When I was growing up, skipping church was not an option. Now that I am a parent, I want my seven-year old son to grow up in the church. As a child on the autism spectrum, attending church can be difficult for him. We have had more stressful church experiences than peaceful ones. Many of our Sundays have been spent in the church lobby because he would get overwhelmed due to his behavioral and sensory challenges.
Then there are the glares and stares from fellow church goers who just want us to shut our kid up. I know that there will always be some old school church members who feel that children should be able to sit still for two hours. However this attitude of intolerance will only keep some autism families home on Sundays.
During our last church visit, my son was off the hook and yes there were times I teared up because the emotional rollercoaster was too much to handle. Then one of the Sunday school teachers told us to please bring him back and to continue to expose him to the church environment. In that moment, I felt a glimmer of hope. We may not go every Sunday because it can be a lot for him but we will certainly make an effort to go more often.
Parents please speak up and let your pastor know that your child is on the autism spectrum. Be willing to let ushers know and tell them what accommodations your child needs. My experiences have prompted me to come up with a list of ways that churches can make their environment welcoming to autism families.
1. Have an autism-friendly service once a month. You can consult with professionals and organizations that can provide guidance on how this can be done and the accommodations that will be needed. Some of them may include adjusting the lighting and noise level, allowing children to move around freely if they need sensory breaks, and shortening the length of the service.
2. Have an autism-friendly Sunday school or child care. Utilize the members of your congregation who may be special education teachers and/or therapists to help out with Sunday school or child care. This can help parents feel more at ease with having their kids participate in this part of the church experience because they will know that their child is in the hands of someone who gets it.
3. Educate your congregation about autism. Once you have knowledge that some of the members of your congregation have autism, you can consult with professionals who can come in and provide information and resources. You can even invite the parent of the child to speak to the congregation. This is a good chance for parents and the church to work as partners. You can also add the following statement to the church program: Some members may have special needs, including autism. This can affect their behavior and ability to socialize and communicate. Please be understanding.
4. Set the tone as the leaders in the church. During a recent trip to church, the pastor told the congregation to let my son be free when he wanted to sit on her chair at the altar. She made us feel welcome and her words let others know that my child is welcome there like any other child. This reminded me of when Jesus said in Matthew 19:14, “…let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
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BMWK: What can churches do to make the church experience more welcoming for your child with autism?