A guest post by Ron Sandison.
As the body of Christ, we should care for the physical and spiritual needs of each other and help those with autism to experience the love of Christ. The love of Christ can be expressed tangibly by the inclusion of those with autism in our services and our sensitivity to their sensory issues.
Many families with a special needs child have experienced the pain of rejection from the local church. Pastor Craig Johnson, director of ministries at Lakewood Church, whose son Connor has autism, said, “Currently, we estimate that less than 5% of churches across American have anything for special needs individuals. Yet there are already over 30 million kids and teens with special needs in the U.S.”
We will examine four ways your church can create accommodations for families with children of autism and make every child feel safe and welcome.
Rhonda Gelstein, whose son has cerebral palsy and autism, shared:
When Tyler was two-years-old, I took him to a new church. Midway through the service Tyler’s nursery number flashes on the screens. As I entered the nursery the Pastor’s wife told me, “We are ill-equipped for a child like yours!” I replied, “You mean a child of God’s.” Her harsh comment bruised my heart. Thinking back, I wished she would’ve asked, “How can we minister to Tyler’s spiritual and physical needs.”[i]
Establish a culture of inclusion
Your congregation will follow the example of the pastoral leadership team. If the pastor from the pulpit emphasis the importance of inclusion the congregation will also have a heart for inclusion.
Dr. Steve Grevich, founder of Family Center by Falls, blogged:
Cultivating a culture of inclusion greatly reduces the pushback from church members and attendees when accommodations need to be made. Adults who value the imperative of including everyone with gifts to contribute to the mission of the church can use the questions kids ask when peers are treated differently as “teachable moments.”[ii]
Learn the needs of special needs families in your church
You can start by asking the families of children with special needs how your church can best accommodate and serve them and help their child feel comfortable. Many children with autism have difficulty sitting still during the service. Your church can accommodate these children by providing an area for them to pace. Other children are sensitive to touch and experience great anxiety when the pastor says, “Greet the person next to you.” Be sensitive to sensory issues.
Provide accommodations and activities
Structure and visual presentations are very important for children with autism. A structured children’s ministry will help children experience less anxiety, and visuals will aid him in comprehending the lessons. The lessons should not contain abstract concepts which can be difficult for children with autism to interpret but concrete biblical truths.
For children with repetitive behavior, like stimming, provide fidgeting toys. You can purchase from Walmart or the Dollar Store inexpensive things like silly putty, Koosh balls, slinkies, or squishy balls. Always check with the parents or guardians first. Ask the parents what activities his child likes and also any sensory issues to watch for. If the child hates a certain activity, don’t force him to do it. This could cause the child to have a meltdown. Instead offer an alternative activity.
Understand sensory issues
Sensory management of the campus will help prevent the child from stimuli overload. A co-worker of mine, Robert, whose fifteen-year-old cousin has Asperger, said, “My grandpa’s funeral service was at a Catholic church. During the Mass the altar boys waved incenses, and family and friends were quietly showing reverence for the deceased. My cousin yelled, “I hate that smell! What is that? Tell them to stop, I can’t take it anymore!”’
Dennis Debbaudt, a leading global voice on autism training for law enforcement and safety management, states:
Every child with autism responds differently to sensory issues. One child may cover his ears to loud music and scream. Another child with hyposensitivity to sound could desire more stimuli and put his head on the speaker. A child with ASD may respond unusually to certain smells. The child may love the smell of a female teacher’s perfume and put his head against her neck and taste the perfume. If the teacher is unaware of the child’s condition, she will be unprepared and take the child’s innocent action as aggression.[iii]
Establish a core special needs minister team
Pastor Craig Johnson teaches, “Ministries to special needs children consist of 25% training and 75% love and acceptance. When developing a ministry for special needs individuals, first have a core-team that has a heart and passions for those with disabilities.”[iv] This core-team must have a firm understanding of autism and a desire to infuse the rest of the church with their passion.
These four methods can help your church become autism sensitive. Oswald J. Smith said, “Our duty is not done when we minister only to those who came into our churches. If they don’t come, we have no choice but to go to them.” Special needs parents are searching desperately for a church that is able to minister to their child’s physical and spiritual needs.
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of American. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is currently writing, A Christian Concise Guide to Autism. Ron has over 10,000 Scriptures memorized including 22 complete books of the New Testament. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with their pet rabbit, Babs, and cat, Frishma. You can contact Ron on Facebook or email him at email@example.com.
[i] 8/4/14 phone interview with Rhonda Gelstein, http//therustyglider.blogspot.com
[ii] Website Church4EveryChild
[iii] 7/7/14 phone interview with Dennis Debbaudt
[iv] 7/21/14 Phone Interview with Pastor Craig Johnson, Director of Ministries, Lakewood Church.