Bringing Autism and Faith Communities Together

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This article was contributed by Judy Clute, an ASNC Autism Resource Specialist in Raleigh and mom to a son with autism.

During recent Easter celebrations, my thoughts turned to the many families who would not be participating in a worship service because they have a child with autism. Many families have told me that they tried to attend worship but it was just too difficult, or that they haven’t found a place of worship where their child is truly accepted. I felt the same way for years. The truth is that most families with children with autism cannot make it to the door of a worship service, so faith leaders don’t see the need.

For families who have a child with autism, participating in a faith community is a struggle. Often children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) find the environment overwhelming. Factors such as large crowds of people, bright lights, strange sounds, loud music, smells, and unfamiliar rituals are just too much. They may have difficulty sitting for long periods of time, and having to listen to a speaker when language is not understood can be exasperating. And to add to that, the stares or curious glances by those who do not understand their behavior are just too much to bear.

Parents of children with ASD are already exhausted from feeling unwelcome in many places in the community. Children with autism have difficulty making friends and often are socially awkward. For some parents whose children are severely affected by autism, even basic, daily care is stressful. Many families are also struggling with the financial burden of taking their child to several therapies. So, one of the first places families might go for support and understanding is their faith community, but unfortunately, this isn’t always what they find.

I believe that faith communities really want to help and want to be accepting, but leaders and members often just do not know how or where to begin. So, how can we bridge the gap? Here are some practical ways for your family and a faith community to come together:

To parents

  • You play a very important role. If you want your child to be served well, you need to tell anyone who works with your child about him or her.
  • Introduce your family and child to faith-based community leaders. I know it can be difficult and exhausting to have to explain your child to yet another person. But it is so important.
  • Discuss your child’s individual needs. What does your child need to have modified or what accommodation needs to be put in place for your child to succeed? Which positive reinforcements work for your child at home? What motivates your child?
  • Prepare your child. However your child communicates, whether it is verbally or with a picture exchange or written schedule, let your child know what is coming. Our kids do not like surprises. Bring your child to your faith community outside of a service, when very few people are present. Let your child walk around, touch, smell, and experience the environment. Introduce your child to the staff members who will be working with your child. Write a schedule of what the morning might look like on a Sunday in class.
  • Always think about what works best for your child. Maybe spending the entire time in a worship service is too much. Perhaps a slow introduction into service or a classroom would work best instead of expecting them to stay the entire time. Do not feel guilty about the decisions you make about what is best for your family.

For the faith community

  • Be welcoming and supportive. Have an attitude of openness and a desire to be supportive.
  • Assure parents that you want to provide them with a positive experience. Ask them what their goals are. Are they hoping their child will be included with typical peers? Do they need supports or accommodations? Are they looking for a separate class to meet their child’s needs?
  • Ask about the child’s interests, likes, dislikes, gifts, and talents. Does their child have any special talents or gifts that they would like to share? You can get the information you need with a questionnaire and/or an open conversation.
  • Don’t judge; understand that challenges may keep the family from being as involved as they would like.
  • Remember, families who have a child with autism have the same needs as other families: a need to belong, a need to be accepted, a need to be supported, and the desire to live out their faith.

Faith communities have a desire to grow, and subsequently they need to reach out to all people with love and acceptance, including families affected by autism. Finding a supportive and inclusive faith community can empower these families to grow in their faith walk. The faith community also grows when they welcome all families to be involved. It teaches those in the faith community about compassion and understanding of individual differences and challenges. Everyone benefits.

Read more on this topic

Shop online for books on autism and the faith community at our bookstore www.autismbookstore.com. Some we especially recommend:

Autism and Your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder, by Barbara J Newman

Leading a Special Needs Ministry, by Amy Fenton Lee

The Ignored, Overlooked and Often Forgotten Souls, by Dr. Marion Landua-Figueroa

 

Judy Clute can be reached at jclute@autismsociety-nc.org.

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