Several people have asked how I survive church every week. "Survive" is a very accurate descriptor because — confession — some weeks my family doesn't make it all the way through the meeting. But as we work through the challenge of bringing an autistic child to church each week, and as more and more people step in to help in our crazy world, amazing things have happened.
First, the role of the parent
I've had to let my expectations go and appreciate that I have a unique child with unique perspective. Though I still cringe at the general chaos coming from our pew, I've noticed that the mood of our meeting is generally contingent upon how stressed I am. Children can sense tension, and that is always true in church. Preparing ahead of time by packing snacks and other things to distract my children, along with arriving a little early (but not too early) guarantees my own happiness. I've accepted that discipline isn't the way to control my herd. Instead, we've developed acceptable patterns of behavior.
Many autistic children rely on schedules and patterns. Sometimes, this is as simple as sitting in the same pew every week, and arriving early can guarantee your special spot. Maybe having a favorite toy can be comforting. You know your child. You know if he is going to dump your bag out looking for his special pen or if he will screech when the Skittles run out, so plan, plan, plan!
Many churchgoers are familiar with the sight of toddlers munching on Goldfish during church, but not everyone is used to seeing a 6-year-old with an apple. While what is "acceptable" differs between individuals, this is what my family has decided is acceptable behavior in our row. We chose to accept apple eating rather than screaming, standing on the bench, hitting siblings or running up to the pulpit — all things our child might otherwise do. As our family developed patterns of acceptable behaviors, my son learned what to expect. He understands that any unacceptable behavior results in time-out.
I've come to understand that everyone brings value to the congregation. Every individual is a beloved son or daughter of God, and each one deserves to come to church and be loved and appreciated. I realized that my value and my family's value to the congregation is not diminished because we sometimes have a lot of chaos coming from our bench. This life is an opportunity for learning, stretching ourselves and growing. Bad days will always come, so we cannot despair when they do.
Finally, I've learned to accept help from others. You might think this would be an easy thing, but relinquishing sole responsibility can be one of the hardest acts of all. You know your child better than anyone, and you feel you should always know the best way to handle him, but sometimes the most blessings come when you let go. There are people all around you who can see your situation and can offer help. Take it. Don't deny someone the opportunity to serve you. Don't deny someone the chance to love a person with special needs. Those who serve benefit just as much as you do.
Now, the role of fellow churchgoers
Suppose you want to help but you just don't know how. Start by keeping a prayer in your heart. Really. Sometimes this is the only way to know what to do and when to do it. If you are prayerfully seeking inspiration to understand or help calm a child, you will receive guidance as to what that child needs. Prayer can even give you courage to act on your impulse to help. Sometimes, even just the presence of another adult around a struggling child can change the dynamic or help turn the child's focus.
If you help teach an autistic child each Sunday, try to think outside the box. All around the world, you can find Sunday teachers presenting, asking questions and engaging children in activities, games or projects. Be creative as you find ways to work with a child who has untimely outbursts or whose attention tends to linger on objects or ideas after other children have moved on.
Here is a list of ideas that can help children on the autistic spectrum:
Assigning a "buddy of the day" to sit with.
Reinforcing positive behaviors. Acknowledge things the child is doing right by praising him or giving him small treats.
Placing the child among older children who serve as mature peer models of behavior.
Using tactile modeling — things that can keep the hands busy and the ears open (e.g. Playdough, Legos, puzzles, etc.). For example, if you are talking about Noah, have the child help you by making some animals.
Provide stimulation and get the child moving. Take time-outs and get everyone to jump in place a few times, or incorporate a song with movement. Consider letting the child sit in a small rocking chair.
Try one-on-one time. If your student is using Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy at home or at school, ask parents to tell you about principles their child is learning that can be reinforced at church. Often, autistic children have already developed skills that can be transferred to a new setting.
Get youth involved. Other children are some of the most helpful people.
Have him bring a notebook to write down questions, and leave space for him to look up the answers.
Encourage him to raise his hand before blurting out answers. Use a token system to reward good behavior, and when the child has earned five tokens, allow him to share a longer story with the class (on subject, of course).
Remember, just because an autistic child does not seem to be paying attention doesn't mean he isn't. Many children on the spectrum later in life remember intimate details of things that happened to them years before. Autistic children often take in so much information from their environments that they can become overwhelmed. Remember that they are absorbing everything, including your love.