“Guess what A-Man did today?!”
“What? Did he participate in the lesson? Did he color?”
“He ate almost an entire carton of goldfish crackers by himself!”
That was the last time we tried to take our family to church on a Sunday.
See, A-Man and Mr. C were both in the “preschool” class while we went to church. Baby M was in the “baby” class. Baby M loved it (once they finally understood what he could and could not eat) and Mr. C loved learning about Jesus and playing with his friends.
But A-Man didn’t. A-Man didn’t learn about Jesus. A-Man didn’t play with friends.
A-Man was sat in the corner of the room and fed endless goldfish so that he didn’t interrupt the teachers or the other kids.
That was not the church home that we wanted for our children or ourselves, and we will not take him back there.
Church is supposed to be a family. A home for broken people to come and find each other in fellowship. A place for children and adults of all abilities to come and learn about the love of Jesus, and show that love to one another.
How can you make sure that your church is sharing the love of Jesus with children (and adults) with all abilities?
Is Your Church Autism Friendly?
Of course, this might be the first thing that comes to mind. It can be wildly valuable to have a disability ministry or special needs ministry. Want to be even more helpful? Have a ministry for disabled children, and one for their parents.
I know, I know. “There’s not enough money” or “there aren’t enough volunteers”.
On the first, you don’t actually need to pour money into a ministry for it to be helpful.
- volunteer babysitting services for parents of disabled children
- a “buddy” system for disabled children attending kids’ services
- including disability-specific messages occasionally
- creating a meal train for struggling families
All of those are possible activities that a special needs ministry could do, and not one of them would cost the church a dime.
Now, with the lack of volunteers.
Here’s my issue. If your church is made up of people who don’t care about disabled children or adults and their families, what kind of church do you have?
Maybe it’s time to have a frank discussion with your church members about what it looks like to live like Jesus.
Yes, it may be more fun to chaperone trips with the youth group. Yes, it may be more “your thing” to head up a ladies group. Yes, you may not know anything about autism.
But if you’re open to serving at church in a ministry, but only one that you find naturally fun and easy, are you really serving for God, or are you serving for you?
Start with Hello: Introducing Your Church to Special Needs Ministry (The Irresistible Church Series)Leading a Special Needs MinistryLeading a Special Needs Ministry: A Practical Guide to Including Children and Loving FamiliesEvery Child Welcome: A Ministry Handbook for Including Kids with Special NeedsSpecial Needs, Special MinistryChildren’s Ministry Pocket Guide to Special Needs (10-Pack): Quick Tips to Reach Every ChildSpecial Needs Ministry for Children: Creating a Welcoming Place for Families Whose Children Have Special NeedsEngaging Game Changers: Recruiting and Coaching Volunteers for Disability Ministry (The Irresistible Church Series)
Now, having a special needs ministry is an incredible start to becoming an autism-friendly church, but there are stipulations.
If you have a “special needs ministry” which is really just a nursery where the kids are separated and never see the other kids or experience the fun activities that the other kids do? That’s not really “autism-friendly”
Inclusion is extremely important, not only for autistic kids, but for neurotypical kids as well.
If we separate all of the children with disabilities away from the children without, we are just promoting their exclusion by typical children in other scenarios.
To be truly autism friendly, mix groups with disabled children and abled children. Help them become friends.
Inclusion helps kids truly start to understand and accept everyone’s differences, and it helps them to make friends with a more diverse group.
One to One Buddies
This one can be a bit tricky, but it is incredibly valuable for disabled children. Have one church member become that child’s “buddy”. They can attend the kids service with their buddy and stay together through the entire routine.
This gives children a sense of normalcy. When volunteers are changing constantly, it can easily become overwhelming for autistic kids. With one specific buddy that they can count on every week, they’re much more likely to become relaxed and be able to enjoy their time at church.
Also, this allows more focused help for the autistic kid. Their buddy can learn to watch for queues that they’re getting overwhelmed, and the buddy can step in to help. This way not every volunteer needs to know every child’s struggles and strengths, their buddy can.
Sensory Friendly Experience
Do you have loud music and bright lights at every service? Is your kids ministry loud and overstimulating? Do you expect kids to sit quietly during the service without movement or activity?
Making church a sensory-friendly environment doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive! There are many ways to offer autistic children and adults a sensory friendly experience while they’re attending your church.
- Have one sensory friendly service weekly where you turn down the music and lights
- Offer a sensory friendly or calming area for members who need it
- Include sensory bins, heavy work, and regular movement into your kids ministry
- Keep a few pairs of noise cancelling headphones on hand to offer to members who need it
Becoming an autism friendly church doesn’t have to be difficult. You may not think about sensory friendly activities, but they’re really simple to add into your existing church ministries.
Acknowledgement, Understanding, and Acceptance
Above all else, this is the core of an autism friendly church.
Acknowledge autistic members and their families and the individual needs that come with them.
Strive for understanding. Ask how you can help, and then actually follow through. Even read a bit about how to support special needs moms or learn some Bible verses to encourage them.
And finally, truly accept the autistic members of your church and their families. With welcome arms. Set the expectation that your church members are accepting as well. Create a culture of acceptance within your church, and see the incredible joy in the autistic community when they feel truly welcome.
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