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.