How Church can help support families whom have children with autism - Part 4: The Service
Updated: Sep 17, 2019
Perhaps the children always stay with you throughout the service each week at your church or perhaps it's once a month for the family service or maybe the children are taken to their groups from the beginning or part way through the service and they are not with their parents/carers at all. Whatever way your church operates at some point in church life they may be expected to be with you during the service and knowing how to help those who naturally struggle with surroundings and protocol, is goods for the whole church.
I have spoken before about setting expectations of acceptance for the congregation (part 1) getting the building ready (part 2) and training (part 3) Having this in motion will help with the service. This part is for leaders, parents and the whole church.
Worship Training (Parents)
I do believe in worship training for all children. Being a part of church is listening to the teaching, joining in with the sung worship, learning about the sacraments and prayer. Hearing the word of God being preached, is one of the main reasons to attend. Therefore, it is important to train your child to not be a distraction to others during the service - this is an important life skill - learning respect for others. I'm not saying this is an easy straightforward process but it has to start somewhere and where better than in the loving environment of the church.
Low level noise is different from full on not caring about the people around you. Children need to learn why you go church and to learn respect for the people around them. Perhaps they have learning difficulties alongside their autism and the prognosis is that they will never be able to learn all about the faith in the way typical people do, perhaps they cannot communicate at all - that's okay, by attending they can can still learn that church is a warm, loving and accepting place for all people.
Whilst they can learn about God in the children's groups from the children's work leader during the service/groups, it is important that they learn it from their parents too and in the wider church setting. If they sense that look of dread from their parent when it is announced there are no groups on for the children, they will sense that corporate worship is a time to also dread, a time of boredom or think its not relevant for them. This is really sad - after all we want our children to be part of church, to know and experience God for themselves.
When to start worship training
Personally, I think It is good to start this from as soon as possible - toddler-hood. Parents will need to put in the hard work to train them and sometimes this means missing out on part of the service but it will be worth it - think long term - when they become teenagers, they will be in the main service and will need to know what to do and what's expected from them. What we do in the everyday is important in the lives of children, it is the building blocks to their identity, which is why church attendance is important for young families.
There are usually mid week groups or evening services that you (the grown up) can attend, without your children, if you need time for just yourself in a corporate setting. If you cannot leave your child and are struggling to feel connected to God, speak to your church leader and together, work out a way that you can feel part of corporate worship or perhaps a discipleship pairing/group would be better for you. I understand that caring can be a 24 hour schedule and that babysitters who can meet the needs of your child can be extremely rare, if they exist at all.
Learning to worship God and grow in His word, where you are right now is important - don't feel you have to put your faith and belief on hold whilst raising your children. Church leaders want you to grow in your relationship with God - don't be scared to ask for help and church leaders be prepared to think outside the box of what you normally do, to help parents of children with additional needs to grow in their faith.
Sitting Still? I know this might seem like a crazy myth, however children are taught to sit quietly, be still and listen to the person talking at the front for school assemblies, even in specialist schools. Its just that children with additional needs may take longer to learn these skills compared to their peers, some of the children may not be able to physically sit still - ever - which is why not seeing the look of judgement from peers/congregation or leadership is important. This training doesn't happen overnight, it can take years, so grace for one another is needed.
The church could offer children fiddle toys to help them focus and keep their hands busy. Alternatively colour in sheets or activity sheets from the sermon can help children to engage and follow along with the service. Having an order of service for the sen child, visually displaying what will happen and when, whats expected from them ie preach and prayers (quiet, do activity, sit) whereas praise time they can move, dance and sing, if they want too - or this could be the time the ear defenders come out depending on your child and sensitivities. Church leaders I know this is additional work alongside everything else but it is worth it, they are worth it, loving them like Jesus - is worth it.
For some children, worship training will be an impossible task - they absolutely cannot keep still, are completely unaware of their volume or do not have the ability to comprehend/talk. This is when the church leader can step in, to help create an environment where you can be part of the service. They can create a church of acceptance (see Part 1)
Perhaps your child needs a large mat where they can move around in a safe space because they cannot sit on a chair for very long. Perhaps they need a visual timer, as being in the big church is stressful for them and building their time up slowly in the main hall before they wait outside for the kids groups to start, would be a better way. Slow and steady wins the race. Church leaders can help partner parents and encourage them to keep persevering.
Perhaps your church has many rooms and a quiet room with audio and visual feed to the main service is available. Handouts for children to follow, special toys or colour in sheet that link to the service could help them to be part of everything in their way, with room to express and be themselves. It's not good to be isolated so have this room manned and let it be a welcoming place. Create a new expression of church and community in this room.
Each child is individual and will have different needs. Parents and leaders need to work together to make sure that church is inclusive to all. One child with autism can be very different to another - it's never going to be one policy for all when it comes to children with autism. Its going to be a painful journey if church just expect autistic children to comply and its also going to be a painful experience, if autism parents drop off their children without any information. This has to be a 2-way relationship.
Parents/Carers I know it can be difficult to open up, especially if your child has been rejected in the past but one way to find out how welcoming a church is for SEN is to ask them and speak to the children's worker leader. Work with them and if they are not open to changes for needs, then its better that you know from the outset but please feed this back to the overseer of the church (the body the church belongs to). It can be done via letter/email if you do not feel brave enough informing them face to face.
It is hard to always be the advocate of your child's disability but if we want a world of acceptance for our children then we also need to help be a part of creating this. If the church you visited created a barrier to you coming, let them know, sometimes churches have been operating in a certain way for so long and feel there is nothing wrong but actually education can help them to see the situation for what it really is.
An easy way to inform your church about your child's needs is to write an all about me profile or passport. Check with the church how this is stored and exactly who has access to the information so you can be assured this personal and important information is kept safe and won't fall into the wrong hands. Church leaders, you could provide a form to make sure you have all the information you need on supporting this child during your group time. Its not school so there is no demanding curriculum to follow but the church will want to teach your child about Jesus. Helping them to support your child's needs during learning, social time, games and craft will help them to access and be part of the group.
Some parents will be proactive when it comes to their child with autism however others will not know how to provide this help/support for their child. So in order to help, leaders can lead by example - have ideas and tips on hand. If you don't know, learn. Don't always rely on the parents to suggest and please don't judge them if they are not in that place yet. Some parents may have just been given the diagnosis and are still learning, some parents are completely worn out from just coping with the daily demands that they do not have the capacity, some can be overwhelmed by any number of other problems going on in their life. Help serve this part of our community. If possible, have children play workers or welcome team members ready to hand out items to help the children settle, guide to a calm zone and make the environment as helpful as possible.
Respect people who do not wish to join in/chat to the person next to you
I'm an extrovert and I can do small talk. However, I have off days when its a chore and those words fill me with dread. My husband is an introvert and is just not interested in small talk. He may not like it but he will do it out of politeness to the church leader. When we are told to talk to the person next to you during the sermon - it can fill some people with more than just dread.
My son is autistic and does not want to talk to strangers, at all - he's quite happy to blank all attempts. Obviously this can come across as rude and may even upset the person making an attempt but this is a part of his communication disability. It makes him stand out and seen as different, when just a few moments ago he looked like everyone else - listening to the preach, now the rules have changed and he wasn't prepared.
We need to meet people where they are at. I don't think this should be entirely excluded from a service because it helps you to meet people from Gods kingdom perhaps you wouldn't normally speak too and be church together. However, for a few people this could become a barrier and they then could come across as rude or unfriendly just because of anxiety and their communication disability. Knowing that this is going to happen in advance, can be a big help (visual timetable).
As parents and the church we can then train children to say Hello politely. We can explain why its important and maybe have a few stock answers/questions to help train them in the art of small talk. Having this type of training material on display - may seem like teaching people to suck eggs but actually it creates an awareness that there are people/children in our church that have anxiety/communication difficulties and therefore helps raise awareness and acceptance.
It maybe that today is not even a day to say hello, as anxieties are too high maybe there is a signal or hand sign that people can use to know that today we cannot talk during share the peace or at the request of the preacher. This allows congregation to know there is something more going and its not rudeness. It also allows the parent/carer/person struggling to not have to give a long explanation of their difficulties when they are struggling but still allows them to be who God made them to be in the service.
Try a different service
If you attend a family service then you should expect noise from families. Sometimes these services can be loud and noisy, which is not a good environment to be in if you have sensory processing difficulties. Sometimes the family/children service is not suitable for autistic children.
Learn about the different services and try to find your place - it maybe at a quieter reflective service. If it is, then the above announcement about low level noise from a child and 'no stares or glares' can still be made by the church leader - the parent could be desperate to meet with God and this is the only way they can, don't tut them away because they are different and not behaving the way you would like them to, or not in the 'designated' family service. Leaders need to be ready to be welcoming to all, in all the services. It maybe that a children's worker could attend this service with the family, a special space could be created or a bag of distraction toys etc can be left out for your child to use.
Leaders, please get to know those with or are parenting children with additional needs/disabilities. Just because your church offers kids work ,does not mean that every child can access it, that's okay - think about what you can offer instead. Just because you have someone attending your church with SEN or autism does not necessarily mean your church is SEN or autism friendly - it doesn't mean you've ticked the box and that changes/adaptations to acceptance, building/environment, staff training and the service are not needed.
Autism is much more common than many people think. There are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK – that's more than 1 in 100. If you include their families, autism is a part of daily life for 2.8 million people.
The above is a quote from the National Autistic Society. This is a lot of people. It's not just the autism person that needs support - it is the whole family and the support services around them are falling apart. Now is an important time for the church to step up and show them (plus the world) how much everyone is loved and welcome to the kingdom of God. Please remember the autism child grows up to become an adult with autism so the support/understanding for adults needs to be in place too - small groups, pastoral care. Leaders think ahead and be prepared.
To help autistic children know what is expected from them, a social story can be written. This is a great tool to help explain clearly what others may take for granted, about what the 'hidden' rules maybe. Please take a look at this article to help write your own story:
The next part of this series will look at how to support families raising children with autism.
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