Welcoming Kids on the High End of the Autism Spectrum

Research from Clemson University discovered that families of kids with autism are 84 percent less likely to attend church. This is one of the largest unreached groups, right in your community! Yet it takes intentionality to create an environment that welcomes these often-isolated parents and kids, giving them a place to build relationships, get support, and be discipled to grow in friendship with Jesus.

As a children’s ministry volunteer, I’m no expert on autism. I want to serve, welcome, and disciple all kids in my church, yet oftentimes feel unequipped or afraid to say or do the wrong thing when it comes to kids with mental health conditions. Maybe you’ve got questions, too. What exactly is autism? What’s keeping families of autistic kids from coming to church? And what would a welcoming environment look like for them?

To get some insight from an expert, I sat down with Dr. Steve Grcevich, president and founder of Key Ministry, an organization with the mission of helping churches welcome families of children with hidden disabilities. He guided me through some of the basics and gave practical ways churches can welcome kids with these unique needs.

First, what is autism and what does it mean to be on the high end of the spectrum?

Autism, also called autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a group of developmental disorders. They’re characterized by things such as repetitive behaviors, social challenges, inflexible thinking, and even challenges with speech. Kids who are on the “high end” of the autism spectrum demonstrate traits such as:

  • normal to high intelligence
  • challenges with social interaction
  • heightened emotional sensitivity
  • magnified sensitivity to sensory input
  • intense, narrow interests
  • fixation on routines, repetitive habits
  • difficulty with change
  • focus on self

Grcevich refers to kids on the high end of the spectrum as having “hidden disabilities,” as their disorder is often unnoticed by peers or church leaders. Their behaviors may simply stand out as being odd or quirky. Unlike a visible physical disability such as impaired mobility or Down syndrome, ASD may not be readily identified through casual interaction, especially if the child is on the high end of the spectrum. Yet the needs of these kids are very real.

You may feel like more kids in your ministry are on the spectrum, compared to years past. That’s likely due to better training and recognition. Studies show that 1 in 36 kids are on the spectrum. And considering that many cases go undiagnosed, the numbers are likely higher. Grcevich notes that more parents are being proactive and getting their kids assessed, which can open doors for resources and support in some communities.

What keeps families of autistic kids from attending church?

Think how you’d describe a typical Sunday morning in your children’s ministry. Maybe words like “exciting,” “noisy,” or even “relational” come to mind. While these ingredients make classrooms a fun place to be, they can become an anxiety point for kids with mental health challenges. And Grcevich says that ministry to kids with autism is mental health ministry, as 78 percent of children with autism have at least one mental health condition, such as ADD, anxiety disorder, or depression. These additional factors make the church environment particularly challenging for kids on the spectrum.

“Traits associated with autism and common mental health conditions cause difficulties in meeting expectations of church culture—how we act and interact when gathered. The church environment requires the ability to accurately process how one is being received by others, the capacity for social interaction, and self-control.”

As children’s leaders, we want the church experience to be active, highly relational, and sometimes surprising. All these can be difficult for a child on the spectrum. Social interactions are challenging. New situations cause anxiety. Sensory processing and change are hard to manage. And some kids may have had negative experiences in a prior church setting, making them less likely to return to a similar situation.

Grcevich cautions that “kids and their parents will desperately avoid situations drawing attention to their differences.” Church may create anxiety over exactly this, as it’s a highly social setting that requires a child to sit quietly, manage unexpected sensory stimulation, and interact with others. (Read this account to get a firsthand view of church from the parent of an autistic child.) Sadly, families may arrive at the conclusion that the easiest solution is simply not to take the risk. So they just stay home.

What can I do to welcome all kids—particularly those on the high end of the spectrum?

First, Grcevich encourages leaders to take a fresh perspective. “We’re developing a mindset, not creating a new program. The goal is to include kids with ASD in the ministry activities we already offer. Interventions or modifications should help all kids and families we serve—not just those with disabilities.”

Even adding a visual schedule helps everyone understand what to expect from the flow of the class time. (The Adapted Word has visual schedules you can download for free.)

Leaders can begin with communication. Here are a few questions you and your team might work through:

What can kids and families learn from our website to help prepare for their experience?

Include plenty of pictures that show kids what to expect at every step of the way. This helps offset anxiety and allows them to begin preparing for what the experience will be like.

What messages are we sending through our registration process?

Asking parents to disclose a mental health diagnosis may seem helpful for your team, but it can make parents wary of their child being labeled or singled out. Consider a more open question such as, “Is there anything special that would help us get to know your child better?”

What do we say to parents when their child has a rough day?

Be sure language is kind and welcoming, seeking solutions and restoration—for you, the parent, and the child. Ask for specifics on helping a child manage sensory input or social situations.

What messages are all kids getting about bullying?

Kids on the high end of the spectrum are especially vulnerable, since their disorder may not be visible to other kids. Be sure to set an expectation in your ministry that everyone is welcomed and valued, and bullying has no place here.

Grcevich encourages ministry leaders to reach out to experts in the church and community to learn more. Special educators, behavioral health professionals, and even interior designers may have practical ways you can make your ministry (and environment) friendlier and more welcoming to families of autistic kids.

And, be sure you’re resourcing all families in simple, practical ways. Resources such as Notes From Jesus for Families give parents easy ways to continue discipleship at home, where kids with spectrum disorders may feel more comfortable.

In the end, kids on the spectrum are still kids. They want friends. They want to know they’re loved and valued. And they need Jesus. This is our opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ, by taking a few practical steps to open our church doors to hurting families. (Learn more about serving kids and families dealing with mental illness.)

 

Dr. Stephen Grcevich (MD, Northeast Ohio Medical University) serves as the founder and President of Key Ministry. He is a child and adolescent psychiatrist. He blogs at Church4EveryChild, is a regular contributor for Moody Radio Cleveland, and frequently speaks at national and international ministry conferences on mental health and spiritual development. His first book, Mental Health and the Church, was published by Zondervan in February 2018. Steve and his wife, Denise, live in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

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