Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we, as the Church, could simply take away the difficulties experienced by members of our church family? I can think of a long list of things I’d like to off-load onto someone for an hour or two. We’re called to bear one another’s burdens, but sometimes, that can be a daunting task!
In honor of Autism Awareness Month (and World Autism Awareness Day) I’d like to share a few strategies for making church a welcoming place for families affected by autism. For those of you who don’t know about autism, or would like to learn more, please click here for some excellent information provided by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. It’s helpful to have some background knowledge so that you and visiting families can “speak the same language.”
Remember, not all parents who have a child with autism will share information right away. However, when a parent does confide, “This is our first time here…and my child has autism,” you’ll want to be prepared. In order to accomplish this, consider the following recommendations:
- Plan proactively. Before the program year begins, be certain that your staff and volunteers know how to keep children safe in church. Practice “emergency” procedures, such as knowing what to do if a child appears agitated or runs out of the church building. Publish behavior and safety policies so that everyone understands the expectations. In addition, try to staff your program with a few “floating” volunteers who have been trained to understand special needs issues. That way, if a child with autism visits, a buddy is available if needed.
- Assess your space. Students with autism may become anxious in large, crowded spaces. Find–or create–a greeting space that feels a bit cozier. This can be accomplished easily and inexpensively by rearranging furniture or using mobile room dividers. Some churches open an office adjacent to the Welcome Center to provide a quiet space for parents and greeters to talk.
- Point the way. Be certain that your church has enough signage to make the space predictable for newcomers. If possible, use icons or pictures of activities; kids with autism manage visual cues very well.
- Turn down the volume. Loud voices, music and noises can be rough on anyone’s ears; many individuals with autism are particularly sensitive to this. Be sure that your welcoming area is on the quiet side, if possible, to accommodate this need.
- Make “good scents.” Strong perfumes and cologne are great for date night, but may be off-putting to children with autism.
- Listen and learn. If a parent discloses that his/her child has autism, be prepared to listen. If possible, staff the welcome area with more than one volunteer to allow this conversation to take place. Ask, “What will help your child feel comfortable this morning? How does your child communicate his/her needs? What activities will your child enjoy most?”
- Be glad! Many parents of kids with autism spend a good portion of the week explaining their child’s behavior, arguing with insurance companies, and working with the school to create appropriate behavior and learning plans. They often receive phone calls from teachers that bear bad news about the child’s day. Often, these families are excluded from neighborhood parties, play dates…even family reunions! As the Church, we have an opportunity to make a difference by simply saying, “We are so glad you are here!”
- …and be realistic. Most of the time, our church ministry teams are not staffed with autism specialists. We’re not in the position to provide individual therapies and follow specific treatment protocols. And that’s okay. Some parents might hope for Sunday School to be an extension of the child’s school interventions. If this is the case on that first visit, try this: “It sounds like you have some specific ideas for your child’s experience in Sunday School. Let’s talk about what might be effective for today, and then set up a time that we can discuss your child’s needs more thoroughly.”
- Accentuate the positive. Ask the parents, “What is wonderful about your child?” Most parents will be surprised by this question. I’ve had a mom tell me through her tears, “I have to think about it…it’s been so long since someone asked me what is good about my daughter!” As the Church, we KNOW that every person in our “family” has gifts!
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list… just a few pointers to get you started. Remember that not all suggestions on this list will be effective or appropriate with all families. Do you have ideas that work well in your church? Post them in the comments section! Are you the parent of a child with autism? Please lend your wisdom and experiences! Do you have questions or concerns? Add those, too! Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s to warm welcomes…