as your job to make the time they have in church is a happy and safe one. By doing so, you are not only helping that child, but their entire family to be able to attend church. In the end, you will probably be surprised at what they will teach you as well.

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Comments on: "Autism and the Church" (32)

  1. Yes, yes, and AMEN! Thank you for sharing this!

  2. Joshua rivera said:

    I agree totally but what do you do as a parent and church when an autistic child inappropriatelly touches another child.

    • If the child is unaware that it is inappropriate, you take the autistic child aside and find out why they touched the other child inappropriately and explain to them in a calm rational manner why that is inappropriate and that they cannot do so again or will face negative consequences. Most autistic people are very rule oriented so they will follow the rules if they know and understand them. If the child knows what they are doing is wrong and still does it, its not the autism and appropriate action should be taken. It is the same as with an Neurotypical child.

  3. Brian Andrew said:

    You have really illumitated the “autism awareness” challenge for the Church…I am presently “out of church” as my 14 year old high functioning Autistic son proved to be a burden that the church we were at could no longer bear except on their new terms, (after a leadership meeting)…The thing that I just don`t get about all this is what does this say about the church people and more bafflingly the Holy Spirit, (Who is indwelling them isn`t He?).

    I am in a spiritual desert now my two children no longer want to go to church and I just do not see a way forward that involves church attendance in the future because my wife and I having a special needs child did not take God by surprise did it!
    I have been a committed and passionate church goer for over 20 years but I never in my wildest imaginings thought I would end up in the situation I am in today. It has been personally devastating!

    • Don’t give up. Churches make mistakes.God however doesn’t make mistakes and His love never fails. It is hard. I truly hope and pray that you are able to one day find a church that will accept you and your children as you are. Please don’t judge all churches by what happened. Keep searching and trusting for God to lead you to the right place.

    • We also faced a similar situation, and searched for a church that would not only accept our son, but also, importantly, engage him so that he would learn more about Jesus and come closer in relationship to Him. We have been very blessed to have found such a congregation – and all our children ask to go to church now – even the one with autism! The main difference here was that this new church offers a children’s program and youth program during service – and our church did not.

      Good luck, and know that God knows the pain you suffer by not being able to attend church – and He certainly does NOT stand in judgement for any lack of attendance. We parents of children with autism live in service to Him every day – He chose US to parent these children and bring them closer to Him. He must know what He is doing (even though there are some days I have asked Him – are you sure you meant to pick ME for this job? 😉 ) I hope you do not give up trying to find a place for your family to worship in community with other believers.

  4. Thank you for sharing what is often buried under nervous smiles and hushed whispers. My 3 year old is unable to sit during the service as well due to autism and my 6 year old may also have autistic tendencies we are finding out as she progresses through a parochial school run by the same church. I’ve been told by the teachers at that school that they are unable to help either one with all the squirming, inattention, and “stimming” behaviors. There were a few solutions presented with Christian websites and visual indicators of what parts of the day were done well or badly. For psychological help, I was referred to a “proprietary” organization for lack of a better word that could help my older daughter. But our insurance did not cover this service. So I set out on my own to the local public school which has been nothing but supportive and inclusive. Never in a my whole life would I have seen the church as exclusionary until this happened to my own family. I’m a pastor’s kid! I don’t think the church really realizes how this makes us feel. It is hard to present it to them when we are learning about autism as we go as well. I love Jesus, my Savior, I love my kids and husband, and I just want to be loved by our church. Your posting will serve as a wonderful guide to help my family and many more.

    • Thanks so much for sharing that. It is disappointing when we expect and need acceptance from our church. The church as a whole is learning just like we are and hopefully as we all share they will begin to see our children in a different light and learn ways to reach out to all children. Fortunatly our faith is in Christ and not the church itself. God has big plans for our children! That being said, there are great churches who are are putting the effort into reaching out to all children and adults with or without disabilities.

  5. Hi, thanks for your article, I come from the angle of a churches business/facilities manager, we have a number of children with varying degrees of autism in our congregation. We are trying to work out a way to build appropriate facilities and also to have specialised/informed volunteers who can minister effectively to these beautiful children and their families. To be honest it seems a little overwhelming at the start, practically, logistically and physically. However we are committed and are seeking help from some specialised secular organisations who operate special needs schools and program’s to see how we can move forward!

  6. I am working with a church which will launch a full online campus at the end of June. We have a young man with Asperger’s who envisions a role with the campus. We think this could be one way to reach out to families which have felt disconnected from church or have a difficult time attending due to a family member with an Autism Spectrum Disorder or other condition. If you participated in a church online, what would you want to see it offer for you?

  7. Sharene Mauk said:

    our church is in Taylor, Michigan and wedo have a program for autistic children as well as others with special needs. We would welcome any who live closse enough to attend

  8. I am a mother of an autistic child and we’ve been trying to see all possibilities in going to a particular church but it was very tiring physically and mentally. My son makes a lot of annoying things if he’s not getting full attention. This church doesn’t really know how to handle our child, especially if he gets bored and makes improper actions in Sunday School and during the whole church time. Each time I go to church I feel I’m just like babysitting him in public place. I just feel that I have to look after him carefully so the church ceremony can run nicely. My son can behave good if he alone at home but when he goes outside he will need extra attention because he just doesn’t know how to act properly in public. Then I thought why should I go to church if my duty there is just to babysitting my son. I even can not hear the gospel completely and getting know other church members well. It’s better for me to teach Bible to my son alone. I always ask God why you let me having an autism child but You know my desire to go to church. Even I’ve tried to go to a church which said that they accepted my son and try to teach him Jesus but at the end all the effort in teaching Bible to my son is given to us as parents. We’re still looking forward to find a church which provide a full dedication and commitment in teaching Jesus to my son.

  9. Brian Andrew said:

    Once ….long ago, I attended a church in inner city Manchester…There were a group of unbearably challenging young people who turned up week on week, often to disrupt, many times we had to literally Manhandle these youths out of the buildings…the wardens got to dread Sunday Morning and opinions were polarised, especially among families with young children, who were disrupted time and again by the attention seeking behaviour of these damaged young lads, I have never forgot what our Vicar,(a Godly man in my experience) once said after a particularly fraught “meeting” regarding this inclusivity or otherwise situation, It went something like this,”For all we know this Building and the worshippers within could be the “Living Sacrifice” that God has chosen to lay on the altar to love these young and damaged lads into His Kingdom!”
    He lived out His words, It was very costly indeed but there is something deep within me that is moved and stirred, there is something right in this, Your son is precious to the Lord, as is mine, both our sons have been in some way marginalised by their church experiences and the totally unrealistic expectations of some/most of the congregation…I honestly believe that the problem is the church fellowships carelessness of what is really expected of THEM!
    The trouble with living sacrifices is that we are always crawling off the altar!

  10. thank yu

  11. thank u for sharing wendy ..

  12. We have a beautiful young lady who is coming to Wednesday night Kid’s Praise, a music time. The autism makes it difficult for her to sit still. We are concerned she will fall over cords or find scissors in other rooms. The church does not have a special needs program. I know because my son is special needs and we have been there since 2005. I have encouraged a program, but was told the budget is very, very tight. The building itself is in need of major repairs. The sound system is insufficient. Plus, the volunteer numbers are falling off. The contemporary service is full, but none of the younger adults want to volunteer. I can’t blame them. The service is spiritually feeding a great number. We have prayed and fasted as a group for months at a time. Still, the message from God seems to be, “my grace is sufficient for you…” I am supposed to be helping with children’s choir on Wednesday. We can’t find a volunteer. We have tried. Any suggestions?

  13. Cindy Johnson said:

    Our church has special needs programs for children 0-12 and teens/adults 13+. We have a room staffed with volunteers as well as a buddy program for those who are comfortable attending a class. We do not always have volunteers available, but we try to accommodate as best as possible. We also suggest that if the child has a waiver for an aide, to feel free to do so. Most of the 13+ age group either has a buddy who goes to church with them or to their home, so the parents can attend church.
    This website, http://secure.rethinkgroup.org/store4/home.php?cat=406, has some good resources for including children with special needs.

  14. You should check out StrawberryMinistries.org Darryl & Tracy Strawberry helped develop the first ever Adult Day Facility for families affected by Autism & are currently in the process of developing a Church specifically for families affected by autism and other things. http://www.razoo.com/story/Fight-Against-Autism?fb_ref=6nqv6st32&referral_code=share

  15. Hey Guys! I love the article, it somewhat confirms what I have been thinking about lately when dealing with autism. I’ve recently started attending a very small church in the area. They have one person attending with an autistic grandchild. They don’t have the resources or any idea on how to handle him and I am by no means an expert. I have been in children’s church with him 3 times now. The first time he did great but the next two he has had violent outbursts. He is larger than most of the men in our church and the only other children there are small girs and the teachers are older fragile women who can easily be hurt. We don’t want to have to tell the grandparents to not bring him but the teachers aren’t physically able to when he has these outbursts. I can’t find a specific trigger that is causing this because it varies so much and other than trying to find a room for me to watch him every sunday I do not know what else to do. Even when he is playing with “fidget” toys or a snack he will throw them at people. I’m not sure what else to do or how to keep the other kids and teachers safe. Can anyone help or does anyone have ideas on how to keep this going as a ministry? Like I said this is the only contact I’ve been with regarding autism and he even gives me a run for my money with the outbursts but we can’t risk accidents because of his size and other medical issues with the teachers. Any help will be greatly appreciated.

  16. I too have a son with autism. Several years ago, I had to attend the first Worship Service in our church. Right after the first Service is Sunday School where my husband, two other older sons and the youngest (with autism) arrive at the church to attend our respective Sunday School classes of which I and my son with autism attend together. I know, it may not be appropriate for him to attend Sunday School class with me, but that’s the only arrangement I could make him to sit and obey my commands. During such times, he would sit quietly, sometimes he would stim or make annoying sounds and I had to train him to just sit there next to me. After Sunday School is the second service where my husband and two older sons would attend while I accompany my son with autism to attend the Children’s Sunday School/Worship Service. I would make him memorize his weekly memory verse, attend DVBS during summer and join the children in singing special numbers. Once he’s over-aged for the Children’s Sunday School, we started joining my husband and two older sons during the second Worship Service. My son with autism used to be uneasy when the congregation sings the 7-fold Amen at the end of the service. He would cover his ears and at times he would scream. So what I did was, I downloaded a good version of the 7-fold Amen from youtube and with the lyrics, I made my son listen to immerse him to the tune. For about 2 years already, he sings the 7-fold Amen without the need to cover his ears. We parents should make some sacrifice and walk our kids with autism through the activities in the church until they grow up, mature and become used to all the noise and other stimulations and most especially, we must continue to teach them the Word of God, the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Remember, God is still at work in all of us. By the way, I once took the opportunity to give a short talk of what autism is when I got to stand in front of the congregation and asked the people to have an awareness of persons with autism, to be more understanding and accept these kids as they too are God’s creation and that Jesus lovingly welcomed the kids to His kingdom. God bless those who welcome, help and care for these kids with autism in their church.

  17. I just found your blog – this is great! I am involved in supporting and training churches to include children/adults with autism and adults with learning disabilities. I help to lead a group for adults with LD too. I am saddened by the lack of awareness but hopeful that organisations such as Churches for All are doing great work to improve this situation.

  18. Thank you so much for sharing this. I currently work in our revised children’s ministry adn we have 2 special lneeds children 1 has autism and is non verbal. I include him in crafts and praise and worship and then we have been going to a seperate room for lesson time so he can adapt to me but I really want to include him with the rest of the class. We have learned each other a bit but I want to help him with more. I love the idea of fidget toys. I found that he likes blocks, animal crackers and bubbles. If I give him a simple “not in your mouth’ he takes the block out if it makes it there or if it is headed there. I found also that he loves music but only certain songs and I think praise and worship can be a bit loud for him so I rock him on my lap and we clap together. DO you have any additional tips that may help me to include him into the group or that I can use to stimulate him ina 1 on 1 enviroment. I really want him to learn. he is at the developental age of a 3 year old so it may be a matter of working with him until he is a little older (which I am fine with ) I just don;t want to take anything away from him.

  19. Nate Watkins said:

    i have one problem with this…why do we need to call autism “scary”? it’s not scary, and a lot of autistics don’t think so (unless of course, they’re taught or influenced in someway to think it’s “scary”)

  20. […] Autism and the Church This is a sad report by a pastor’s wife who has a son with autism; she speaks of ostracism by bright lights & rock bands – not for persons with autism other church members. Lord willing, not all churches are this way but apparently enough churches are for her to speak up this way. On a positive not, she has a lot of good suggestions for welcoming and helping families with children who have severe disabilities. […]

  21. Thank you for your kind words, My wife and daughter have found a local methodist church to worship on Sunday morning where they fit like a glove, And I have also been able to worship in the evening at an evangelical church, so that we can be with our son at home, (He will not go to Church now and is 18 and has come on in leaps and bounds as a young adult with Autism). God has been graceful to us and prayer has been answered re our Peter. You don`t love your child less due to this challenge in his and our life, Quite the opposite actually hence the high levels of “sensitivity ” present in our dealings as a family in school, community and especially Church, where I had an expectation for a good deal more empathy and compassion that we have often experienced. There is a degree of social isolation in our family….One of the scars of our life story where Autism is concerned. One day though God will make the rough places smooth and the crooked straight and we will be able to see and marvel that even the most difficult of our trials were used to refine the Gold…For desperate Prayer has often been on my lips where Peter and his inexorable growth to maturity and adulthood are concerned!

  22. Roslyn wilson said:

    I love this post and Thankyou for sharing. My son is autistic and it has been a struggle for me to bring him to church as a single mother. I did give up on the idea for years and my relationship with God took a back seat, unfortunately. I have witnessed churches putting mothers, who needed to be with people after all week of dealing with 3 autistic children, being isolated in a back room. It broke my heart and I did not want that treatment and gave up. I recently have found the strength to try again as my son shoes interest in praise songs and sings to Jesus on the way to school. He loves air one station. He had his first time in a Sunday school class and I’m taking him again next Sunday. I don’t want to start a bad pattern and I don’t let him have sugar at home but I wanted him to keep excited to sit and participat so, after class the kids get to have time in the big service and we serve cocoa and donuts. Of coarse. He does not eat them at my house but I let him have one at church so he could have some reward for participating. I am a huge advocate for good healthy habits bit this one.. I broke. I try to teach him donuts are special treats when we go to church u get one but I still that we don’t eat them in home. I’m worried about sending him mixed signals. Any advise? Thankyou!

  23. Sarah Sleet said:

    Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom. We have our first, lovely family with a little guy with autism. I am so excited about the opportunity to minister to them. God seems to have chosen the perfect time and circumstances to begin this journey of partnering with this family. I knew the day would come and it’s here. I’m excited to see where God takes us.

  24. There is a child in our church that is severely autistic (nonverbal, not potty trained). He is around 11 years old and his parents leave him in our church nursery. This is getting to the point that it just isn’t working (he yells a majority of the time, may strip off all of his clothing, have a tantrum…All things that are frightening for the babies and toddlers). We’ve tried putting him in a regular Sunday school class, but then he spent the lesson time tearing papers off the wall, yelling (loudly enough that it couldn’t just be ignored and talked over), yelling in the other children’s faces and such. We want the family to feel welcome, but don’t know what to do. What is the “right” thing to do? Any advice would really be appreciated.

  25. Amanda, I would find out what he is interested in and set up a special quiet area where he could not be overwhelmed by sensory and other demands. It may be that some sensory toys help him engage. You will need adults to support him, and once he is more settled and calm them you can develop more interaction and have other children join him for gentle interaction and for Bible play, maybe? You don’t want him to be isolated, but not in a hurtful sensory environment either. It is possible to do something that is right for him. I don’t know which are you are in but if you feel that you could benefit from some more specific advice, Urban Saints:All Inclusive have a scheme where you can ask someone to come to your church from their team and work things through with you. They could have much better ideas than me, as it’s difficult to know without knowing more. Look it up at http://www.urbansaints.org/allinclusive2u

  26. Brittany Lewis said:

    My youngest has level three Autism and is delayed by about a year and a half right now (he’s three). I stopped attended church when he was a year old and haven’t gone back. I don’t plan to, mostly because he can’t handle crowds or music etc. But I wanted to thank you for writing this, and it would be such a blessing to me if I could email with you. Thank you.

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