How church leaders can help support autism parents - Training
Updated: Feb 12, 2019
I cannot emphasise enough the importance of good quality training in helping your volunteers to have understanding and empathy when looking after children with autism. The children's worker can have a massive impact on whether the child with autism will stay in the church setting. It can impact whether the family will stay at the church, how they feel welcomed or if they will leave and feel rejected.
Whilst an overview of autism can help understanding, knowing how this can apply to a young person and strategies to help overcome situations is really important. Volunteers don't just need head knowledge but an understanding of how it applies to the different situations they face. The children's work leader needs to get to know the child with autism and the family as well as possible and ask them what you can do to help, how they would cope in certain activities and the best way to engage or to calm them. They then need permission to share this with the rest of the volunteers who will be working with them.
Generally parents/carers are the experts of their child, speak to them - they live with them 24 hours a day and will have an idea of what does and doesn't work for them. It could be that it is a new diagnosis and therefore they are still learning, learn with them - put them in touch with others who have the same diagnosis from your church or local organisations. It could be that the parents are completely overwhelmed and cannot face another discussion about their child - help support the family, let them know the church is there to help support all of them and help heal the family. Most churches have pastoral teams. Train your volunteers to sign post them to support, let's help the whole family.
A child with autism can have rigid thinking and this can play out in different ways. For Example: Child A comes into the group, doesn't follow the rules, tries to take over, is really hard to handle and won't accept direction, upsets the other children by being overly loud and physical & when confronted about this in front of his parents, starts name calling and accusing you of lying and saying everyone is being really horrible to them.
Your perspective and Child A's perspective of events are different. You may feel you did everything you could to help Child A understand the rules, that they took most of your time up and cannot understand why they would feel/say this. You may feel that their behaviour was rude and an apology is required. You may feel that this is a discipline issue because other children with autism have not behaved in this way. Let's look at this in a different way, remembering Child A has rigid thinking and is unable to think any other way;
Child A knew they were going to new place and knew it was important to the adults that they 'settle in' whatever that meant - they think it means don't get into trouble, perhaps like they've done in the past. Going somewhere new makes Child A anxious as they've been to new places and got into trouble for 'no reason' before. Child A went into a new room, filled with lots of different sounds/lights that were hard to get used too, there was a sea of faces wanting him/her to do stuff, they tried to do the stuff but saw unkind faces because apparently it wasn't right (even though before when they had done this, it was right). It was confusing. Child A decided it was best everyone should play it 'right' because being right was important.
They then tried to play with the other children but they wouldn't play 'their' game right and then they were told off again, it was very confusing - it was the other children getting it wrong, surely they should be the ones being told off?
They were trying to fit in and do everything 'right' but the adults were always telling them stuff and then there became too much stuff, then their faces changed and now nothing made any sense. Then, to finish, they were told off in front of their parents, when they had tried so hard to do everything 'right' and they'd had enough. They had decided everyone here was mean, they lie and were just being horrible to them.
From Child A's perspective, what the adults were saying was wrong. Child A could sense the tension but couldn't understand it. They were trying to play and be involved but they kept being told (words or otherwise) that they were wrong, that they were taking over - when all they wanted was to get everyone to play it right, the way they knew. No one listened/acted the way they should, in order to play it correctly. It hurt to keep getting told off when they weren't doing anything wrong - it was the others. Child A couldn't understand why the adult was saying these things to their parents, when that wasn't what they were doing at all. Why were they lying? did they not know it was important to do it 'right'? Child A's emotions were already high because the room and people were different, yet knew they had to 'not get into trouble' They were under a lot of pressure to get it right and then to hear the adults discuss them as being naughty, made them feel cross and angry - they verbalised this by calling them a name.
Child A has rigid thinking and cannot see the situation from anyone else's perspective. That's hard for all involved but the adult/volunteer can make changes, they can see it from a different perspective and they can be the bigger person - not take it personally and try again. This is not a discipline issue, this is part of their disability. Child A needs more support to get used to whats expected - visuals and preparation helps, consistency, built in extra breaks for both them self and the other children in the group and for this child, having a special job may really help them to feel in control and part of the group. Child A needs to build up trust with this new place and new adults - they have been hurt many times before.
Child A does need to learn not to name call but at this point, the child may well refuse to ever come back so building the relationship, making them feel safe is far more important - take it a step at a time. They can learn the conduct rules and learn the consequences in time. However once support is in place, this may not be required as the child no longer feels threatened in the same way.
Perhaps you may feel it's unfair to the other children but this is teaching them about love and grace in action, to model Jesus practically - to become inclusive, its teaching them that life is full of interruptions to how we want to do things and we learn how to overcome this (selflessness). It teaches children to look at other people's perspectives, we all have different thoughts and feeling, adapting and trying things a new way because no one is more or less important.
Autism is a spectrum disorder and another child with rigid thinking could present in a completely different way and so therefore it is not going to be a case of one size fits all. Children need to be treated individually and volunteers need to learn that each child, whilst have the same diagnosis will react and behave differently. This is why quality resources and training are so important because volunteers and children's work leaders need to be adaptable and think quickly, if modification to plans are required.
It maybe that the children's work is not suitable for the child with autism and actually they need something completely different. Perhaps one to one at the back of church in a quieter service, allowing the parents to spend time with God and for the child to learn in a quieter, safer setting near their carers? Perhaps there are quite a few children and they need their own group/curriculum? Perhaps you have children with autism who are completely different from each other and dislike one another? Learning to think outside the box and encouraging your volunteers to do so also, to engage them in a relationship about Jesus, requires resource, time and commitment.
Church leaders can help by investing in good quality resources and training for their children's workers and volunteers. Encouraging them to keep going, knowing they need to be in this for the long haul before they see change. This will not be easy, some children are really hard work but teaching them about Jesus, love and the gift of salvation is such important kingdom work. It also helps us to grow in grace and love, empathy and understanding.
Training need not be limited to children's workers, I think its important for everyone to have understanding but appreciate that may not be possible. Just an overview could help... Pastoral workers need to have an understanding of autism, especially if they are to help support the parents or family as a whole. It would be good for the welcome team to have an understanding so they can help guide and assist on the door. They may not need as intensive training but a little knowledge and a lot of that welcome love would help a family feel accepted. Even for the refreshment team, for example if you have a child who cannot queue - whether they cannot understand the concept of queuing/waiting or cannot cope with being touched due to their sensory difficulties, allowing them to go first or have a different area for them and their family to collect their refreshment could then allow them to have fellowship with everyone else.
So many places would give up on Child A, imagine how that must feel, as a child to feel everyone is against you because your brain is different (which you have no control over) so therefore you see things differently to typical people but also as the parent - another rejection, another failure, not even the church can help/love us.
Please don't let that be your church - Jesus loved those others didn't, He loved them gladly and as a church we should be following His example. Tell them and make them feel welcome, invest your time - kingdom work is important work.
Below are links to the rest of this series:
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