1 in 68 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. These numbers suggest that families all around you wrestle with this issue. They’re in your neighborhoods, schools, family reunions and churches.
Yet most of us know little about autism. In a recent post, we sought to remedy this problem by sharing what autism parents wish Christians knew about autism. But this article left me with a lingering question: How can churches serve autism families?
This is not a theoretical question. As a pastor, I want to know — so my congregation can be prepared to serve anyone who walks through our doors.
To answer this question, I reached out to fellow Christians who parent children with autism. Here are five broad lessons from their responses.
1. Understand Autism.
A church that wants to serve autism families must take steps to understand autism broadly — and the families particularly.
Drew Grumbles explained why this step is so important. “One struggle that families have with taking an autistic child to church is that people will not know how to handle the child. They do not realize what issues may make the child upset, and they will just think he is undisciplined or whiny,” he said. “Of course, we can’t expect every Christian to be an expert in psychology or medicine, but over time congregations can be taught simple ways of encouraging the families with their words.”
Teaching a congregation how to understand autism may seem difficult, but it need not be. Kathy Burgess’ church hosted a special needs seminar to train church members about autism. “We ran the seminar for three consecutive weeks during the Sunday School hour,” she explained. “The last day we had a panel discussion and Q&A session with parents, special ed. educators and others who work with the special needs community.” The church members responded positively to the event.
In addition, churches can help people understand these families’ specific situations. Autism is a spectrum, so every child and family is different. Church members can take the time to get to know the families and their children — and love them as they are.
One of the most tangible ways your church can serve autism families is by serving them during the week.
2. Institute a Buddy System.
One of the biggest hurdles for autism families is childcare. “Many parents would love to be able to attend Sunday school, but that’s not possible if there isn’t a place for their child,” Burgess explained.
Finding appropriate childcare can be difficult in a local church. Celeste Lanpher commented that most churches want to place children in classes for their actual age. Yet, it might be better to place children with autism in classes appropriate for the developmental age.
To remedy the childcare dilemma, many autism parents suggest a “buddy system.” Lanpher explained, “Find an adult that your child enjoys being with. That buddy could accompany the child to children’s church or even help them during the service.”
This buddy can work one-on-one with the child, take them out of the classroom if they need a break and add a sense of stability to church routines.
3. Turn the Volume Down.
Since many children have sensory issues, your church’s worship style can influence how comfortable autism children feel there. Grumbles explained why:
I don’t intend to make a statement about worship styles, but I’ve found it interesting that many — maybe all — autistic children find it impossible to sit through loud music and bright lights. Thus, in many ways, a ‘traditional’ style of music makes these families feel more at ease. You don’t have to change your music style, but you might consider turning down the volume, offering earplugs (sometimes parents bring their own for their kids) or even having a separate room where the child can go if it gets too loud (much like a baby ‘cry room’). These small things will show that you have thought about these families, considered their needs and seek to serve them.
4. Get Leadership Buy-In.
If a church wants to be welcoming to autism children and families, the leaders must be on board.
A lack of leadership involvement can quell any opportunity for change. For example, one parent planned an extensive training event. “Unfortunately, we don’t feel like the pastor and staff took much away from it, as nothing has really changed,” she explained.
The adage is true: The speed of the leader is the speed of the team.
5. Volunteer to Babysit.
One of the most tangible ways your church can serve autism families is by serving them during the week. For example, you can volunteer to babysit.
Parenting a child with autism can be exhausting — for the parents and family as a whole. “My son often wakes up multiple times a night and is still wide awake when the sun comes out. Exhaustion also leads to relational stress, whether between a married couple or a sibling feeling like they get no attention,” Grumbles explained.
By simply offering to babysit, your church can offer an autism family an opportunity to rest. “Give the family a gift card, tell them you are coming on Friday night to watch their kids and make the parents get out!” Grumbles said.
Autism parents dedicate their lives to serving their children. This small gesture will go a long way in showing that your church cares about the family.
Thus, the best way your church can serve an autism family may not take place in a church facility at all. If your church wants to serve autism families, seek to invest in their day-to-day lives — showing them the love of Christ in a tangible way.
Are you an autism parent? How would you suggest churches serve families with autism? Leave us a comment below.
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