As I think back to my time as a ministry leader, the most moving stories are from families impacted by Special Needs. When some parents walk into church, they’re hoping this experience will be different than when they were not made to feel welcome. Many wonder how long they’ll be able to attend before a difficult conversation happens. Some prepare to advocate for what their family needs to successfully participate in a worship service. But what if our churches could be safe places where every family’s unique needs are celebrated? Where families are provided appropriate accommodations so each member remembers that they are made in the image of God?
For decades, April has been known as Autism Awareness Month. Or as it is more commonly referred to now: Autism Acceptance Month. Awareness, or information about autism, is important. However, it is more embraced by the disability community to move to a posture of acceptance. It can be transformational for everyone to see families impacted by autism as equal parts of our church communities. If we believe everyone is made in God’s image, the question is this:
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. It results in possible variations in communication, interaction, and learning. The autism spectrum is broad but common signs are as follows. It might include repetitive behaviors, hyperactivity, and extreme sensitivity to light, sound, and touch.
Autism is a spectrum. This means that the abilities of people with ASD can vary from advanced conversation skills to non-speaking. It also can range from those who benefit from daily support to those who can live with little or no support. It’s important to get to know individual strengths and challenges when working with people with ASD. This will allow you to best support them in your ministry environment.
Why does this matter?
Did you know that 1 in every 44 children identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorder? That said, it’s very likely you will come into contact with families at your church impacted by ASD and other developmental disabilities. It can be challenging for families to attend church with a family member with ASD. Oftentimes, they feel their church isn’t prepared or 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?
Autism is derived from the Greek word autos, which means ‘self’ or ‘alone.’ After 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. Oftentimes, they have worries about the behaviors that might occur during the 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, identify a family impacted by autism or another disability and simply ask this question.
What accommodations can we provide so that your family feels supported to participate in our church community?
It may take several conversations or recruiting new volunteers. Bottom line, it’s worth it to have conversations to make everyone feel welcome in your church community.
Once you get to know the family’s needs, you’ll be ready to start adjusting the programming. Simple adjustments to lighting and sound levels can make a big difference. Other accommodations might include reserved parking near an entrance. Perhaps it could be a quiet/calming space. It might be rethinking messaging and communication to be direct and multi-sensory when possible. In the children’s/youth ministry space, have a designated volunteer to provide support. 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. We have 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, check out the monthly Adapting for Special Needs resource within the curriculum. It provides best practices, customization ideas, and supplemental activity suggestions. Learn more about Orange Kids Special Needs Adaptations here.
Any church community can provide love, encouragement, and practical support to families impacted by autism. A respite program is a ministry that cares for the child or individual with a disability to provide caretakers with a break. This is a wonderful way to show up for families impacted by special needs. The truth is you may never fully understand a family’s daily life. But offering prayer, a check-in, and coming to their aid when possible can be a powerful 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.
- Take a free Autism 101 online course on Autism Society.
- 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.
To learn how to serve kids and families with autism, check out our breakout Engaging Every Kid on the Spectrum at Orange Conference 2022! Go to theorangeconference.com to grab your tickets today.