1. Get to know them.
Every autistic child is different. It’s really important that you spend time with the family and the child to watch and learn what you can about the child. Look specifically for how they navigate the environment and the way they respond to sensory stimuli such as the crowds, music and lighting in your church. Organise a visit to the family’s home and just observe the child, responding to their approaches to you rather than enforcing your interactions on them. Parents will tell you a lot, and it may be helpful to work together to build a profile of the child that can be useful in getting the support right.
- How does the child communicate and what communication do they like from others? This will be different for each child. Some autistic children don’t develop speech to much later than is typical, others can talk exceptionally well.However, communication also includes ‘reading’ other people and knowing how to respond to them. It is important that we find the right communication for each child and are careful not just to rely on verbal communication. This is why pictures and other visual ways of communicating are helpful for many.
- How do they react to sensory stimuli? What things might overwhelm them, or conversely, what things might they seek more of. Some children avoid loud noises, smells, lights etc. Some seek to be on the move all the time or want to chew things constantly or any kind of sensory seeking activity.
- Do they have a processing delay? Do they need a pause to think and work out what is being communicated to them? If so, make sure this is taken into account. Also check if they do take things literally, so you can be careful and clear when you explain things. (especially ‘spiritual’ language).
- What are the child’s interests? If they have a specific interest then this is what will motivate them and bring them joy. It would be good to plan to join them in this interest, take seriously what they know and develop your Bible truths through something they understand well. For example, spending time looking at their favourite things shows them that Jesus is interested in their lives, that he loves to spend time with us.
- What triggers the child’s anxieties or fears? It could be anything so listen to what he family and child has to say and work out what helps them feel calm and confident.
- Putting together a one page profile such as these from ShefKids could help you give the key information to those who might be working with the child. Be aware of data protection, the child’s and family’s wishes and positivity when sharing
2. Change the way you do things to suit this one child.
Now this might be controversial but remember the lost sheep. Jesus went out of his way to make sure that sheep was safe and included. If we change what we do so that one child can be included we benefit ALL children and teach them an amazing lesson about Jesus and his love. For example, if a child uses sign language, all learn sign language. If an autistic child needs sensory experiences to help him or her to connect with the teaching, do it for all. If they need a slower pace, things explaining simply and logically, or visual communication. Do it. Please.
3. Give the family love, acceptance and a break.
Can people offer babysitting or going along to an event with the family? Could they walk around the church at coffee time with the child so that the child feels safe and the parents can get a coffee? A buddy system, a group of people who just sit alongside and be with the child or the whole family can make a huge difference. They can ask if help is needed and bring a brew to them if they can’t get to it. If the child is finding the service difficult and needs to be taken out or home, you can follow them up, ask if they got home okay and offer to pass on any notes from the service or sermon. Autistic children want a place where they feel safe and accepted. Some may really want to be included in everything and be able to make lots of attempts to try to join in. Some may want to be included and don’t know how to. Some activities are too much for their senses or too long or wordy or just boring. (I don’t want to join in those either.) We need to support those attempts and be a role model to the other children so they know how to accept and include the autistic child. If the child is reluctant to join in, doesn’t speak or doesn’t know how to join in, then make a way for other children to sit with them, play alongside and quietly build trust together. (This is where I like activities such as Lego.)
4. Communicate visually.
As I said earlier, autistic children can benefit from visual communication. One really helpful way is to communicate what is happening. Many autistic children need to know what is happening so they can follow a routine that is predictable. Change and unexpected events can cause so much anxiety and even meltdown or shutdown because they cannot work out how to make that change from what they were expecting. A visual timetable (like those examples in this previous post), is a very useful tool, and again helps all children. I would love to see all churches with one! I have written more about visual communication here.
5. Have high expectations of God’s love, grace and power.
Autistic children are fully part of God’s kingdom. There is nothing missing or damaged. They are only broken in the same way that ALL of us are broken – in our relationship with God. So, the gospel needs to be taught in a way that they can understand, it needs to be reinforced by love and grace. We also need to be certain that God has a place for that child in his church. They are part of the body and we must be praying for their spiritual growth and for God to reveal himself to them. Don’t think God speaks to everyone in the same way. Your testimony isn’t the same as mine, and every autistic child will have their own faith journey too. God uses those the world thinks are weak to shame the strong. Whatever messages the autistic child in your church is receiving from the world outside, make sure that the messages they are receiving from inside are good.
Whenever you think “but… we can’t do this, they can’t do, or I don’t know how to…” stop….pause and instead pray.
Ask God to show you the way, look for the ways the child is showing you.
When Jesus saw this, he was angry. He said to his disciples, “Let the little children come to me. Don’t keep them away. God’s kingdom belongs to people like them.
What I’m about to tell you is true. Anyone who will not receive God’s kingdom like a little child will never enter it.”