When I started teaching special education in 1984, one child in 10,000 was diagnosed with autism. A study released in 2009 indicates that one child in 91 falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. From one in 10,000 to one in 91 within 25 years—churches, we need to get ready! But the reality is that many churches don’t know how to minister to children and families touched by autism.
“Attend church?” said the mother of a child with autism living in Ontario. “Hah! We tried four of them before we finally gave up. Every one of them sent us away.”
“We tried taking our granddaughter to church with us,” said the grandpa of a child with autism living in Missouri. “They told us the church down the road might have something for us.”
These true and typical stories from worship-deprived families need to change. The following is a real-life example of the everyday life of one family touched by autism, along with suggestions for how a church could embrace and include them.
7:50 a.m. Jenna, age 8, climbs out of bed. She always gets up exactly at 7:50 a.m. Her parents know it’s much easier to change Jenna’s bedroom clock than it is to change Jenna’s schedule.
7:51 a.m. Jenna sits down at the computer. Typing with lightning speed with the index finger of each hand, she easily moves in and out of programs. She writes stories and draws figures of her first-grade classmates at Zeeland (Mich.) Christian School.
8:00 a.m. Jenna’s mom greets her warmly. Jenna gives her mom a shy smile, glances at her briefly, and recites a line from one of her favorite books. Jenna shows love by making her mother into one of the book’s characters. Mom then gives Jenna her morning GI medication and prepares her food. Jenna has a feeding tube due to some intense digestion pain she had as a young child. Because she learned that eating food meant pain, she stopped eating. It’s been a slow process to get Jenna to trust foods that go in her mouth.
Churches should appoint a coordinator to meet with the families of children with autism. He or she should listen to the families’ stories and get to know their children. Together they can make the necessary plans for children with autism to be part of the church in the way that’s comfortable for them.
8:30 a.m. The family sits down at the breakfast table. It’s Sunday so dad is also there. While Jenna won’t put much food in her mouth, her mom and dad know it’s important that Jenna be part of family activities and that they model eating food by mouth. They talk together. Jenna finds it easier to answer a direct question in writing, but they also encourage her to give spontaneous verbal responses. This continues to be very difficult for Jenna.
9:00 a.m. They all get ready for church. Mom remembers Jenna’s screaming fits in younger years. Her body is so sensitive to stimulation that even a hairbrush against her scalp or a toothbrush in her mouth was painful to Jenna. She has finally learned to complete this routine in a more comfortable way as her body has adapted. Her parents know, however, that if they change the order of things, the pain may return.
9:30 a.m. Mom remembers to put a nail clipper in her purse. Jenna sees a dentist tomorrow, which requires her to be sedated. This provides a chance for Mom to cut Jenna’s nails. Jenna still cannot handle the pain of that process.
9:45 a.m. Mom, Dad, Jenna, and Ella go to the car. Ella is a specially trained companion dog. Before Ella came to church, Jenna found it hard to be part of the worship service. Now Ella curls up by Jenna’s feet in church and Jenna relaxes.
Churches need an individual plan for including each child with a disability. Helpful resources include Autism and Your Church (www.FaithAliveResources.org), as well as Autism and Your Church Training DVD, Church Welcome Story, and The G.L.U.E. Training Manual (see resource box).
9:55 a.m. The family arrives at church and sits in their usual seats. No phone calls came this week, so they are hoping that Jenna will sit through the entire service, following along with the PowerPoint and Scripture passages. The church usually remembers to alert the family if children will be singing in the service. Jenna’s ears can tolerate adult singing, but hearing children’s voices singing, reciting, or chanting together causes her great anxiety and panic, so she’ll want to leave the room.
Churches are filled with sensations that are uncomfortable or even painful for some children with autism.
Sounds can be too loud; people can be too close. The book Autism and Your Church discusses sensory integration.
11:30 a.m. Most of the other children go to Sunday school. Jenna does not. Her mom tried it unsuccessfully a few months ago. Unfortunately Jenna doesn’t know the children her age at the church, and they don’t know her. Everyone loses out.
Many churches need resources to help peers and volunteers understand more about friends with autism. This is a key to successful inclusion (see resource box).
12:00 p.m. The family heads to Grandpa and Grandma’s house for Sunday dinner. Just like most children, Jenna loves this time with them.
2:00 p.m. Time to go home. Being with all those people can be stressful for Jenna. Academics are easy for her, but social settings can be very confusing. It’s time to be alone for a while with her books and computer. These items are comforting to her because they’re predictable.
4:00 p.m. Jenna goes for a bike ride with Dad. Mom has some time to reflect. Before Jenna was diagnosed with autism, their social circle was large and they often enjoyed time out with friends. That social circle is now very, very limited. People simply don’t call anymore, and a suitable babysitter is hard to find. Mom grieves that, but she is thankful for their family of three and a supportive extended family.
Jenna has both Mom and Dad in her life, but divorce rates are high for parents of autistic children. Churches, however, have the chance to support families in very practical ways. Consider a support structure called a G.L.U.E. Team—a tool found in The G.L.U.E. Training Manual.
6:00 p.m. At suppertime the family gathers again at the table. They talk about the day to come at Zeeland Christian. Jenna recites the names of her friends and assigns them favorite characters in one of her books.
For more information on including children with autism in Christian Schools, see www.clcnetwork.org.
7:00 p.m. Books and story writing. There’s even time for a board game.
10:00 p.m. Bedtime routine. Jenna picks five books; then the ritual begins. Brush teeth, read a book. Put on jammies, read a book. Write in her journal the “big girl” things she did today, read a book. Jenna will sleep some, then she will get up tomorrow morning at exactly 7:50 a.m.
Find out more about Autism Spectrum Disorders at www.autism-society.org and www.thegraycenter.org.
Order Autism and Your Church and Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities at www.FaithAliveResources.org or 1-800-333-8300.
Contact the CLC Network (www.clcnet
work.org) for church consulting, congregational and seminary training, and publications and resources in the area of including persons with disabilities, including Autism and Your Church Training DVD, Church Welcome Story, The G.L.U.E. Training Manual, and more.