Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

copy-of-eecu-kids-colour-large

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.

Mark 10:14

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.

Mark 10:15

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.”

 

Comments on: "5 ways to support autistic children in church" (8)

  1. Beth Mellor said:

    This is really helpful! 😃🎈

    Beth Mellor •Founder:- @take5andchat – parenting additional needs 07775521127

    >

    Like

  2. Trying to be! 🙂

    Like

  3. As always, really helpful practical and spiritual guidance for inclusion – Thank you! Might you be willing to come to London Sept 21st to speak at an event that our group is running to encourage others to help build inclusive communities? bernice@wave-for-change.org.uk.

    Like

  4. Really pleased to see this information. Also please remember that many adults, with varying levels of intellectual ability, including some with high intellect, have similar sensory and social issues. Busy church services can be overwhelming and isolating. In the past I’ve had enormous difficulty maintaining attendance at services due to sensory issues, but it has been almost impossible to get understanding, I’ve been expected more to change who I am to fit the needs of the church, it is easier to just not go to a service than to try to cope with the noise and the crowds and the loud loudspeakers or drums. Yet then I’m seen as not a very good Christian because I don’t go to church, or been told just to leave here and go somewhere else. In the end the autism runs out of options.

    Like

    • Thank you Pauline – my next blog post is going to be about adults! I am always concerned that people understand that autistic children will become autistic adults but also that there are also many autistic adults in our congregations already. I will include the things you say here. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

      Like

  5. Hi, I’m a parent of two autistic YP. We are not a churchgoing family. I love what you have written here, and I wish the same approach was taken, consistently, in schools. The only thing I would add, is that there will be children, from time to time, who do not know they are autistic – whose families do not know. My dd was like this until she was 12 years – we had no idea, but she had had difficulty attending school, Beavers, St Johns ambulance badgers…. she would turn up sometimes, and become ill afterwards from suppressing the overwhelm she had felt from the sensory or social challenges of the session. I guess the point of my saying this is, that with an open and accepting heart and a habit of being observant of all children, that would be the most inclusive way to go. For several years our family was blamed for our child’s difficulties, because none of the teachers or doctors we encountered had any more idea than we did, about bright autistic kids that mask their difficulties when at school, then meltdown, or in my dd’s case, shutdown, when at home. For a while, our whole family went through a traumatic time as we were threatened with fines and worse because school attendance was ‘the law’, and we were held responsible. Thankfully after eventual diagnosis, a lot of legal wrangling and delays, our dd is now at an appropriate special school, and her mental health is slowly recovering from this period of effective exclusion. There are many bright kids who look ‘fine’, and may be covering their difficulties up – they don’t all need special school in the end. It’s just worth churches being aware that such families need a lot of support.
    Your lovely suggestions about changing the way things are done for the whole group, and observing what are triggers or difficulties, would be great for every child and every group, all of the time. There are lots of dyslexic kids out there who don’t know they are dyslexic, some of them will have auditory processing delays and not manage to take in verbal instructions, or written ones, after only one telling. I think really good teachers just do tell the whole group the important things in several ways and several times.
    I hope your suggestions take root in practitioners. It will definitely be a positive thing for autistic YP if they do.

    Like

    • You are right on all these points and thank you for sharing your experiences. In my day job I do work with schools and have a website http://www.reachoutasc.com We support children who are autistic and those without a diagnosis as yet, making sure staff understand and are equipped to support them well, with the same approach as in this blog. I personally am a Christian and so am determined that churches get the same training and understanding as I give to schools. So many who do work in churches are volunteers and need this support and training. Often bad attitudes and responses are born out of ignorance – so in grace and patience, we educate and equip.

      Like

Your comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: