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Autism & Church


This post contains an affiliate link to Home Educating Family Magazine. If you choose to subscribe to the magazine, I receive a small commission. (*)Coupon code at end of post.

Many of you know I was at the 2:1 Conference a few weeks ago. One of my favorite things to do at this blogging conference is to connect with other special needs moms. These ladies are my online friends, my support group. There’s no pretense, just instant hugs! They live with autism or other special needs, too.

As we sat around the table Friday night, I let them know that I will be writing an article about special needs and church for my column inΒ Home Educating Family Magazine. I asked them what churches could do to help special needs families. At first they just kind of sat there, surprised to be asked such a question.

Autism & Church

Then the ideas came. Here are a couple, in case you work in a church or other public venue.

~A buddy to attend class with those kiddos who need one-on-one attention.

~Don’t clearly label a child with the name of her disability on their nametag to ostracize them.

These are great ideas, but what stuck in my mind the most was one autism mom’s story of a church visit. She dropped her two children, 9 and 10, at the child care offered during a church Bible study. She explained that her son doesn’t talk, wouldn’t talk, dont’ expect him to talk. When she came back to pick up her kids, her daughter said, “Mommy! That lady was so mean!” The daughter then explained that her brother had to use the bathroom, and asked her to get him permission. The lady in charge of the room would not let him go until he asked himself. She even told him that. She also would not let him get a drink of water unless he asked himself. Remember, he was asking permission through his sister, not just trying to leave the room.

I was heart broken, and dumbfounded that it happened in a church.

Please, please. If you ever work with special needs kids in any situation, don’t be so cruel! That child will never want to visit that church again, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a fear of any church for a long time.

I am blessed to be in a church who is seeking to expand its ministry to autism families and other special needs families as well. But I know that is rare.

So, here is my research question. I know many special needs families have a hard time getting to church for a variety of reasons. Whether you simply can’t get there, or you just need a more helpful church, what can churches do to reach out to special needs families? How can they help those who can’t get there, and how can they minister to those who attend but need accommodations? Please let me know in the comments below. It will help me write a better article!

*The link to Home Educating Family Magazine is an affiliate link. You can use coupon code mag15 (case sensitive) to get a $15 subscription!

Author: Jenny Herman

Jenny Herman is not anyone special or a hero. She's just a working special needs homeschool mom who uses the Power of One to "just keep swimming". Visit her blog to learn more.

53 thoughts on “Autism & Church

  1. It’s all about acceptance.
    When my daughter took her autistic toddler to the nursery, she was told to take him across the hall to a dark empty room. They didn’t go to any church for awhile, even though she had that background. Since then, they found a church that works for them.

    • Hi, Grandmother. I am glad she has found a good church now. I think acceptance is true, and I also think some knowledge is needed. Knowing HOW to help could make a huge difference. πŸ™‚

  2. The two biggest things for us are flexibility and the understanding that passive participation does not equal disobedience. We were blessed to find a church that is a perfect fit for our family, but it took over a year to find it. We visited churches that had a cookie-cutter mentality when it came to children’s ministries. Autism does not fit well into a ‘one-size-fits-all’ way of learning. Our little guy likes to fidget or stand during lessons and our current church was the only one to see that although he appears to not be paying attention, afterwards he could successfully answer questions about the lesson. I like to explain that my son is a ‘passive participant’. He may not engage in all the classroom activities, but it’s not because he’s disinterested or disobedient; he just has a different way of learning and engaging in social settings.

  3. Pam, I love the way you say that! Thanks for stopping by and sharing.

  4. I attend Salem Baptist Church in Apex, NC. While I do not have a special needs child, I am consistently amazed at the ministry our church has for special needs families. There is a separate Sunday School class for the special needs kids—with highly trained workers. They have a chimes choir for the kids–led by a marvelous physical therapist who has experience working with special needs kids. Also, they have specific events for the families, with activities that are workable for their kids. What we hear the families say frequently is how much they appreciate knowing that their kids will be cared for and loved, freeing them to attend Bible study and worship. It’s definitely an overlooked ministry in many churches.

  5. Our church is really working on this!
    They already have a kind lady (with a son on the spectrum) to sit with my boy so that if he leaves class, he is still supervised. She brings things for him to look at and do as well during the “sit and listen” parts.
    The new thing they are doing is having a “disability specialist” for each congregation – these people get to know the people and families that have special needs and help find ways to make meetings and activities more accessible to them. They will also have a specialist for each region of congregations to help them come up with ideas and train instructors. (All the people at my church are volunteers – no one is paid to do anything.)

    • Monica, what a blessing that lady is to your son! That’s a great idea to have someone that can contact special needs families in each church.

    • I like the idea of having a “disability specialist” that takes the time to get to know families and understand their particular needs. I’ve been frustrated with my attempts at getting help even from disability ministries because my particular needs didn’t fit with the services being offered, and I didn’t feel like I ever had the opportunity to just sit down and talk to someone about what I was struggling with. And with the stress of dealing with the issues we are facing, I don’t have a lot of energy to make the effort to try and build relationships. So isolation is a big challenge for me, and just having someone to talk to would make a difference!

  6. Thanks for sharing our story, Friend! I think flexibility and adapting to a child’s individual needs is crucial. A family really does need to seek out a church family that can best serve their child. Educating teachers is key.

  7. we once attended a church with aiden and they wouldn’t let us leave him in the children’s area unless we stayed with him. On our way out they handed us a cd of the service. Why go to church at all? is how dave and i felt at the end of the day. I think some things that churches can do are to have open communication with parents, understanding and flat out acceptance. What I have done at our church is i made sure to give the teachers my cell phone number and i keep my phone on vibrate so that if something happens they can just call my phone and I know to go check on aiden. Second, I think special needs ministry is much needed. Not just for the special needs child but for the other children. I think that it is important for other children to learn about people with special needs and how to interact with them in a loving environment. It gives these children a chance to learn about Gods love for everyone and how to show love to everyone however different. I feel that including parents and asking questions better equips the nursery/children’s adults to best provide for the child and also makes the parents feel included in something. Life of a special needs parent is very very isolating and sometimes (for me anyway) church is my only outing for the week sometimes just a conversation is helpful.

    • Sue, that is a great point about children being able to learn how to interact with their special needs friends. The leaders of our Sunday children’s department have been teaching the kids about autism, going a step beyond acceptance like you say. Thanks for taking time to leave your thoughts!

  8. Check put the Buddy Break model pioneered & implemented by Orlando-based non-profit, Nathaniel’s Hope. My wife and I launched a Buddy Break location at our church in May 2008 & have been coordinating that location since. We mobilize & train volunteer Buddies to provide 3 hours of free respite at our monthly Buddy Break events for children coping with special needs and their siblings. We also offer trained Buddies during Sunday Morning service. We are currently seeking funding to establish a bed & breakfast style respite home.

  9. I just left you a reply on G+ as I saw this there – so check that. πŸ™‚
    Our church is branching out, too, and trying to offer more. We have a committee, and a few kids, but none that require full-time support. There was a fundraiser for headphones on an FM system that kids can wear in the sanctuary. (We have kids in service till just before the sermon). This has helped tremendously. I think even congregational education (especially in smaller churches) goes a long way. Not every family is willing to stand up and say, “We’re that family” but some are, and you can glean from what those parents can tell you. Or, maybe have someone who is knowledgeable in special needs share a lot of what people may see in the special needs population of the church. Education helps a lot.

    • Hey, Friend! You have presented an interesting twist on this whole question. Generally we think about the churches that ignore or sometimes shun special needs families and all the bad experiences. However, there is the element of being vulnerable enough to say “we are that family” if it’s not blatantly obvious. Thanks for sharing!

  10. We are just at the beginning, but my suggestion would be to make sure staff are willing to give honest feedback. I often ask if my daughter spoke in class, did she sing, or play with any children. The people in her class are always very open about what she did or did not do, and it makes me comfortable enough to keep asking. I just want to know how she is doing in social settings as she is a bit different at home now than she was at first, but still doesn’t talk to others outside of our home. So, realize that parents are not just interrogating but sometimes just really want to know to gauge progress!

  11. It would be great if an article could also be written in the future about what churches can do to reach out to families with food allergies. My daughter has a severe peanut allergy and most Churches are all about food, donuts, candy, cookies, etc. I had to leave the Church we were members of because they did not “get” it and kept bringing food in the classroom. I visited one church and the SS teacher had brought some cookies that were not okay for my daughter to have and she asked if it was okay to give them to the other children. I said you could but it would really hurt my daughter’s feelings as she loves cookies. She then asked if we were going to come back the next Sunday almost as if she was hoping I would say no. I am not sure if this qualifies as “special needs” but food allergic children are shunned just as much. 😦 when all I really want to do is be able to drop my daughter off for 2 hours and enjoy my time with the Lord.

    • I would consider that part of the category, Amanda. It’s a challenge for your child. My son has some food sensitivities, and so I bring alternate snacks. However, his is not as dangerous as your daughter’s. This will definitely be included in my article. Thank you for sharing!

      • I bring alternate snacks in our backpack but the Churches want the children all eating the same thing because they are worried other parents are going to start bringing their own snack for their children and there will be bickering amongst the children. Also, I haven’t found a good alternate snack for donuts which seems to be the main meal of most Baptists on Sunday mornings! lol I am glad you are including it.

  12. My family took over a year to find a church that at least tries to understand and where we feel we fit in. Previously, another church welcomes us, but left us alone to ourselves. While service is on, both hubs and I were running around, chasing our special needs child. We felt that it was such a waste of our time. We can’t even listen to the sermons or join in the praise and worships. And there is non I can say about the ‘conversations’, coz there were non. We were left on our own, with other parents ‘watching’ as we try to keep as low profile as possible – with no effort to help. In the church we go now, we stay in the ‘baby’ room where my child can hang out without disturbing others. And some of the others do try to get to know us and have conversations with us. Yeah, life as special needs parents is a lonely journey.

    • Lydia, thank you for sharing your story. It is very lonely. I wrote about that a couple years ago–how I walked through the halls of church crying because we were late, I didn’t get to talk to people because we had to leave right away, etc. Hopefully my article will be of some help.

  13. The South Carolina Autism Society actually did a study on this, and came up with an entire list of suggestions.

  14. Our church had CARD come (Center for Autism and Related Disabilities) and give a seminar on autism so that our nursery, Sunday School, and Children’s service classes could be educated. They also ask youth volunteers to “Shadow” the autistic children around. There hasn’t been many issues. What issues DID arise were mostly from elderly people who don’t know/don’t want to know that autism is real and the child isn’t just being “undisciplined”.
    My son is high functioning autism so he does just seem a discipline issue, however, only his (elderly) Sunday school teacher complains. But again, she falls into that elderly category and I don’t know that they are going to change very much no matter what you do to educate them.
    As for allergies, there is no snack for the service or Sunday school. The snack that is “fellowship” time is put out between Sunday school and the service and is for everyone. If your child has allergies, it’s as easy as bringing your own snack for them or not going into the room with snacks.

  15. It seems our church operates a little differently — we do not have separate places for children to be during the worship service (the children sit in the regular service with their families, which is how church has been all of my life; I am a little confused by the references to dropping off your children and THEN going to worship. Do families not worship together?). Also, the disabled children at our church are not autistic, so our issues may be a little different — both have physical handicaps, and my daughter has learning delays. Our church has accommodated us and others with disabilities by making an area available on the ground floor with seating and video/audio feeds, because our building is an older building and the sanctuary is upstairs. When the elevator is not working or when someone comes in who cannot make it upstairs, there is a place for them to worship downstairs, and I think arrangements are made to serve communion to those people also (we have never had to use that feature). My daughter has learning delays, so when it comes time to promote children within the Sunday school classes they have always asked me privately whether I want her promoted with her agemates or left in the class that is closer to her learning level. I have always promoted her with her agemates, and it has always worked out fine. The teachers just don’t make a big deal of the fact that she can’t keep up with the writing, and they didn’t ask her to read aloud until recently when I told them it was OK to do so. When we have church gatherings for the children, they accommodate her — when we had an Easter egg hunt, the eggs for the older children were hidden further away, and I asked if I could hide some eggs closer to the starting point so my daughter would not have to walk so far, and everyone was fine with that, as well as with shooing the able-bodied children out to find the more distant eggs rather than letting them find all the close-in ones before she could get to them. And all of this is discreetly done without making an big issue out of my child’s limitations. They all just love her so much! I really think that’s the key.

  16. What I would not have given for there to have been some sort of “buddy system” for our daughter with high functioning autism (now almost 16). She is very quiet and struggled to find someone who would take the time to get to know her. Always broke my heart to see her in children’s church and then youth group sitting alone when everyone else had their friends to be with. I even suggest that churches implement something like having an older student-leader type or someone particularly mature and outgoing to volunteer occasionally to welcome the newcomers (special needs or not), so they can feel connected. Perhaps to sit with them or introduce them around.

  17. Nathaniel’s Hope was referenced above with Buddy Break–awesome model and ministry to special needs families! We were so blessed by them for several years when we lived in Orlando!!
    I think churches have 2 different attitudes–frustration (“don’t give us more to have to deal with!”) or optimism (“how can we help?”).
    I truly understand both! For many churches, adding a “Special Needs Ministry” sounds overwhelming when they already don’t have enough help, especially in Children’s Ministry. In those churches, it will probably take the parent or 1 individual to just start working with 1 child, 1 at a time, until the church body/leaders see that it can be done and that it IS worth it!
    We are so blessed to be in an “optimistic” church now! The Children’s Pastor has an adult disabled daughter & she always talks about loving all God’s children. Her attitude is infectious, and before we we even went to church there, they were asking me to leave my Special Needs daughter for VBS with her sister! The church where we were on staff asked us not to bring our daughter to the pre-k class and this church our older daughter was visiting for a summer VBS was ASKING us to bring her!! You can imagine what that did for a mommy’s heart! Fast forward 7 years we’re now in that church and we have an 11-y-o who is dearly loved by everyone in that congregation and has grown and learned so much! They have always asked “how can we help?” “What does she need?” And my personal favorite… “Of course she is welcome!” I think it really comes down to the attitude of those in leadership. From the Sr Pastor to every single staff member, the attitude for everything is “Jesus with skin on…how can we help?” They have helped me allow my daughter to do some things independently because I knew I could trust them. So precious!

    I agree with one of the earlier comments about some older people being unwilling to change. But I would say there are some people of ALL ages who are unwilling to change! We saw the contrast in the 2 churches we’ve been a part of over the last 7+ years, and we saw the attitudes of all ages. We realized later that there were people in the 1st church who wanted to help but just didn’t know how… And we didn’t know how to ask! We felt shunned and unaccepted, and to some extent we were. But there were really precious people who would have helped if we could have seen through our despair and asked…

    I’ve kind of rambled…hope this helps you some!!

    • Thanks, Shell. This is good input. I agree that starting a new ministry can be overwhelming. Perhaps we can do our part to help churches see that they don’t have to have a ministry immediately, but can make a difference just by their kindness and approachableness!

  18. I wish they would stop feeding the kids, and giving candy at every turn. My son is on a strict Autism Diet that makes him more functional. When he comes in contact with gluten, dairy or soy, or hand sanitizer he is a bear and it causes episodes of lethargic petit mal seizures, and stemming. I have felt like we are a BIG inconvenience for them. they do try and label the kids name tags with a red dot so the teachers know who has food allergies.

    We no longer attend a church, but are having church at home, but it isn’t related to this.

    • Hi, Javamama, Yes food sensitivities can be a challenge. My boys bring their own snack each week and I also leave a back up stash in their classroom in case someone else sends in a treat w/their kids.

  19. I haven’t been to church regularly in 6 years. We are always trying a “new church.” We recently moved to a new state and were invited to try a church and they had a huge open children’s area for 6-12 yo. that my son kept running out of into different areas in and outside of that building. It took all 4 of us to locate him wandering in the bushes over at the next building. A secure enclosed area is a must for some of these children. I’ve asked for a buddy, from the jr. high and high school pastor, and I’ve explained the situation, but I’ve yet to hear back from him. I’m sure there are liability issues…
    TV preachers and internet online churches have been my lifesavers.

    • Wandering is a tough challenge. My son hasn’t done that in a long time, but he did do it on Palm Sunday because he was feeling badly about something. It sure was scary! I hope you get your buddy soon!

  20. Flexibility is key! I think being upfront with leaders in church about your child’s abilities and challenges is also key. My son has severe autism and is non-verbal. We don’t know week to week how he will react in church. Sometimes he sits silently in the pew, other times on the floor in our pew, and sometimes in the aisle beside our pew or another pew entirely! Once he sits he is not going to move unless it his idea! It has been helpful that our church family just works around him wherever he is sitting. I’m sure people sometimes wonder what the deal is but we have received no hurtful comments. That helps! I appreciate that people in church say Hi! To my son and give him a high five! Church is a place to feel accepted and loved. We have never missed a week of church because of our son’s disability. Keep trying to educate other’s on how to help. As we try to follow Christ’s example it will not be hard to incorporate any child into a worship service. If in doubt ask, what would Jesus do?

  21. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” -Matthew 19:14 (NIV 2011)

  22. Our church has done a really great job with Disability Ministries (Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN). You can read info on their website. Also, the blog Urban Servant addresses this issue. The woman who writes it has 11 kids, many with disabilities. I don’t have a child with special needs, but her blog and my church has opened my eyes and heart to be more sensitive to the needs and blessings of families with special needs. I’ll look for this article in the magazine!

  23. My son, who is 12 and has autism, is an altar server at our church. He is paired up with a more experienced server, because he needs assistance with everything. For him, the key has been to get him as involved as possible with worship. During Sunday school, which is separate from worship at our church, he receives one-on-one instruction. My son has always loved church – when he was a baby, his tense body would relax the minute we walked through the doors of the church – so in his case, it is natural for him to be fully included in the life of the church. I think that churches need to be flexible enough to allow children with special needs to remain with their parents during worship. All churches need to accommodate the unique needs of each family, and respect the gifts that a child with special needs brings to the faith community.

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  26. I am working with a church which is starting a full online campus in less than two months. It will be interactive with live moderators during the worship services, blogs, vlogs, study material, etc. We would like it to be an option for those who find it difficult to attend the physical campus of a church due to a any number of reasons including a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. We have a young man who has Asperger’s who will be assisting with the campus.

    What would you like to see in an online campus that would be helpful for you and your family?

  27. I am always sorry to hear stories of misunderstanding among fellow believers. The workers in churches are volunteers and often are not trained, but if their hearts are right and you are up front about your needs, you will find many people in many churches will do their best to meet your needs. Sometimes you may encounter ignorance and a lack of resources, but change does not come by giving up. Keep praying and looking for a place to be a part of corporate worship and fellowship. We as Christians are meant to be part of the church body to accomplish the work of the Kingdom which we cannot adequately accomplish alone, but requires the talents and gifts of all the Body’s parts. People have to be given the chance to learn and to be forgiven for false ideas/ignorance and to be educated about the needs of children with special needs, and autism especially. Many churches also do not have the resources/funds to meet some physical needs and may not have the “man-power” to provide buddies without some advance notice. First you have to have the extra volunteer, then they need to have some idea of what to do and preferably get some training, and most places cannot be insured these days unless their volunteers have criminal background checks. Always prepare your child and the workers up front about your visit so that they may give you a tour of their facilities to help your child become familiar with the environment in advance. This will also give you the chance to sit down with his teachers to discuss your child’s needs and what works for you at home or what is done at school to meet your child’s needs. In this way, the teacher can better prepare to teach your child effectively as well as hopefully make it more likely that your child will have a good first visit experience. Realize, however, that you are dealing with fallen people who, even though they may be in church, do not always behave as Christ instructed. Prayer and lots of communication are needed for these situations. After working with children who are affected by autism, I can say that some days are great and some days can be very frustrating for the child and the teacher just because of whatever is going on either in the church environment or at home that cannot be controlled. It can be easy for everyone to get discouraged. Volunteers and parents need lots of encouragement and support from everyone. Check out Amy Fenton Lee’s blog, for a wealth of information to help families and churches trying to learn to meet the needs of members with special needs. Joni & friends is another good resource.

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  29. Date 06-27-2015
    My Name Is Alonzo Cleveland, And My Wife Name Is Alicia Cleveland, And We Have An Autistic Child.

    I can’t believe that there is no resources that can help when you in desperate need when you have An autistic child. Me and my wife is struggling just to make ends meet our family finances is getting really worse and worse we need help with Our family finances. Please if you know of any programs that are available that can help Us With Our Finances to Get Us Back On Our Feet And Get Our Finances Back In Order Please Let Us Know. I can be reached at 614-209-6870 Or By E-Mail:
    Please I”m Looking Forward To Hearing From You. Any information that you can send to me will be profoundly appreciated and thank you so much and God bless you!

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