10 ways to help a family living with Autism in your congregation

This is my son.  He has Autism.  He is also a sweet, funny, delightful child who never ceases to amaze me. In honour of World Autism Awareness Day I thought I would put together a list of some things that might help a family with Autism feel more comfortable in the Church. Because of my nomadic existence in ministry we have as a family travelled to many congregations and there are some things I’ve noticed about Churches that might make things challenging for families who have children with Autism or special needs in general. These may not apply to every family and it’s written from our personal point of view but I think it might be a good starting point for discussion and inclusion in our families and communities at large.

Number One: Please don’t tell me you feel sorry for me.

Also included in this would be a request to not tell me it’s a waste of a life or that he could’ve been so much more.  Sure sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I wish life was easier for him. Sometimes I wonder why it all happened. In all of that wishing and wondering though there is never a point at which I think his life is wasted or that I feel hard done by.  Life happens.  Sometimes things happen unexpectedly.  My son is a joy and a blessing.  While I might wish to make things easier for him I would never wish for him to be someone different.  I do not feel sorry for myself and I don’t want you to.

Number two: Think about moving a few pews up so families with children who have special needs can sit in the back.

This one is especially for you Presbyterians out there. I know everyone loves the back as I’m often up front alone. I know you want a quick exit so they can be the first to hit the brunch line at the Holiday Inn. For our sake however I would ask that you consider surrendering the back pew for us and families like us. Our son has some sensory issues which make loud music at times hard for him to handle. Somedays he’s just fine and on others it’s tough. We don’t want to disrupt the service so leaving us with the quick exit would be very kind. I assure you should we run into each other at the Holiday Inn I will be glad to let you go first in the buffet line!

Number three: Please don’t tell me he ‘should’ be downstairs.

There are some people who think all children should be in Sunday School. I know that’s how it used to be. I also know that you’re running a wonderful program and many children would love it. Unfortunately for our son who struggles with communication and social interaction it can be overwhelming for him. We are working together as a family to make these things easier for him. There are weeks where we can power through and others where he needs space upstairs. It’s not that we don’t appreciate your program or value what you offer we just need to listen to his needs and do what’s best for him.

Number four: Include many different types of learning styles and engagement in your Sunday School Program.

If we manage to convince X that Sunday School is a good idea we’ve found many learning styles keeps things moving nicely.  This one really benefits all children when you think about it! Incorporating physical, listening and visual learning styles into the Sunday School Program helps more children engage. Each child has different strengths and weaknesses. By including a variety of activities and means of engagement you’re more likely to catch the attention of each child and find ways to include them all. This keeps things moving and fresh which allows for less downtime and reduces the potential for meltdowns. Also please don’t feel bad if a parent happens to stay downstairs with a child who has autism.  It’s not that they think you can’t ‘handle’ it. It’s that they are there to support their child as they navigate a potentially tricky situation for them.

Number five: If you want to chat with him following the service be sure to pause a little while you wait for his answer.

Each person with Autism is different so this may not apply to them all but one thing I have noticed is that children with autism may need a little more space in the conversation to process the words and craft a response.  If my son takes some time answering after you’ve spoken to him he’s not ignoring you, he’s thinking. If he doesn’t seem to grasp what you are saying after a few moments try a different way of phrasing the question. This would help a lot with interactions. Often times I see people come up to X. and start to talk then leave quickly and miss his response. He wants to engage, just give him the time necessary to do so.

Number six: Don’t stare.

If a meltdown does occur please don’t stare. While we try to avoid them sometimes meltdowns happen unexpectedly. We are lucky that our son loves church but he’s five. Any child who is five has moments of great drama. Add to that a communication deficit and sometimes you have to work hard to figure out where the drama is coming from and why. A ‘shh’ or ‘be quiet’ doesn’t always work and these meltdowns happen unexpectedly. When you stare we feel more awkward than we already did. We are aware it’s not ideal but want to worship with you. Please understand we are doing our best and sometimes things happen without rhyme or reason.

Number seven: Recognize he’s an individual.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘When you’ve met one child with Autism you’ve met one child with Autism’.  This is very true! He’s an individual. He is not an autistic child. He is a child with Autism. Aside from the Autism he has a personality of his own. There are definite likes and dislikes that he has the same as anyone. Ask him about his cars. Talk to him about his favourite movies. Take time to really discover who he is. He’s a sweet, funny boy. Don’t be afraid of the differences. Embrace him for who he is, Autism and all.

Number eight: Don’t side-step or avoid us.

We want to feel like we’re part of the community of faith. Don’t avoid us because you don’t know what to say. Just treat us the same as any other family. Ask us how therapy is going. Ask us what we did on the weekend. We would love to hear how you’re doing as well.

Number nine: If you are curious, ask!

If you don’t know what Autism is and would like to know more, ask! If you’re curious as to why X. isn’t in school, we would love to engage you and help you understand how we are trying to help him. Things might be different for our family and we know that to some it seems odd. We are happy to point you to resources and explain our situation so you might better understand.

This leads me to the bigger point. If you are curious or wondering how you might make the church a more inclusive or welcoming place, ask. Families with Children who have special needs would love to help you understand what might make the church a more welcoming, helpful place. It’s hard to know what’s needed unless you ask.

Number ten: Love him and share God’s love with him regularly.

He is a child of God. He loves church. He wants to be part of things and feel like he’s part of the community. The best thing you can do for him is to shower him with love. Show him he is welcome here. Show him he matters to you and to God.

And that about sums it up for me.  Is there anything I’ve left out?  If so, leave a message in the comments and keep the conversation rolling!  

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About Becky Roushorne-Lau

Becky Roushorne-Lau is a wife and mother who also happens to be a minister in South Western Ontario. In her spare time she cooks, reads, writes and dreams of possibilities. She writes about family, faith, and her never ending search for the perfect dessert on her blog www.ministrytomotherhood.com. Subscribe to this blog.