Autism: Guiding Your Congregation to Inclusion

woman and autistic boy drawing a picture

About 1 in 54 children is identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the US, according to 2016 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ASD knows no boundaries and affects all socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups, and is about 4 times more common among boys than girls.1 

There’s a common saying that once you know one person with autism, you know only one person with autism. As a spectrum disorder, the presentation and severity of autism varies greatly from person to person. One person may have more sensory problems or speech deficits, while another may struggle more with socialization or behavior. One person may need daily support throughout his or her life, while another is able to live independently.

Sooner or later, a family with a child with autism will become part of your church. Turning your back on a child who has a disorder you may not yet understand is not an option. Learn to respond in grace and minister to hurting and exhausted families.

Leverage Your Role as a Leader

Your role as WMU director means you likely partner with different departments of the church. This places you in a strategic position to help lead your congregation toward a positive ministry experience for a family. The families you desire to minister to could be new to the church or an existing family whose participation in church activities are limited by their child’s disability.

Discover Needs

Get to know families to discover how their child’s autism affects him or her and what you can offer to help the child in a church setting. Set a time to visit the family home. Ask questions and take notes. You need to know not only what it will take to help the child at church but also what the church could do to help the family at home. Do the husband and wife rarely get time alone? Perhaps church members could learn to babysit the child. Does the mother feel isolated? Consider sharing this with women of the church so they can befriend her and go to her for visits.

Avoid asking the question everyone wants to know the answer to: What causes autism? The family may not have any beliefs on the subject. But they may be grappling with unanswerable questions or theories they would find painful to share.

Integrate Autistic Kids into Church Ministries

For the majority of kids with autism, their biggest need in the church is supervision, which often means one-on-one assistance. Some children with autism are prone to wandering without fear, and they often need redirection and reassurance in a classroom setting. Determine what areas of the church the child wants to participate in and how much supervision is needed. Check out these tips for including kids with autism in missions.

Ask parents what the child might find hard to do in a group setting and what a volunteer can do in response. Consider alternate activities that could be kept handy.

Encourage a parent to visit the child’s room at church to look for possible issues. If the lighting is too bright, make some adjustments. If the child is bothered by other kids touching him, alert the teacher and helpers to the issue so they can gracefully guide the other kids without making the child feel embarrassed. “Let’s all keep our hands to ourselves” sounds better than “Don’t touch David; it bothers him!”

Help the Entire Family

If the child with autism is included in your church’s existing ministries, this opens the door for the entire family to be part of the church. When your congregation has a churchwide event on the calendar, call the family in advance and invite them. Offer to line up an extra set of hands to “shadow” the family and help in any way they need.

Mesh Missions with Ministry

While most families living with ASD know their needs are high, many of them may yearn to be involved in missions. Depending on the abilities of the season they are in, do whatever it takes to include them. If the mother wants to be involved in Women on Mission or myMISSION, reassure her that you can enlist helpers to watch her child. Or ask the missions group to bless her by paying a sitter who is already trained to stay at home with the child.

If stress is particularly high and the mother feels as if she needs to stay home, look for ways to include her. If the group is working on a project, let her work on part of the project from home. She may enjoy communicating with missionaries online and giving the group updates.

Don’t Forget the Rest of the Family

Siblings of kids with ASD bear a heavy load emotionally and may need someone to talk to. Fathers of kids with ASD desperately need men to pray for them. Ask the women in the group to mention the fathers to their husbands and remind them they need their Christian kindness.

Fine-Tune, Pray, and Don’t Give Up

Learning to minister to families living with ASD can feel foreign to your church. But it’s worth every minute you give to the aching families. Troubleshoot and fine-tune your ministry as time passes. Never give up. Watch for ways to bless the families. Pray diligently for the children, their families, their teachers, and their doctors. You will come to see how God can sovereignly use suffering for His glory.

In John 9:1–3, the disciples asked Jesus why a man was blind from birth, thinking the only logical answer was sin. Yet Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (ESV).

Sheila Gosney is a wife, mother, and grandmother. Sheila’s youngest son, Taylor, has severe autism and is now an adult. Sheila is an autism advocate and encourager of special-needs mothers. She is also the author of Acquainted with Autism, a life story and ministry tool for the body of Christ. You may reach Sheila by email at gosneypoet@hotmail.com.

1Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder Among Children Aged 8 Years — Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 Sites, United States, 2016, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/ss/ss6904a1.htm?s_cid=ss6904a1_w.

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