7 Tips for Welcoming and Teaching Children with Autism

7 Tips Autism - FB

 

“Sometimes I wonder, ‘Is it even worth it to go to church? Am I doing anybody any good?’” lamented one mother. Sadly, many parents of kids with autism struggle to make it to church, and even when they do, the experience can rapidly change from hallowed to harrowing. With careful planning, however, ministry leaders can help to make church a welcoming and manageable experience for all families.

 

1. Remember: They’re fearfully and wonderfully made!  

When a child has autism, the diagnosis can quickly become the central focus. However, autism can’t trump this most important truth: Every child was created by the King!  One way to demonstrate understanding of this is by using “people-first language.” Rather than saying, “Janie is an autistic kid,” say, “Janie is a student with autism.” This creates a culture of respect.

2. …and they are unique.

Focus on learning kids’ individual strengths and needs. If a parent is willing to share information, offer a willing ear and a learner’s heart. It might be tempting to say, “Oh, we know about autism…we had some students with autism last year…” While this statement may be made with the intent to allay a parent’s concerns, it halts communication. Instead, try, “We have had a few kids with autism in our program before. However, I know that every child is unique. Tell me about your child!”

3. Provide a preview.

Kids with autism thrive on routine and predictability, so an unfamiliar church can be intimidating. One helpful strategy is a “backstage tour” of the ministry space. Invite the child and his/her family to visit during the week when the building is quieter. During the visit, allow the child to get acclimated to the classrooms, worship space and hallways. In addition, locate the bathroom and also identify a quiet space where they can take a break if necessary. The benefit of this strategy is two-fold: kids become familiar with the space and also begin to develop a relationship with the ministry leader. If possible, take pictures of the child in each space. That way, the child and his/her parents can review the procedures at home using the photographs. If midweek visits aren’t possible, consider adding a “virtual tour” to your church’s website.

4. Picture It.

Visual supports provide comfort to children with autism.  To make a visual schedule, draw or print pictures of the day’s activities and post them in order. Words or sentences can also accompany the pictures. To explore the kinds of icons used in many schools, see www.mayer-johnson.com and search “Boardmaker.”

Another effective strategy is a social story, which is a script that provides information about a situation or activity, along with expected behavior and the perspectives of others. Social stories can help students navigate activities by providing them with a visual representation of the expectations and procedures. For more information, visit www.thegraycenter.org.

5. Pump DOWN the volume (and the lighting and décor…)

Remember, many children with autism have difficulty with sensory processing. Loud music and bright lights may cause them to feel overwhelmed. Consider purchasing filters for fluorescent lights (www.therapyshoppe.com) or simply removing half of the bulbs for softer lighting. To make worship time easier, allow students to stand just outside the worship space if they’re more comfortable in a less-crowded space, or offer noise-cancelling headphones, which you can find on www.especialneeds.com. Finally, if space is available, create a quiet room with ambient lighting, a soft color palette and comfortable seating; this can provide a necessary oasis for kids.

6. Stay on the “plus side.”  

Parents of kids with autism frequently hear negative reports about their child’s behavior and academic work. In addition, these families spend time in doctors’ offices and therapy appointments to address myriad challenges. If a family makes it to church on Sunday, they might be weary—and leery of receiving another “bad report.”  Accentuate the positive whenever possible. When parents hear, “Alex has such a great memory for scripture,” or “I love Daria’s beautiful singing voice,” they will be able to rejoice about their child’s strengths. (And remember, those words may be the only positive ones they’ve heard all week.)

7. Staff for success

When recruiting volunteers, identify folks who are willing to be “on call” for days when kids or teachers might need a bit of extra support. Similarly, recruit “buddies” willing to invest time each Sunday in one or two children. One mother commented, “Our son had so many meltdowns on Sundays…but when he got a buddy, he was able to manage things so much better!” Finally, provide greeters and parking attendants with information about autism. Information can be a powerful tool in providing a warm welcome.

Creating an environment that welcomes families affected by autism takes time and effort, but the results can be heartwarming: “I go to church on Sundays,” reported Paul,* an eight year-old with autism. “It’s like a third grade room with a LOT of friends in it.”

*All names have been changed.


katie-weatherbeeA ministry and educational consultant, Katie loves helping families, schools, and churches work together to make every child feel included. In addition to her consulting work, Katie is a writer whose articles have been featured on The Huffington Post, the Power of Moms blog and in K! Magazine. Katie is currently a columnist for Children’s Ministry Magazine, and serves on the special needs curriculum team at Standard Publishing. Her first book, Every Child Welcome (with co-author Jolene Philo) will be published in 2015.

She lives in Chagrin Falls with her husband, Tom, and two children. You can find her online at katiewetherbee.com.

 

 

 

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33 comments
Katie Livingston Wetherbee
Katie Livingston Wetherbee

Becky...what about finding an inexpensive room divider (or having someone crafty make one) so that you can partition off a small corner to create a quieter space? Would that work? Some churches have created blanket forts or even used pop-up tents to create a separate space as well. Large spaces can be so hard! Please message me if you want to brainstorm further!

Katie Livingston Wetherbee
Katie Livingston Wetherbee

Such a great discussion...lots of good ideas in the comment thread here. I love it when we can put our heads together! Hope everyone is having a great week.

Katie Livingston Wetherbee
Katie Livingston Wetherbee

Hope, you make some great points. Inclusion really does need to be part of the church's culture!

Katie Livingston Wetherbee
Katie Livingston Wetherbee

I think the looks and comments sometimes hurt most when they're from folks at church. I'm so sorry, Kath.

Katie Livingston Wetherbee
Katie Livingston Wetherbee

Oh, Simone...this breaks my heart. I am so sorry this has happened. Please feel free to message me if you want to talk about your experiences, or if you'd like to brainstorm some solutions.

Lisa Stride-Purves
Lisa Stride-Purves

I have a 7 year old with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Our church has such a family feel where all kids can be themselves, even making the noise they need to express themselves. My Son's "special interest" is trains, so whenever we arrive, the children's workers automatically get the box of trains out and set it up in the "special corner" of Children's church room... He is able to dip in and out of the planned activities as and when he chooses and the Children's church workers have even started incorporating his love of trains into the activities to find a way of engaging him in the Children's bible teaching. A couple of the youth workers have taken it upon themselves to read autism-related literature written by Christians who work in that field so as to gain better insight & understanding of the compexities of A.S.D... To know myself and my 2 young boys are accepted and embraced by the wider church family regardless of some of the odd/noisy behaviours that come part & parcel of an autism disorder; makes us feel loved and at ease - that we can just show up on a Sunday/mid-week and be in God's presence whilst being shown the Father's heart through our church family! ;-) God Bless xx

Cathy Caselli Robinson
Cathy Caselli Robinson

This is great. It's really sad, but the local church misses the boat sometimes re. this need today. Oftentimes as said before people are well intentioned but just don't know how to deal with the special needs kid community. We struggle with this in our church as I have a child on the spectrum and there is at least 1 other little boy in our church that is as well.

Nora Ray-Bennett
Nora Ray-Bennett

It's so refreshing to hear of others whom have faced this dilemma. We've tried a couple of churches. The first church was unbelievably not supportive. I was so saddened. Thinking these are Christians! The 2nd church tried very hard but just didn't have any one trained enough to deal with my boy. So again we had to stop going. But I'm so blessed because my Dad is a retired minister & he and my Momma now hold "children's Church" every Sunday for he & his cousins. And he's thriving in it, has memorized many bible verses! And looks forward to this time every week. But not everyone is as blessed as we are. Our Special Needs children need more special Sunday schools throughout this country!

Nicole Raymond
Nicole Raymond

Our last preacher had a son that was autistic, I am pretty sure her husband would have been on the spectrum too had he been tested. I have children with ADHD so I can relate some to the difficulties of getting them to sit still and not disturb others. Most of us really don't mind, but there are the few that have to make it uncomfortable for those with children, and downright uninviting for those with special children. I wish everyone would learn that the House Of God is a place for EVERYONE not just those you can deal with!!!!

Amy Snyder
Amy Snyder

As a mother of an autistic child, anything to make my son feel welcomed, important and familiar is a huge help!

Rachel Hoffman
Rachel Hoffman

May I also mention: quieter cooperative games. I have aspergers and absolutely hated shouting matches, anything smelly or food related and touching games. Especially into Jr high I would wander and hide

Heather Veal Kopitch
Heather Veal Kopitch

Our church had a special needs class my autistic son loves. It allows and my husband to serve in different areas. They also had the amazing idea last year to open our fall festival an hr early just for special needs children and their families. It was a great out reach and allowed my son to have a fun evening with his brother and sister he would have otherwise missed.

Cheryl Smith Tredway
Cheryl Smith Tredway

Our church has a special class for those on the spectrum, those with Down's Syndrome and any other developmental issues, whether they are children or adults. So thankful for the families that are being blessed by this ministry.

Hugh Boorman
Hugh Boorman

I think Kath makes a good point. You can have a fantastic ministry team but all it takes is one or two insensitive people in the church and all their good work is undone. The whole church needs to be educated to welcome everyone just as they are. As I said last week, our church has been taught so much by our son about how to take off their masks and be real before God and one another.

Deanna Yasuda Fisher
Deanna Yasuda Fisher

My son (8 and a half) is on the autism spectrum. Three years ago, our children's ministry director gave me permission to start a special needs Sunday school class. Right now, we serve between two to six children a week, depending on who shows up. These are kids who simply could not function in a "typical" Sunday school class or children's church setting. Our curriculum has been the "What's In the Bible?" DVD series. Because of the DVD series, our kids who are regular attenders (the ones who are verbal) can now recite all of the books of the Bible, in order, both Old and New Testament, and have a basic working knowledge of the Bible. I am SO grateful for the "What's In the Bible?" series!!! Because I am both the teacher and a mom of a ASD child, the parents know that I understand their kids and love their kids, because I walk in their shoes every day, too. The special needs community is terribly underserved in the church today. I am hoping to start to reverse that trend and make people aware that these kids need Jesus just as much as any other child does - starting with the handful I teach each week at Sunday school.

Hugh Boorman
Hugh Boorman

Becky, we also meet in a school. I would say take guidance from the parents and child. Our son uses ear-defenders and also plays on his DS. He is still involved in the service but they help him to filter too much noise and stimulation.

Rachel Diaz
Rachel Diaz

I meant families and other volunteers at the church

Rachel Diaz
Rachel Diaz

Pray that God will open the hearts of fanlike that would volunteer and teachers that help autism children would serve and educate other meets of the church. God will provide just ask.

Kath Lovesrick
Kath Lovesrick

Becky, would you have access to maybe one classroom as well as your open space area?

Kath Lovesrick
Kath Lovesrick

Such an important task. As a mother of a child with aspbergers syndrome (mild end of the autism spectrum) it is hard when you don't feel welcome in so many places because your child may act in a way that is not "proper". The dirty looks and snide comments ( yes at church!) really keep people away even when they want to be there.

Becky Frey
Becky Frey

Any ideas for a church that meets in a High School? We have open space with lots of kids and set up/tear down each Sunday. So much of what I see talks about setting up special rooms/environments. thanks!