Autism in the congregation

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Offering Jesus’ welcome to all children

By Christine Guth

 

If your congregation does not include a family affected by autism, odds are it will soon. One child in 88 lives with an autism spectrum condition, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In simplest terms, all those on the autism spectrum share marked differences in social communication and restrictive interests or repetitive behaviors.

Supportive communities can make an enormous difference for families struggling to cope with a sometimes baffling condition that runs roughshod over parents’ expectations and dreams and shapes family life in unimagined ways. Depending on the situation, some of the following approaches may be appropriate in your congregation:

Look for ways to help the family build trust and share their stories with a wider circle. Create opportunities to share information with sensitivity and respect that will help others understand and respond graciously to unusual behavior they observe. Consider providing basic information about autism to Sunday school teachers, youth workers, ushers and the child's peers.

A circle of support for parents may carry the family through rough periods. A friend coordinated a small group of caring people who took turns inviting me out once a week for coffee and conversation during my children's teen years when crises were exploding day by day. Childcare to make such respite breaks possible is an added blessing many families need.

Recruiting an intentional circle of friends in the congregation for the child can deflect problems and reduce opportunities for bullying. This involves teaching a group of relatively mature peers what the child's unusual behaviors might mean along with helpful responses. Such buddies give children with autism invaluable opportunities to practice social skills with peers.

Consider modifying the environment or providing adaptations in order to moderate sensory stimuli that cause the child pain. The loud sound of amplified music is a frequent offender. Can the volume be turned down or sound-dampening headphones be available? Some congregations that project words and visuals on a screen post a subtle visual cue to warn when loud music is about to begin. Others establish a fragrance-free zone in their worship space and convert to fragrance-free janitorial supplies.

Look for ways that the person with autism can contribute to congregational life, even if it stretches the bounds of tradition. If God has graced a person with a strong interest in deep-sea animals, for example, finding an avenue to share it with a congregation will take creativity but also promises to strengthen relationships and appreciation for the wonder of creation.

Finally, recognize that many of the challenges that autism brings to a family are lifelong. Children with autism grow up to become adults with autism. The congregation may be a resource to connect an autistic adult to a job or meaningful volunteering. Church members who make ongoing efforts to include adults on the autism spectrum may be shining stars to those with few friends. Aging parents of adults with autism may appreciate help planning for their loved one after they are gone.

As your congregation learns to receive graciously the people impacted by autism whom God is bringing to your doorstep, may you more deeply recognize the kingdom of God in your midst and open yourselves to its transforming power.

Christine Guth is program director for Anabaptist Disabilities Network, a ministry that supports Anabaptist congregations and individuals touched by disabilities. This article first appeared in Leader, a quarterly newsletter for lay leaders and pastors.

 

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