Autism. It’s not an issue on your heart unless it strikes your family or someone you love. It’s not a topic on your radar unless you live with it day in and day out. It’s probably not something you think of in terms of ministry in your local church unless it affects those in your membership.
This month is Autism Awareness month, and it is an issue that every church should be aware of.
Autism and its prevalence
Autism as a diagnosis has undergone some changes in the past year or so. In the most recent release of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the name and criteria for diagnosis of autism was changed. Classical autism, Pervasive Development Disorder NOS and Asperger’s Syndrome are now included together under the same class, called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
ASD is defined as a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction, communication and repetitive behaviors. It includes symptoms on a spectrum ranging from mild social challenges to that of more severe autistic symptoms, such as having a complete lack of speech. Its typical onset occurs around age three and continues throughout a person’s life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 68 children in multiple communities in the United States have been identified with (ASD). It is five times more common in boys than girls.
Autism and church ministry
With numbers like that it seems as though our churches should be bursting with children affected by ASD. Mine isn’t. Is your's?
Perhaps it’s because families who walk through the church door on Sunday morning with a child with ASD have different concerns. If their autistic child is highly sensitive to sounds, their child may struggle to sit in a sanctuary filled with the loud sounds of singing and musical instruments. If their child does not speak, they may be hesitant to send them to your children’s program. And if they tend to have tantrums in response to new environments and situations, this family may not walk through your doors to begin with.
But families who have children with ASD need the church. They need the support of the body of believers. They need gospel encouragement. They need to hear the preached word and be fed spiritually. They need the peace and rest that comes from being united to Christ.
So how can we serve such families?
- Educate Yourself: The best teachers about the issue of ASD are the parents themselves. Parents of children with ASD are used to advocating for their children. They are used to standing up for them and getting their needs met within the educational system. Ask them to teach you about ASD and what their child needs. Include them on decision making in developing programs, services and classes to meet those needs.
- Care for their children: The service and care that a church can offer depends greatly on its size and resources. For small churches, providing a class/nursery solely for a child with ASD may be the best option. I have attended churches where a nursery is provided for an autistic child. Trained volunteers stay with the child so their parents can attend the worship service. In larger churches, you may be able to provide an entire class for special needs children. If you have higher functioning children with ASD who are able to participate in a children’s church or Sunday school class, consider developing a “buddy system” where another helpful and responsible child is assigned to help them feel at ease and learn the ways of the classroom.
- Provide Respite: Parents of ASD children are tired. They are always on guard and always alert to their children’s needs. They are constantly advocating for their children. They are weary and worn and it impacts other areas of their life. Consider ways you can provide respite for these families so that the parents can go out on dates or go to needed appointments for their own needs or simply get needed rest.
- Consider it a ministry to your community: With the number of families impacted by ASD, it is a huge need in our communities. Consider specific ways your church can minister to those in your community. You can start by offering space for a parent support group. Make it known that you desire to help and serve such families. Parents who have children with ASD are more likely to attend a church that is aware and sensitive to the needs of their children.
One in 68 children is a large number. Many families affected by ASD have to live life in isolation, apart from the church community. Take time today to consider how your church can create a safe and welcome relief to these families and show them that the hope and peace they have longed for and need is found in Christ.