Let Them Come To Me: Churches and the Autism Community
Di Willis, the Ministries Director at Elevate Christian Disability Trust, helps us explore how we can remove barriers that stop the autism community from engaging with our corps/churches and enable families to feel at home in our places of worship.
Some disabilities are more visible than others. If a member of the congregation is in a wheelchair, it is a no-brainer to ensure there is a ramp or lift entrance to the church. If someone has a hearing disability, the message can be delivered through print-outs, PowerPoint slides or sign language. Neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorders can be harder to distinguish, and consequently many churches do not realise their space is inaccessible to affected families.
Autism is a condition where the brain works and develops as non-neurotypical. It does not mean that there is something wrong with the brain which needs to be cured. Di Willis, the Ministries Director at Elevate Christian Disability Trust, says that some autistic people cannot understand much of what they see or take in what they hear. To many of them, the world can be chaotic and frightening because they cannot communicate with it, and they can become frustrated whilst trying to express their feelings in a way other people can understand.
Di has known several autistic people who have been made to feel unwelcome in public places—including churches—due to their behaviour being misinterpreted as undisciplined or naughty. In actuality, Di firmly believes that the autism community’s approach to faith can transform churches inwardly and revolutionise the way the church is viewed by the general public.
‘People can be really touched for the Lord, because their faith is very simple,’ Di affirms.
It is possible for people with autism to find a place in a corps or church, but it calls the whole congregation to embark on a new and sometimes challenging journey. In order for this to be facilitated, there needs to be an understanding of difficulties these families face in church spaces. For example, Tabitha and Graeme Harlow have two daughters, Mackenzie and London, who are both autistic, and their son Oscar is on track for assessment. Initially, they tried bringing their daughters along to church, but the auditorium space made this difficult because the kids wanted to run around during the service, so the family would end up sitting in the crèche.
‘We definitely felt like there was no point coming to church with the kids because we’d end up in the crèche, fully focused on our kids and not able to connect with other people or the message,’ Tabitha explains.
Unfortunately, attempts to integrate their daughters into children’s church were no more successful, hampered by a lack of education within the church network (and greater public) about what autism is and how to communicate effectively.
‘Imagine if you were dealing with somebody who only spoke Cantonese and you speak no Cantonese,’ Tabitha says. ‘What are all the methods you would use to be able to interact with that child and have fun with them? And it would look entirely different. But people meet an autistic person and they’re still constantly doing all of those standard chat, chat ... talking at them … They’re not getting down to their level and doing physical fun, visible games that don’t require language.’
Slow And Steady Knows The Child
No two people on the autism spectrum are the same, which means that the first step is always to speak with the family, then you can discover what the child’s interests are and what the best way is to communicate with them. ‘Otherwise, you can do all these wrong things,’ Di warns.
Typical traits can include:
- low language development (sometimes no words at all), communicating by gestures
- reaction to physical sensation. Because of this, you should never attempt to hug or touch an autistic person (this includes, for example, putting your hand on their shoulder)
- short attention span, which means repetition is key (however, there is no point repeating the same words over and over if that is not how the child communicates)
- resistance to change (you must tell them if there will ever be a change to their routine as it may upset them).
‘One of the real difficulties often is they don’t make eye contact or even smile,’ Di explains. ‘Their behaviours can be very overactive or very passive, they can have a lot of tantrums for no reason.’ They may laugh at inappropriate times, talk incessantly or exhibit aggressive or bizarre actions.
For these reasons, getting to know them must be a patient process, on their terms, over many months or longer. Di believes the key is to just be with the child, rather than expecting something from them. The progress will not always be smooth, but slowly there is the possibility—and Di has seen it happen in her own church—that the parents can have somebody else with their child.
This is one way churches can serve and love their parents and siblings. These families are often under a toll, which can include poor sleeping habits, stress, social isolation and, regrettably in Di’s experience, many parents separate.
It is important for churches to reach out to them like they would any new family. Comprehensive pastoral care includes engaging with the children and their parents, checking in on how things are going and inviting parents to upskill those working with their children. Di’s advice is plain: ‘contact them, include them, love them’. Making a meal to alleviate some pressure can be an appreciated gesture, as is prayer that they would feel welcome. Di also impresses the importance of inviting and enabling the other members of the family to get outside of their cluster.
As an introvert, being connected to a life group is important to Tabitha, while Graeme is interested in serving in an audio-visual or musical capacity. ‘As a family, there’s a good chance that we may not be able to participate in the church community in a conventional sense, but we still want to be invited to serve,’ he says.
Inviting the child’s siblings to hang out beyond their family bubble ensures they have their own fun, because often their opportunities are limited because of the other child. ‘They are not just brothers and sisters of a child with a disability,’ Di says.
Neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorders can be harder to distinguish, and consequently many churches do not realise their space is inaccessible to affected families.
It is near impossible to overhaul a service for one person without alienating the remaining congregation, but by church staff having a greater understanding of autism and what makes the individual tick, they can remove barriers and help them to interact with God in a comfortable way. At the most basic level, providing visuals to accompany the message is helpful, and it is important for messages that include complicated metaphors or analogies to be clearly explained
and their meanings unpackaged.
Autistic children need to move around, and they communicate differently, so attempts to keep them isolated in specific places or groups may prove counterproductive. Autistic people may call out or walk around during the service, which disrupts the traditional notion of church etiquette. ‘Most people find that hard … you come to church and you sit in a seat or a pew and you’re quiet and you’re there for the service, but that’s not the case for a lot of kids and adults who are autistic,’ Di says.
She says churches could enable a place within the building—which can include the back rows or separate rooms traditionally set aside for mothers and babies—to also be an autism-friendly space where they can move around. ‘They may not be able to stay in it for very long, but they can go and have a walk and then come back again,’ Di says.
She recalls one example of visiting a church when an autistic man got up mid-service and ended up on stage with the minister.
‘He just reacted absolutely amazing—“Well, lovely to see you”—and then just went on with the service, and (the man) was fine and he just calmed down and he walked around, but most ministers would find that incredibly difficult.’
Tabitha agrees that it is essential to have a dedicated space for her daughters to chill out and regulate when their environment is stressful, but a crèche facility is not a tidy solution for every family. ‘You’ve got three- and four-year-old kids in with all of the very young babies, and it’s still a very busy, sensory overload space,’ she explains.
Tabitha, Graeme and Di would all love to see churches include a seminar or module on teaching autistic children in leader training, citing the multitude of free, readily available short and online courses.
At first, the child will almost certainly need a parent or caregiver alongside them who can help to tailor their child’s programme until they are adjusted and comfortable to stay with their children’s church leader(s) or in a small group. Then, as an adult, they can hopefully join in with the main congregation.
‘But that’s because you’ve already done all this other work,’ Di says, ‘because a lot of this doesn’t happen spontaneously.’
Loud noises in a confined space, such as worship music, can be problematic but, to replay a broken record, every person is unique. In many cases families will intentionally seek out a quieter church. However, some autistic children thrive on music and it is a great way for them to express their faith. They may even be able to adjust to and participate in weekly music, dance or craft groups.
‘We know from all sorts of research … that they all do want to be included and they do want attention and play, but they just lack the skills and knowing how to be included, especially with people outside the family,’ Tabitha adds.
‘…the autism community’s approach to faith can transform churches inwardly and revolutionise the way the church is viewed by the general public.’
The Importance of Disability Mission
Tabitha and Graeme would love to see ministries for children and adults with disabilities in every corps and church. Every day, they are meeting more and more people who know an autistic person in their network of family and friends. Graeme highlights that many families are not catered for in traditional settings and this risks alienating a huge part of the population.
‘It is hard and it’s not as rewarding, but it’s still just as important for our kids to be valued and cherished as much as NT (neurotypical) kids in the church.’
‘They actually need more help to be able to pick up these concepts and to be able to feel comfortable and engaged than a neurotypical child who’s getting a lot of that at home as well.’
Di believes by taking the time to learn about the individuality of each autistic person and showing the willingness to adapt and make room, churches can lead by example for those in their congregations and the wider public ‘...once we can get through those barriers, it’s wonderful.’