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How Your Church Can Support Parents of Kids with Autism

Autism and your church can co-exist. Your church can become a place where families with autistic kids feel included and loved. 

The first Sunday we brought our three-year-old foster daughter with autism to church, we had no idea what would happen. Would she hit or push the other kids—or workers—in the nursery? Would the workers be able to understand what she needed when she couldn’t verbally tell them? Those were some of the very real possibilities we faced when we decided to bring Nancy (not her real name) to church. Is autism and your church something you think should go together? It’s a question not many churches have seriously tackled. It is one that needs to be addressed in order to serve those who have children with autism.

Thankfully, she kept her hands to herself—at least that first Sunday—and the workers were able to decipher her needs. During the year, Nancy attended nursery school on a regular basis. We took the time to educate the nursery workers about how best to interact with her. My husband and I showed them how to intervene when she became aggressive with the other children. We also talked to the other moms with kids in the nursery about her special needs and why “normal” discipline didn’t work with her.

Chances are, your church has parents who have a child on the autism spectrum. In late 2021, the CDC estimated one in 44 children have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But many times, parents of children with autism feel the church has left them and their kids out in the cold.

Your Church Should Be a Safe Place

American churches should be places that welcome people from all walks of life. However, for families of children with ASD, church has become yet another place of struggle. “Congregation-based support is an important resource for many Americans who face challenges in their lives, but it remains problematic for too many families of children with autism spectrum disorder,” wrote Susan Crawford Sullivan in “Why is Church so Hard for Families of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder?”

Numerous studies document the stress these families face, including difficulty in controlling their children’s behavior, finding needed services for their children, fighting for their children’s education, and facing stigma from society because of an ASD diagnosis. Church should not be another arena in which parents have stress. All too often the church fails to provide the support for kids with autism and their parents.

Finding Help Among the Church Community

We haven’t ventured to church yet with our current foster placement, a four-year-old nonverbal developmentally delayed kid I’ll call Michael, who likely has autism (but is as-yet undiagnosed). His needs are greater than our previous foster daughter, Nancy. In the future, we plan to start bringing him soon to play in the nursery when his applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist can attend for additional support. We have been upfront with church leadership and other families with nursery-age children about Michael and his needs.

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Autism and Your Church

Despite our small congregation, we’ve been blessed to have members interested in supporting us and our foster children with autism. Transforming your place of worship into a place of welcome for families with kids with autism doesn’t have to break the bank or disrupt normal Sunday activities.

Rather, it will signal to these struggling families church is indeed a place for them and their children with ASD.

Modifications Your Church Can Make

Whether your church is large or small, here are some general guidelines your church can follow to become more friendly to parents of children with autism.

Educate staff. Invite the parents of kids with ASD to come to a staff meeting to talk about what helps and hinders their child’s church attendance. Listen with an open mind and see what accommodations can be made. For example, unexpected changes in a normal routine can be catastrophic for kids with ASD, so following the same format week to week can help children with autism feel safe and secure.

Educate the congregation. With the parents’ permission, begin to  dialogue with the church about autism through the church website, bulletin, or email to members. Explain what might bother a kid with autism and how a child with ASD might react during a church service.

Have an autism ministry team. If your congregation is large enough, build a ministry team designed to help families of kids with autism. Training can be provided by the parents or by an expert organization. The purpose would be to have men and women able to step in to help these families both during services and outside of church.

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Steps to Help Your Child with Autism at Church

Adjust expectations. All too often, these parents feel shamed by fellow church members when their kids with autism act up in the service. Church leadership should regularly remind the congregation to extend grace not just to children on the spectrum but to all children who misbehave at times.

Turn down the volume. For many children on the spectrum, loud music and bright lights can trigger discomfort and outbursts. Consider lowering the volume to help these kids participate in the service better or having noise-canceling headphones available to these families. 

Develop a buddy system. There are many people in your congregation who could benefit from having another member look out for them, including children with autism. For kids with autism or adults, a buddy is someone who is trained in how to respond properly to their needs. This training can be formal (a course or class) or informal (parents can provide the necessary info).

Offer other accommodations. Often, kids with ASD will have outside helpers, such as ABA therapists, who can accompany them to church. Do your due diligence by verifying these individuals are from reputable organizations that conduct thorough background checks and provide training, then grant permission for these helpers to go into nurseries and classrooms alongside the child with autism.

Incorporate more visuals. Many children with autism respond better to visual communication, and can miss much of what’s being said verbally. Have your children’s church and children’s Sunday School classrooms use visual teaching aids as much as possible.

Provide a quiet or sensory room. Kids with ASD can easily become overwhelmed by outside stimuli. Having a quiet room where parents can retreat to with their children with autism can be extremely helpful. Some congregations also have sensory rooms designed to help kids and teens with ASD relax. Helpful items to have in the quiet room include comfortable seating, sensory toys, and the ability to dim the lights.

Congregation Efforts

If you attend a church with families of kids with autism, you can play a role in supporting them. You can help them both at church and during the week. Here are some concrete ways to help.

Befriend the family. It can be difficult for families with a child with autism to make friends. Especially when their child’s needs make it hard to linger after the service ends. Make a concentrated effort to include the family in plans outside of church. Invite them over to your house for playdates and meals. One neighborhood family we know with a kid with special needs said no one ever invited them over for anything. Fellowship is an integral part of our church life, so be the one to reach out to these hurting families.

Volunteer to babysit their child. Do you know how difficult it is to find qualified babysitters for kids with special needs? As we know from personal experience, it’s hard—and it can be expensive. These parents need a break, so offer to babysit for their child on a regular basis. Be open to receiving instruction on how best to handle their child.

Become a church buddy. Both children and adults can become a buddy to a child with autism. If you have children around the age of a child with autism, ask your kid to become a buddy. Encourage them to be a friend and to offer assistance during Sunday School, for example.

Offer to bring a meal. I know we’ve appreciated it when someone unexpectedly calls to say they’d like to bring a meal. Families with kids with autism are often stretched thin with appointments and other stressors. Providing a meal will likely always be welcome. Be sure to ask about any food allergies or sensitivities ahead of time. Many kids with ASD have aversions to certain foods.

Final Thoughts Autism and Your Church

Autism and your church can co-exist. With a little planning, your church can become a place where families of kids with autism feel wanted, welcomed, included, and loved. 

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