Jennifer Shaw: Five Things Your Church Can Do to Welcome Families With Autistic Children

There is a major problem that is flying under the radar of most American churches.  Approximately one in 50 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and some sources say the number of children struggling with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is as high as one in 20. 

Many of these families report that they feel unable to attend church because it’s too stressful for their children and thus, for the parents as well.  When I talk to parents about their experience, they tell heartbreaking stories of being kicked out of churches for being disruptive or “too much to handle.”  They feel lonely, isolated, bitter or hopeless.  They want to be in church, but they feel unwelcome.  Here are five things you can start with to immediately make your church more welcoming to families dealing with sensory challenges:

Educate your congregation.

Share your vision to reach this population with your congregation.  Hand out a “Did you know?” type of flyer in your bulletin with a few facts about SPD and autism and so they can better understand the challenges.  Recruit the special needs teachers in your congregation to help, or ask a parent to share their experiences.  Show people pictures of common tools used by families like weighted lap blankets and chewy T necklaces, and explain stimming and self-soothing behaviors so that people understand and respond appropriately when they see them.  Ask them to consider themselves ambassadors and servants to these families.  This will take effort, but I promise that it only takes one grouchy person “shushing” someone’s struggling autistic child in a service for that family to never be seen in your church again.

Tell them they can come late.

For most families affected by SPD, the first 15 minutes of the service are the most challenging.  Try to imagine entering church from the perspective of a person struggling with sensory challenges.  If your brain can’t process touch, the press of people in the lobby is frightening because you may get bumped.  If you find visual or auditory input difficult, all the people moving and chatting and laughing can be overwhelming.  Then, you enter a sanctuary where people sit close together and often the lights change and the music is loud.  By allowing (even inviting!) them to come late and skip the whole scene in the lobby and possibly even the opening music, you are setting them up to win because they are not already overwhelmed and struggling before they even get in there.

Save them a seat.

Reserve a section at the back specifically for these families.  If they come late, there is nothing worse than hunting around for a seat – this alone may keep families away.  In addition, the back is often so much easier for people with sensory challenges because it distances them a bit from the noise and movement on the platform, making them feel safer. It also gives parents an easy exit if their child really needs a break.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Jennifer Shaw

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