“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.
A 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.