This post is out-of-place on my blog. I usually write about spiritual formation for adults. However, I get questioned so often from pastors about how and why their churches should care for the autistic children in their congregations that I want to write the answer down permanently. Hopefully, someone, somewhere finds it useful.
In the United States, one in six children have a developmental disorder. (That’s roughly about 17%.) Those complications range from speech and language impairments, to autism, cerebral palsy, intellectual delays, and other serious impairments. Because of Christian charity, I would venture that the values for churches would be even higher.
Of these special need groupings, one of developmental delays that has risen dramatically over the past couple of years is the number of children on the autism spectrum. In years past, maybe one or two families in a congregation would be challenged to care for these children. But, in the past decade alone, children diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorders has risen SEVENTY EIGHT percent. What this means is that while one of two children may have needed some extra care in past years, now you may be able to have a whole classroom full on any given Sunday morning.
Pastors and other church leaders have always had a couple of choices when it came to addressing the needs of these kids. They could ignore, belittle, or isolate the families until they left the church. They could personally attend to the families, who often needed more time and support than others in the congregation. Or they could make inter-church/inter-denominational programs that met on days other than Sunday to give these families a half-a-shot at fellowship. But with the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders and other special needs on the rise, these cannot be the options anymore. You will have to love and serve these families, there will be too many to care for individually, and shoving these families off to other churches will say something about your church.
While it is true that these children’s needs can make it more difficult for other children to learn, for teachers to plan activities, and can even make the space feel unsafe to other kids, the good news is that modifications for autism spectrum children often benefit all children. It really is a win-win situation. Your special need children can be seen as canaries in the coal mines, warning you of the dangers of poor programming.
I try to avoid practical step-by-step, numbered approaches, but for clarity’s sake, that’s exactly what I’m about to provide. If you want to help the special needs children and benefit the other kids in your care, you need to pay attention to three things: time, space, and expectations.
The first question parents ask their children when they get out of a classroom is: What did you learn today? And if you want to help the kids in your ministry, you’re going to have to think through how that question gets answered differently. In particularly white, wealthy, highly educated churches, there is an expectation for children to excel in the church classroom as much as any other class. But jam-packing the schedule is detrimental for special needs children, who are often overwhelmed by the non-stop action, and who transition poorly. Multiple transitions in one to two hours can make their little brains explode. Other children may often feel pressured during this time, but they’re just not reacting as strongly as these other beauties. But following a schedule that benefits your special need kids provides everyone the space and time to absorb the important components of your programming
When planning children’s time, there should always be a transition time to start, and if you have the area to do it, a transition space. This should be like a holding area where they can see their classrooms, but they don’t have to go into them yet. This is an opportunity for the children to independently adjust to the children’s space. Don’t require them to play. Don’t require them to participate in a group game. In fact, if they want to lay on a rug, by themselves, or walk around the classroom 15 times, that’s just fine. The goal of this time is just the idea of welcoming. This space is your space. You are a part of this family. This is your church home and it should be comfortable.
Next, there should next be a time for them to move their bodies and increase what’s known as their gross motor skills. Studies show that all children, and especially children on the spectrum, learn more if they are physically active before a lesson. (Children even speak better if they do a couple of push ups before trying to engage in conversation). Again, for children affected by sensory stimuli, you might need to let them sit this out. That’s okay. The goal is that they feel a part of the group, not that they participate in the ways we want them to. Sensory avoidant children might even absorb more if they are allowed to sit in the back with adults, being quiet.
Next, there should be a short, clear, and concise lesson. Children don’t even develop the ability to reason before 12, if they reach that stage at all. Asking children to break down bible stories, apply it to their own lives, and work through how it compares to a 5 point gospel model is really tough. you’ll often leave most kids feeling confused, stupid, condemned, or having receiving wrong information. At this stage, telling the story is enough. It really is. You don’t need to apply it for them you don’t need to make a point. You don’t even need to challenge them. Don’t worry, if you tell the story, Jesus will use it, interpret it, and apply it later. (Remember the verse: Raise a child in the way they should go and when they GROW OLD, they won’t depart from it.)
If you must have a small group time, and you must ask questions, then learn to break apart reasoning skills. Give these kids step stones to understanding. Children on the spectrum barely grasp why and how questions, and many young children join them. For example, if you’re teaching children about the time in the wilderness, don’t ask questions like “How did God provide for the Israelites in the wilderness? What does that tell us about how He’ll provide for us?” They may be able to tell you – God provided food. God will give us food. But I guarantee, they’re not grasping the concept of provision. Instead, ask questions like: “What did God give the Israelights? What does God give you? What does it feel like when God gives you ____? What do you feel when you give people gifts? Do you give people gifts? What makes you want to give gifts?” It will take longer, but all the things we understand as adults will start filling in the spaces that children often have blank through our direct, linear questioning.
Lastly, there should be a planned time for children to transition before their parents pick them up.This should be thought of as the closing stretches in a well executed exercise program. If you don’t do it, you can cause damage. Don’t just let kids run around. Don’t just finish up art projects. Have a calm, group inclusive game or activity planned.
This plan of only a short time to talk about the bible and Jesus goes against what many would consider “good stewardship,” but this is exactly what works well for children to grasp, understand, process, and remember information.
We all know that shoving a bunch of kids into a room with no toys and nothing comfortable isn’t the best plan for children’s ministry. But the space you design and prepare for your children is super important. You don’t need a room full of cute, Ikea crap. It might make the parents feel more comfortable, but it’s not what your kids actually need.
All humans respond really great to color coding, but special needs children and young children especially respond to color coding. It might be cute to call your 2-4 room: Activity Climbers, but it would be better to just call it: the Blue group. As children advance, there is far more excitement to reaching a new color stage than a new name. And bonus: knowing that they have the same color around them each week makes hem feel safer, which means they will open up more.
The space should also pay attention to sensory information: touch, smell, auditory information, visual interpretation, and taste. If you know the kids will have to sit on a floor, provide a color-coded, appropriate rug and allow them to bring blankets. If your children meet in a basement, make sure to run dehumidifiers at least 24 hours before they get there. And don’t spray perfumes or plug in strong deodorizers. If you must, use a Renuizit odor eliminator cone. Any children with sensory sensitive systems will not be able to focus if there is a strong smell.
Worship is a huge part of the American church. We love to have little children rocking it out for Jesus. We want to see their little arms raised. But we have no idea how hard this is for many kids to deal with. If you must have your children listen to loud, rock and roll music for Jesus, then make sure you have sound proof head phones for your special needs kids. They’re cheap, and it can allow them to actually participate in worship. But, I would also still advise that you only do one or two songs, at most, and that you limit the number of songs you’ll present in a year (under 10 songs, for sure). While your little ones are worshiping, make sure to care for your sensory avoidant children. Don’t make them stand. Don’t make them sing. Even if you get them to stand and sing, you’re not getting them to understand the importance of worship. You’re assaulting their systems and they are associating worship with feeling scared, frightened, and intimidated. If you have sensory seeking kids, make sure to provide a safe space that they can dance and move while worshiping. For them, receiving auditory information without being able to work that through movement is just torture. And lastly, try not to have lights and lasers going.
Other visual accommodations include making sure that views to the outside and other groups are blocked off, so there are no distraction or triggers to their systems. Also, think through what the children are looking at. Would you be able to look at a felt board for 15 minutes without becoming distracted? Then why wouldn’t they? Would you be able to stop watching TV and just jump into the next activity? Then imagine how much harder it is for them. Could you look at an activity that’s really enjoyable and then not do it? Then why do you have the markers, toys, etc. in their eyesight while you want them to learn a lesson? Get on your knees and look at what they are looking at.
Lastly, taste is an important element for children to experience in church. Jesus didn’t leave us with a liturgy. He left us with a meal. Children connect, learn, and develop more through conversation around a table than they do anywhere else. So don’t just hand them a cup full of goldfish crackers. Have them pump a bit of Purell into each other’s hands. Have someone say grace. Have another present the cups to each person. Enjoy and talk to each other during the cracker eating. And then clean up the space together. The structure will do awesome things for your special needs kids, but it will help all of the children to feel part of the family.
The most important lesson I ever learned about evaluating the behavior of special needs children is to always, always, ALWAYS, ask the question;
“Is this behavior defiant?”
Special needs children get a bad rap for being behaviorally challenged. But often, their ‘bad behavior’ isn’t. It isn’t defiant. It isn’t rebellious. It’s, largely, out of their control. Take this description of a day in the life of a child with sensory avoidant sensory processing disorder for example: (Note: I didn’t write this. I’m not quite sure where I got it from.
Today, I am so sensitive to be touched. It’s like this everyday. I don’t like to be hugged. Sometimes my Mom has to remove the tags off of my shirts. I can’t wear socks or underwear. Today, I don’t want to brush my teeth or have a shower. I’m sensitive when I hear things and the louder it gets, the more it hurts me. It makes me want to cry, and sometimes I will have tantrums, not because I want too but I lose control, it’s just too much. I always have a melt down because my food hurts my mouth, I can’t eat very much. I yell a lot because I don’t like how these things make me feel. I can’t sit still. When I’m at school, I can’t do the same work as my friends. I don’t have many friends, just two. Sometimes they play with me at recess, sometimes they don’t. I am aggressive because there’s so much information coming in and I don’t know what to do with it all. When the lights get too bright. I yell at my Mom to turn off the lights. It hurts my eyes. I sometime hit my Mom or I’ll break her things even though I don’t want to.
The expectation levels for our children have to be changed. We can’t expect authoritarian structures to work, even if our churches are authoritarian for adults and it works well at that level. We can ask and encourage our kids to be kind and be safe. If you have those two rules, and you explain what they mean, you have a great chance of hitting that goal almost 100% of the time. If your goal is for warriors to walk out of your classrooms, warriors who will fight for the kingdom before they’ve experienced it, then you’re going to unknowingly develop something in these children that you don’t want: pride, superiority, and self-righteousness. It would take me another long blog post to explain the hows of why that happens, but it’s highly predictable.
So, that’s it. If you have any follow-up questions, let me know. :)