Many autism families would like to be able to attend church, but have given up on that possibility due to the obvious stress and strain of their child having to sit still for an hour (or more) or properly behave in a children’s ministry. Missing not only the worship aspect, but the support of a church community is difficult and isolating for them. And of course, people of faith want their child with autism to engage in a spiritual
life as well.
In Ohio, a couple versed in social work and special education have created Through the Roof Ministries to train churches to successfully bring everyone into the the fold. And as of late, more churches across the nation are responding to the special needs of families with autism and other issues by creating alternative worship programs for them, or assigning a buddy to help them get through the service.
Inherent difficulties include access as the church needs to buy a van to make sure everyone can come. It’s very labor-intensive and requires a lot of effort by families and volunteers. It also requires grace on the part of the congregation to withstand the inherent disruption. Education is key to fostering this acceptance.
To facilitate autism inclusion in church, one Missouri autism mother has initiated the first conference on “Disability and the Church,” bringing together keynote speakers to address what autism is and how the church can minister to these individuals. Ministers expressing frustration on how to reach the concrete autism mind with such an abstract concept as God will be given ideas on the topic.
My personal experience with these issues began when a friend with sons on the spectrum invited me and my son to her church (his twin brother had zero interest in attending). I hadn’t been to church in a while, but I was up for it because my son was very interested in it at the time.
The first service we attempted was a positive experience because there were different stations you could go to and engage in activities such as lighting a candle, dropping a stone in water to represent letting go of some personal hurt, receiving a blessing, etc. Active and creative, it went very well for my son and was a great experience.
The next service we tried was a traditional one and he started having an anxiety attack almost immediately, so we had to leave. It was the same dynamic as him sitting still for a lecture in a classroom — he can’t bear statically absorbing the words of an individual addressing a large group. As he put it, "the more interactive, the better."
On Easter weekend, that same church threw a laser tag party for kids of all ages. I knew both of my sons would love it, but my previously abstaining son stood outside and refused to go in while his twin freaked out that they’d miss it. I finally tracked down my friend to bring my stony, red-faced son inside. It worked out and my boys ended up having a blast. It was a turning point for my recalcitrant son who declared it to be “the least churchy church ever!”
The Lord works in mysterious ways, even going so far as to host a laser party for His children and allowing involvement for everyone.
Hopefully, more congregations around the country will continue to follow the examples in Missouri and my hometown and implement similar inclusionary programs in the future.