Do you want to minister to the special needs community, but don’t feel you have the knowledge or experience to do it well? Holly shares basic information about Autism to help you gain a better understanding of this underserved population.

Have you ever heard any of the following terms?

  • On the spectrum
  • Asperger’s
  • Autism

How do you feel about your ability to minister to children and families who are affected by Autism?

  • Totally confident!
  • Uncertain but willing…
  • What is Autism???

Having a basic knowledge and understanding of Autism is the first step in effectively ministering to this community!

As a special educator and behavior analyst, I am really excited to share with you some information on Autism to help prepare you to minister to this fantastic and underserved group of individuals! Read on to discover what Autism is, how it affects those who have it, and how to directly minister to these awesome individuals.

What is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects a person’s socialization skills, ability to communicate, and their behavior. Each person with Autism is unique in how their Autism affects them.

How Autism Affects Those Who Have It

The Struggle is Real

People with Autism may struggle to:

  • Talk
  • Control their emotions and behavior
  • Control their bodies and movement
  • Adjust to changes
  • Make friends

People with Autism may be sensitive to these things:

  • Sounds or noises
  • Light
  • Movement
  • Texture
  • Touch

The world looks different to people with Autism!

People with Autism experience their environment differently than people who do not have Autism, or “neurotypical” people. For example, a person with Autism may notice the hum of a refrigerator and may be very distracted, or even feel pain or discomfort from it—yet a neurotypical person is able to tune it out–if they even notice it. Think about how a loud and boisterous worship service would impact a person who feels pain from the hum of an appliance!

A person with Autism may find it very uncomfortable to sit in a dark room with only the light of a tv—it may hurt their eyes, yet not bother anyone else. Fluorescent lights that flicker may be unnoticeable to most people, but can cause discomfort for a person with Autism. Flashing or rotating lights in a worship service can be fun and exciting for some people, but completely overwhelming for someone with Autism.

The hustle and bustle of fellowship time or meet and greet activities at church can be very hard on a person with Autism. They may struggle to make sense of all the motion and noise going on around them.

Some people with Autism are what we call “sensory seekers”, who learn from their environment by feeling and touching things. This might be the person who notices your silky shirt and reaches out to feel it before asking your permission, or a person who lingers while washing their hands because the soap suds feel so good!

Other people with Autism can be “sensory defensive”, meaning they are very sensitive to touch or texture. These are the people who feel pain or discomfort when hugged or high-fived, or who avoid foods that are crunchy.

Autism Advantages

People with Autism may be great at:

  • Problem solving
  • Visual processing
  • Understanding numbers and patterns
  • Recalling or noticing details
  • Memorizing facts
  • Thinking creatively
  • Understanding body language
  • Telling the truth

What a blessing it is to get to know someone with Autism well enough to glimpse these gifts and abilities!

Now that you know some basic information about Autism, and the different ways it can affect those who have it, let’s talk about what to do with this information!

4 Ways to Minister to Individuals with Autism in Your Small Church

Here is what your small church can do for someone with Autism:

  1. Include
  2. Accommodate
  3. Model
  4. Engage

INCLUDE people with Autism

The first step to ministering to the Autism community is to include them in your church body. It sounds simple, but most families affected by Autism do not attend church regularly. Reasons range from their children being excluded, isolated, asked to leave by church leaders, and even being turned away before they enter the building due to the church not feeling equipped to support someone with Autism.

This problem has an easy fix—invite them to church! Once you get them in the building, be sure to welcome them, get to know them, and support them.

If you don’t personally know a family affected by Autism, you can let your local elementary schools know that you are an Autism-friendly fellowship and let the teachers pass the word along!

ACCOMODATE what you can

Once you have invited them to your church, you can begin getting to know them and accommodating their needs. This means that you take into consideration that they may need some things changed in order for them to fully participate and feel welcome at church. Don’t be afraid to ask them or their family about their abilities, what areas they will need extra support for, their likes, and their sensitivities. Then, find a way to make it happen!

Accommodating a person with Autism may look like:

  • Turning down the volume of worship music or providing noise cancelling headphones
  • Leaving the lights on low instead of lights off
  • Providing an alternative snack during children’s church
  • Giving a thumbs-up for a job well done instead of a hug
  • Allowing a child to stand for Bible lesson instead of sitting on the carpet
  • Allowing a child to hold some play-doh to keep their hands busy while they listen to a story
  • Adjusting the rules of a game so they can just enjoy being with other children their age instead of worrying about winning or losing

Sometimes, a person with Autism may need more intensive support to accommodate their needs. Maybe they need a friend to stay next to them and help or encourage them during children’s church or the sermon. Maybe they are high energy and need to move constantly, so you need to clear some space for them or have an extra volunteer in Sunday School to help keep an eye out for everyone’s safety.

If significant support is needed:

If people with Autism will need significant support in an area like toileting, feeding themselves, or communicating, it is important to talk to their family to understand how best to help them.

For example, maybe they just need someone to stand outside the restroom to make sure they don’t wander off when they are finished.

Accommodating feeding needs might be as simple as helping them open their snack containers, breaking their food into smaller bites, or helping them get a bite into their mouth.

For a child who has difficulty communicating in a traditional way, accommodating them could mean you take the time to offer two choices for things like where they want to sit. It could also mean you learn to use pictures so they can point to what they want.

MODEL what to do or how to do it

Many people with Autism are great visual learners, meaning they learn best by seeing what you want to teach them. One way to do this is through modeling—showing them what to do or how to do something with your own behavior.

Children and teachers can model classroom behavior rules to their friends with Autism by demonstrating how to do it, like showing them where to go when the teacher says “line up” or modeling how to sit with hands in lap at the carpet. Modeling might also mean showing them how to roll play-doh into a ball or how many pumps of soap they need to wash their hands.

Try using a “First/Then” sentence when you are modeling. For example, “First, you sit on your bottom. Then, you put your hands in your lap.”

Using “First/Then” sentences and modeling can prevent unnecessary upset!

ENGAGE in these meaningul ways in your small church

Your small church can engage—or interact with—people with Autism in the following simple and meaningful ways, no expertise necessary!

  • Respect personal space. Get to know if they prefer a wave or a hug.
  • Get on their level. Get down to their eye level.
  • Use your inside voice. Be friendly but protect their ears!
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t take anything personally.
  • Say what you mean and mean what you say. Be clear and follow through.
  • Make them feel important. Give them your attention!

Are these ideas new to you? No worries! Practice makes perfect. Find someone who would enjoy helping you make these new skills a habit and get to work! These ideas could fill up an entire staff/volunteer training session for your small church.

Ready, Set, Go!

Now you know what Autism is, how it can affect people that have it, and how you can directly minister to this group of fascinating and unique individuals. If you are ready to include this population in your small church’s special needs ministry and want to know even more about Autism, get in touch with me via The Creative Little Church or download my free PDF, Holly’s Helpful Hints on Autism.

For more from Holly on Special Needs Ministries in Small Churches, check out:

3 Reasons Why Your Small Church Needs a Special Needs Ministry

Understand 2 Types of Special Needs Ministry for Your Small Church

3 Steps to Be Ready for Special Needs Visitors in Your Small Church