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.
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.