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How Churches Should Handle Autism

I got a question through my facebook mailbox, from a pastor who wanted advice with a family who has a 2-year-old with autism. I thanked him for his question and responded with some general information and some questions, in order to define his particular question of what to do.

The first things to know about autism/autism spectrum disorders are:

  • there is a whole range of behavioral patterns which fall into an “autism spectrum disorder” (ASD) or a “pervasive development disorder” (PDD),
  • there is no generally accepted medical pathology of how autism works and thus no cure yet, and
  • there is no physical indication that something is amiss.

For more information about the disorder (disorders?), visit the Autism Speaks web site for a good summary.

Our daughter was diagnosed with a sensory integration disorder (SID) at two years and diagnosed with autism/PDD at 3 years. A child with an SID can be easily stressed and overloaded by loud or unfamiliar sounds, and sometimes the child will resort to familiar habits such as flapping one’s arms, rubbing one’s hands, or in our child’s case, humming, laughing, or quickly kicking one’s legs.  Early on in church, we could sit her on our lap and control the kicking, but we couldn’t stop the humming or joyful laughing. Sometimes I had to take her into the cry room, and she wasn’t even crying. At six years her behavior is much better, and she participates in the Divine Service.

The first thing the church should do is listen to the parents, for several things. It may be a sheer act of God (pun intended) just to get to church. The parents may be exhausted. Listen to their suggestions as to how you can help them. Secondly, listen to each of the parents together and separately. They may have differing ideas about how their child is being treated, and one parent may feel left out of the conversation. ASD/PDD can exacerbate undesirable but previously stable issues between the parents. If there are siblings, there may be some jealousy there, too. Finances are often very stretched.  Bankruptcy and divorce are common.

Jesus in Puzzle Form
The Last Supper as Puzzle. Image by BrockLi via Flickr

Try to come to a consensus that keeps the child in the sanctuary. As the child experiences church in a regular fashion, he or she may start to realize things are OK and eventually calm down. If older parishioners can’t hear the pastor, perhaps a low-power FM transmitter and radios would help those who need assistance. If a cry room is necessary, it will help if that cry room has pews and looks like the sanctuary and the public address system is used to pipe in the worship audio. One church I went to had the cry room right at the back behind a huge sheet of plexiglas that made it look like it was indeed part of the church. Have hymnals in the cry room. If you have a small church with no cry room, maybe an additional service with those willing to tolerate some noise is in order. Enable the family to participate in worship as best they can.

Parents of ASD children get a mountain of Law: take these supplements, submit to scans and tests, do ABA, occupational, speech, and physical therapy. The real world has no Gospel and has no forgiveness. The best thing a church can do is preach the Word. Enable parents to confess and forgive as fully as possible. Prosperity Gospel, platitudes, and how-to sermons have no place for these families, or for any families for that matter. If somebody were to suggest that our child has ASD because we didn’t pray enough or because we weren’t holy enough, they would need to see an audiologist the next day after we got done with them. :)

On the other hand, these families are sitting ducks for patience, kindness, and niceness. If a family has more than one child, maybe the baby could be held so that one parent can hold a hymnal. It doesn’t hurt to ask.  If they say no, fine. We can also be prayed for, and the doctors that help our child can be prayed for, too.

Parents of children with special needs may not make a lot of Adult Bible Instruction classes. Even if they do make it for the Sunday School hour, they are often with their child in the child’s class. This is another reason to keep worship as an opportunity to teach the Christian doctrine. Try and work with them at home, too. Both my kids at six can quote various sections of the Small Catechism. My child sometimes quotes the Lord’s Prayer with Explanation when she gets nervous.

ASD children and their parents are sinners, too. They should not be disqualified from the Divine Service. They are Jesus in need of aid. A church may not be able to help so much monetarily, but they can and should do so much to strengthen one another’s faith. Our present pastor has demonstrated that he is thinking of us, and we are grateful for that.

Thank you to my wife, my parents and in-laws, and everyone else who has been with us through everything.

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  1. Kurt Onken says:

    Great advice, Dan. I linked to your article on my blog. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote:

    Our congregation has had to work with this issue to a certain degree as well. We could probably do better…I also think that some of the advice he gives can apply to all families, even those with children who are not autistic. Having two young children myself, and watching my wife deal with their activity and movement during services, has made me more aware of the need for all parents to receive support from others in the church.

    1. Ron Simmons says:

      Inciteful article on autism.

      We have an autistic young man in our congregation. About 5 years ago he started confirmation and was confirmed 3 years later with his class. It was an interesting 3 years. He memorized Bible verses, etc. perfectly and had plenty of social chalenges with his classmates. It was a learning experience for us all.

      His mom definitely enjoyed her “time out” while he was in class.

      He was brought to worship with his 2 siblings. During the service he would ask me questions or make comments at will. (Heh, we are friends, what are friends for?) I would stop and address his comment and move on. Today he can participate and sit through the whole service. He is learning to play the piano and has performed (from memory) several times in our worship services. We hope to train him as one of our organists.

      Yes, be patient, there are rewards!

      Pastor Simmons

  2. […] at Necessary Roughness has a helpful post for congregants looking to help families dealing with autism and the challenges it poses for […]

  3. Alan says:

    With your permission I may link to this in my blog.

    1. Dan says:

      Of course.

  4. There’s something else that I wish congregations would realize:

    It’s NOT bad parenting, people. Seriously, you can stop whispering behind your hands.

    Autism spectrum disorders have a special place in my heart. My own 7 yr old has some sensory issues, is highly sensitive in general, and is sometimes just all-around hard to raise. It’s not autism, but sometimes it’s a rough road to walk anyway.

    Bless you & your wife, Dan.

    1. Lila White says:

      AGREED! No, it is not bad parenting, although I’ve had a teacher imply that my son was just spoiled.

  5. Lila White says:

    As a parent of a son recovered from high functioning autism, my problem was never with the church, but the school attached to the church. The teachers need to be educated as to how to teach these children. They are not “bad kids” that need to be driven out of the Lutheran schools into the public schools. The higher functioning kids merely need some minor accommodations to be able to function in a normal classroom. Jesus didn’t say “Let only the normal little children come to me”. He went to great lengths to fraternize with the rejects of society. Our sinful nature puts us all that in boat. None of us is perfect save Christ.

  6. Great post Dan! It’s hard to understated how broad the spectrum is in ASD and how things can manifest in children who have this diagnosis. You did an awesome job in simplifying a very complicated subject for those who might not know anything about Autism as well as explaining how this applies to how all of us interacting as a congregation. Again, great job!

  7. […] at Necessary Roughness has written an informative post on “How Churches Should Handle Autism”. He offers practical suggestions to help congregations understand and help these families affected […]

  8. theresa kiihn says:

    Hi Dan,
    This is a very good post! Part of me wishes that I
    had read it when I was a young parent dealing with similar issues, but I also know I would not have been very able to pull myself above the land of the law I was living in.. Having a pastor preacing Grace to us would have made a huge difference. Our choice? We alternately switched churches or just skipped church because we were tired of the accusing glances. If only we had been in the church we are in now! :) Our current pastor does an EXCELLENT job of making sure he reaches out to parents of all young children and also to the few older parishioners whom he knows are irritated by less than “quiet” children.

  9. Michelle says:

    Hi Dan,
    Thanks for this post. While my son has Down Syndrome, not Autism, he does have some sensory issues (doesn’t handle a lot of laughter, clapping, etc.) and is very resistant to change. I appreciate what you have said and I like the idea of cry room with pews. Our well-meaning LWML redid our cry room when my twins were born ( I have 4 ages 4 and under now) to help us but unfortunately it is so filled with toys that I can’t even begin to teach about the way we should behave in church while we are in there trying to regroup to go back into the sanctuary (and of course, no one wants to leave a toy-filled cry room to go back to a quiet, boring pew :).) As the pastor’s wife, I know he tries to be supportive and helpful and so does the congregation, but some Sundays are a struggle to even walk in the door. Thanks again. I found your post encouraging.