How church leaders can help support autism parents - The Building
Updated: Feb 12, 2019
The church is more than just the building, as I wrote previously about creating a culture of acceptance. This time, I want to focus on the building. Whilst it would be great to add on a calm down/sensory rooms, lighting, sound boards to create less echo etc I understand this is not possible. Some of our places of worship are centuries old, or meetings could happen in a rented space where there is no control over fixtures. I'm not suggesting physical changes but there are a few tweaks that can be done to help ease anxieties of others when they enter the building, making it more accessible.
Church buildings come in all different shapes and sizes, from modern to traditional. Each will have its quirks. Children with autism often have sensory difficulties. This means they can find light and noise too bright/loud and it can be painful for them. They could struggle with the seating - too hard, too close or the opposite or not upright enough. Some children will seek sensory input and others will do all they can to avoid it. Whilst they share the difficulty of processing senses differently to typical children/adults, how each autistic person responds will also be different.
It is not a one size fits all situation for the person or the church building. This is why its important to firstly build a relationship with the family, to find a way to help them cope with the specific environment of your church.
Let the congregation know what to expect
I have spoken before on my blog about how visuals aid understanding. This works for a wide variety of disabilities. Some churches may do things exactly the same each week, others may not, either way informing someone of what will happen, helps them to prepare/reassure them - also remember visitors/first timers will have no idea of what they are suppose to do and when.
For example, the church we attend now does 'share the peace'. This was never done at our old churches and we had no idea why people were coming up to us and shaking hands or giving hugs. My autistic child does not like to be touched and especially not by strangers. This is a potential for a meltdown - he doesn't want to have to explain his disability, he has difficulties with communication. Knowing this information helps us to prepare him in advance. We can teach him how to handle this situation, to keep him safe but still included.
It maybe that there are situations you know you or your child will not be able to cope with and knowing the above information gives you time to make your way to the quiet/rest room etc. Perhaps your church uses incense or oils on occasion, perhaps there are bells ringing - knowing when this will happen will help the parent to prepare their child. It could be that you know your child cannot manage arrival/exit time so it is better for you to arrive and exit within the service. Leaders of the church could help with this, perhaps even reserve seats for you near the exit or quiet room. It might be that the child with autism loves the incense or sound of the bells and its really important that they do not miss anything about them. It maybe a case that the leaders could arrange a time for the child with autism, to learn more about incense/bells etc.
Simple steps like this help make the church more accessible to families who have children with autism.
A way to let everyone know what to expect is to use a visual support and in this case a visual timetable. Notice sheets can be missed and visual timetables need space, not tucked away out of sight, to be fit for purpose. Services do not happen by chance, they are planned in advance, so having a timetable of what you expect to happen and the order, can help calm an autistic person - both adult and child.
Pictures/photographs are a great way to communicate what is happening. This is because people with autism communicate better visually. Words are great for an older child/adult providing they do not have learning disabilities alongside their autism. Velcro pictures can be moved around and can make life easier rather than creating a new board each week. keeping the board in the same place, means everyone knows where to look for this reassurance.
I know the Holy Spirit can take us away from plans, and this is okay, just let the congregation know that plans are changing because you are being led by the Holy Spirit. Let the congregation know they can still leave on time etc. This is really important, children could be counting down the time to leave in order to manage their anxiety.
I think its a good idea to have this timetable in the main church, where everyone walks in rather than just at the children's area. The children then know exactly when they are leaving for their ministry and helps them to know what their parents/carers are doing (easing any anxieties they may have about leaving them). They know if they need to put on their ear defenders straight away as there will be worship songs or whether they will be going straight to their groups after a welcome speech. If a time is coming when they are expected to sit still, an activity can be prepped or fiddle toy can come out.
It is still a great tool to have for adults suffering with anxiety or whom have learning disabilities too.
This could be taken further to include larger printed words/special screen set aside for those who are visually impaired or printed on special coloured paper for people who have dyslexia etc. many churches offer signed services or hearing loops, this is just another way to help support our whole community.
A social story is a basic picture story explaining everything that will happen. It is great for explaining exactly what will happen when you come to church from where to park, what entrance to use and what will happen when you step inside the church. Lots of typical people will take this for granted but for those with high anxieties, this could be a reason to put off coming altogether.
Another story can be used for explaining what will happen in the children groups. It can be used for new families, those who suffer with anxiety and for children moving up different groups within the church. It outlines everything and can be used with the visual timetables to re-enforce what is happening, so they do not need to fret about change and transition from one activity to another.
Having this on the church website can really help families explain and prepare their child for what is going to happen. It is also a great way to advertise that your church welcomes children/adults/families with autism.
A Quiet Area
If the building allows, having a space designated for children/adults to calm down is very helpful. It is important that this room is not doubled up for another use - ie mother and babies/toddlers. This is because meltdowns can happen, where an autistic person is no longer in control/over stimulated and needs a quiet space to de-escalate and calm down. It would be difficult for a person in this state to calm down in front of an audience of mothers/babies/toddlers.
Meltdowns can come in different forms - they can be loud, explosive, destructive - internally or externally and the person has no control over this, as they have lost the ability to communicate. A quiet, safe space away from other people is best to help them calm down. This is not bad behaviour or a spoilt child having a tantrum, this is a person in difficulty - they need help. Sometimes, triggers can be seen before the meltdown occurs and a quiet room can help distract them and calm down.
Hopefully this won't be a well used room but on the occasion it is needed - it is good to be prepared. Don't make the mistake of turning it into a storage area because it wasn't well attended - as when its needed, there will not be time to clear it first.
Also let your autism families know where this space is. If it is communicated on your website/newsletter it will also raise awareness that in your church, people attend who have autism are welcome, which has an added bonus of raising acceptance within the congregation too.
If the building does not allow this space, then they may have to step out of the building. Make this easy for them to do - clear paths to the exit etc. Welcome team to open doors and help. It may not be safe if near car park and road - ask the parent/carer how can I help? It might be there is nothing to do but having someone offer help, can make the person dealing with the difficult situation not to feel alone.
Preparation is the key, unfortunately sometimes meltdowns happen - even when everything has appeared to have been followed. It's not always easy to see/predict the triggers or recognise the rumbles of when a child is escalating. This is part of life for a family raising children with autism. Walk with them in the journey - let them know they are not alone and the church does care for them all. Whilst you may not know how to help, empathy and reassurance does help.
As I said some things can not be changed but opening a discussion could be all that's needed to help a family belong and be part of the congregation. The links are the National Autistic Society and help explain and give further information on the topics above.
I will also write a post on how leaders can help autism families during the service etc
How does your church help families who have autistic children?
Below are links to the rest of this series: