Autism and Church

Recently we attended a service for Easter that was a multi generation service. All ages were in attendance, and there were no programs for the children. When I was a child and attending church, there were no church time programs for children over the age of three and we were all expected to sit quietly in church…or else!
I didn’t want that for my children, and we have been so pleased to find a church that has extensive programs for youth and children both during the church service for ages 4 to grade 5 and programs throughout the week for all elementary, middle school and high school aged children. In a perfect world, they’d be perfectly well behaved, but let’s face it – they are kids. And they have autism.
I was thinking about this after we painfully sat through the service shushing children who sat still for awhile, then wiggled a lot, who talked louder than the pastors (I am sure the whole church could hear us from the back row), and who let out an occasional yelp when things got dicey. I looked over at my husband and mouthed “never again” and then later “why do we do this to ourselves?”
Okay, let’s be honest. It’s hard. It is difficult for them to sit still and quiet for so long. It is uncomfortable and embarrassing for us when they make noises and actions that distract other church members who are just there to worship God. Some people give us the stink eye. Some people smile and give us a thumbs up because they know we’re trying our best. And some just hug our children and us when it is all over.
Those things I mouthed to my husband? I feel like that a lot. I often ask him, “is it worth it to take them to church this week?” He always answers yes. I know my heart answers yes, too. But sometimes I can’t see past the possibility of what could happen. But here’s where my wise husband is correct – it is always worth it. Because why should they be different than anyone else?
Why shouldn’t they be allowed to sing from the top of their lungs, completely off key? They’re making a joyful noise to the Lord, just like He loves us to do. Why shouldn’t they be able to join church activities? Just because they are more difficult than other children and require extra time and effort to teach doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be taught. Their exceptionalities give them perspective and understanding that other children have yet to grasp. The truth is that they need Jesus too – so why shouldn’t they be able to worship with the rest of us?
And so we continue to go. We continue to have presence in our church – and by that I mean we’re so loud everyone knows we’re there. We are so blessed to be in such a loving church family where most people know us and accept us as we are, and those who don’t just haven’t met us yet. I am sure if they got to know the loud and obnoxious family in the balcony, they’d get there.
But this can go the other way as well – and here’s the danger. Sadly, our church hasn’t always been so loving and accepting. There was another family with an autistic son who overheard someone say that children like him were not welcome in a church. That family never came back to church, even though they needed to. Because all of them needed Jesus.
How can we make church easier for people who have children with exceptionalities? How can we make church easier for those who have to sit close to families who have autistic children?
The first step is in understanding. As convenient as it would be for all involved, there is not a pause button for autism – they can’t just shut it off for an hour. In order to reach out in love and acceptance you need to understand a few basic principles:
  • They are not “normal” children. They are incapable of performing like their peers can, regardless of age. They have their own milestones that are incomparable to other children.
  • It is difficult for them to sit still. They have many resources in place at school to help them adapt, but little to none at church so they are trying as hard as they can.
  • They will make noise – it can not be helped. This is how they are processing what they are hearing in church and coping with being in church. Some children are non-verbal, so the only way they can communicate is by making noise. Others are capable of speaking, but they do not have a volume control and their voices are very loud.
  • They can hear record breaking frequencies. It can be inconvenient to be in a place of worship with an autistic child when you are wearing a hearing aid and they make noises that hurt your ears. However, these children often hear at high frequencies that hurt their ears every single day, resulting in them being loud – they are trying to drown out all the other noises they are hearing such as the hum of the projector, the whirling of fan, the scratching of the microphone, the shuffling of other people’s feet. The difference is unlike a hearing aid, they can’t just turn it down.
  • They are very tactile. They have little sense of personal space and will touch or be close to anyone they feel comfortable around, even strangers.
  • Prepare. Children with autism need to be prepared for special services such as Easter, Christmas, Missions, and multi generational services. If there is a multi generational service, it is often best to remind the congregation there will be noises that are expected and to prepare themselves for them.
Once your church family understands some of the basic behaviours of autistic children, they are able to adapt a little easier and stop whispering about so and so’s bad parenting. Hey, it happens.
Make adaptations for them. This can be difficult, because most of the church workers are not experienced in dealing with autism and don’t know what to do when something happens. Using resources like they have in school for church time can be very helpful.
  • Social stories like this one for young children or those who have never gone to church before can prepare the child and possibly prevent a meltdown or incident.
  • Visual aides like these can help children with the schedules and routines at church. (If there is a change in the schedule, you can ask the pastor to notify you so you can change your visual aides.)
  • Encourage breaks from the program if the child appears agitated. A “break” or “help” card can be simple to make and very convenient for the child to use when needed.
  • One on one help is helpful for children with autism if there are enough willing workers. Having someone there just for your child that they trust and are comfortable with can make a huge difference in their behaviour.
  • Allow tactile objects for children with ASD such as a small stuffed animal, a building block, etc. Not only does having something in their hands allow them to be able to focus on what they are being taught, it also keeps their hands busy and less likely to get them into a situation with someone else.
These are some ways that might help. The most important thing is to have open communication with your pastors and children’s workers – they want your children there as much as they do. Ask questions and make suggestions.
Dealing with disruptions is key. Pastors and children’s workers, be honest about the children’s behaviours. If there is a situation, talk to the parent as soon as you can. It is harder for them to deal with the behaviours if they do not hear about it the same day.  You can often use dealing with disruptions as an opportunity to show God’s love and compassion. First, remove the child from the program if they are spiraling out of control. Seek the parents for help if you can’t manage to get them to calm. Once they are calm, teach them one on one if the need arises. God has brought these children to church because He has a purpose for them. One of the most powerful examples of how God can speak to a child that we have witnessed happend in the aftermath of a meltdown. The children’s pastor took our son into his office and had a one on one lesson with him. I am sure he had other things to do, and this was a disruption to his day, but He allowed God to use him. At the end of the lesson, our son drew a picture of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and the attention to detail of what he had heard was  unlike anything I’d seen before. When in doubt of how to deal with children with autism, take a moment to pray and ask God to show you ways to teach them.
Inclusion is so important, and one simple invitation can change everything. Look for special talents and gifts the child might possess. Each child is specially gifted to help serve, even in the most simple ways. Our church serves a breakfast every five weeks where our church family gathers together for a wonderful meal. After everyone is finished eating (and sometimes before!) our sons go around and start clearing dishes from the tables and taking them to the washing station. This was never a task they were asked to do, but they have continually taken the task upon themselves to serve others in this small way. Often when they are done that, they are invited to help stack chairs as well – something simple they can do that makes them feel important and part of the bigger picture. Our God can use little boys who stack chairs and clear tables. It’s a starting point to serving in other ways.
Encourage the parents. Pray for them. It is a long, hard and exhausting road that they walk. It takes a lot of strength to take your children to church (or anywhere else, for that matter). If you see them on a Sunday morning, smile and say hello. They likely won’t have time to talk, but that small hello can go a long way. If you feel lead to serve, call and ask if there is any way you can help – even if it is something simple like shoveling their driveway or mowing their lawn. Love them and encourage them. It’s so simple and so needed.
God calls us to be His hands and feet – reaching out in love right now. Consider how you can help. 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and they need the love of Jesus more than ever.



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