As I think back on my time as a ministry leader, some of the most moving stories that come to mind are from families impacted by Special Needs. Some parents walk through the doors of the church hoping this experience will be different than other places they were not made to feel welcome, wondering how long they’ll be able to attend before a difficult conversation happens, or ready to advocate for what their family needs to successfully participate in a worship service. Regardless of where a family is, what if our churches could be safe places where every family’s unique needs are welcomed and celebrated? Where families are met with a willingness from God’s family to provide appropriate accommodations so each family member is reminded that they are made in the image of God?
For decades, the month of April has been known as Autism Awareness Month, or as it is more commonly referred to now: Autism Acceptance Month. While awareness (information about autism) is important, moving to a posture of acceptance has been more commonly embraced by the disability community. Seeing families impacted by autism as equal parts of our church communities can be transformational for everyone. If we believe everyone is made in God’s image, how can we better appreciate neurodiversity and program with the following idea in mind? Not everyone’s brains are wired the same way.
What is Autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain resulting in possible variations when it comes to communication, interaction, and learning. The autism spectrum is vast but common signs might include repetitive behaviors, hyperactivity, and extreme sensitivity to light, sound, and touch. Being a spectrum, the abilities of people with ASD can vary from advanced conversation skills to non-speaking; from those who benefit from support in their daily lives to those who can live and work with little or no support. When interacting with children and adults with ASD, it’s important to get to know their individual strengths and challenges in order to best support them in your ministry environment.
Why does this matter?
With 1 in every 44 children identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorder, it’s very likely you will come into contact with families at your church impacted by ASD and other developmental disabilities. Attending church with a family member with ASD can be challenging. Families often feel their church isn’t prepared and equipped to support them. Here are some ways the church can better prepare for and program with ASD in mind.
What can the church do?
Derived from the Greek autos, the word autism means self or alone. In dealing with the covid-19 pandemic, it’s likely we’ve all had some experience with isolation. This can be a real and ongoing reality for families impacted by special needs. Worries about what behaviors might present can keep parents from attending common events. The church can create a place where everyone’s desire for community and connection is realized. Where parents are freed up to connect and experience community because their children are cared for. If you’re not sure where to start, consider identifying a family impacted by autism or another disability and simply ask, “What accommodations can we provide so that your family feels supported to participate in our church community?” It may take several conversations, recruiting new volunteers, and being willing to adjust programming to be more inclusive by reminding others they are not alone is worth it.
After identifying some of the accommodations and getting to know the family’s needs, you’ll be ready to start adjusting and adapting the programming and environments to meet those needs. Simple adjustments to lighting and sound levels can sometimes make a big difference. Other accommodations might include reserved parking near an entrance, a quiet/calming space, and rethinking messaging and communication to be direct and multi-sensory when possible. In the children’s/youth ministry space, sometimes having a designated volunteer to provide support is a wonderful option while other kids or teenagers may simply need leaders in those spaces to have a general understanding of their needs.
With Orange Kids curriculum, we include resources to help you support families impacted by special needs with adapted small group lessons for individuals with a disability who are able to participate in small groups with their peers. Sometimes a separate environment is the best fit for particular segments or the entire program. When that’s the case, the monthly Adapting for Special Needs resource within the curriculum provides best practices, customization ideas, and supplemental activity suggestions. Learn more about Orange Kids Special Needs Adaptations here.
Any church community can be positioned to provide love, encouragement, and some level of practical support to families impacted by autism. A respite program (a ministry that cares for the child or individual with a disability to provide parents or caretakers with a break) is a wonderful, practical way to show up for families impacted by special needs. You may never fully understand a family’s daily life but showing up to offer prayer, checking in to see how their day is going, and coming to their aid when possible can be a powerful and encouraging experience.
Ultimately, we want every family connected to our churches to experience a deeper understanding of who God is through the experiences and interactions they have with our church community.
Learning More About Autism
It’s likely many churches may need to shift some things culturally to be an inclusive environment for families impacted by special needs. Here are a few ways to better understand autism:
- Have a conversation with a professional in your church community.
- Teach about people with disabilities in children and youth ministry environments.
- Use stories and examples in messages to adults.
- Highlight what your church is doing to celebrate wins and invite more people to be a part of this work
When Jesus showed up on the earth, he appealed to the image of God in every human. He instructed us on how to treat others. Over and over again, we see Jesus prioritize humans loving other humans. The church can embrace the autism community with open arms because seeing families impacted by autism as equal parts of our church communities can be transformational for everyone.
If you want to learn more about how you can serve kids and families with autism, check out our breakout The Special Needs Ministry Models of Tomorrow at Orange Conference 2023! Go to theorangeconference.com to grab your tickets today.