Children’s ministry is often the first place we encounter families navigating life with autism. In the nursery you may find babies who cannot be soothed. With toddlers, you may notice some are fixated on certain toys, unable to play cooperatively, have difficulty making transitions, or do not accept new snacks. While these subtle differences do not always point to an autism diagnosis, these children may need unique supports to grow and thrive in church.
In children’s ministry, we have a unique opportunity to come alongside and support families as they discover their children’s unique abilities and interests. There is also great opportunity to set up these children for success in Sunday School classes and eventually in worship with their families.
Opportunities for Growth in Christ
Understanding communication. Growing in your knowledge of who God is begins with the ability to understand words that are spoken to oneself (receptive language) and the ability to use words or pictures to interact with others (expressive language). Assess whether children understand what you are saying and also how they are communicating with you (words, actions, pictures). Ask parents for help in this crucial area.
Keep hands busy. It is often challenging for children on the autism spectrum to sit quietly and listen due to delayed receptive language skills and/or sensory skills. Giving children something to do with their hands can help keep their bodies still and their ears listening. Consider making a “listening basket” that includes items the child enjoys. A few ideas are Play-Doh, put-in/take-out items, bubbles, and things to sort.
Increase visuals. When teaching young children, the more concrete you make the lesson, the more every child in the class will learn. Visuals are especially helpful for children on the autism spectrum, but everyone benefits from visual reinforcement.
Less is often more. Instead of learning one memory verse per week, try one memory verse per month. Add hand motions. Define one teaching-learning goal for your Bible lesson and use creative ways to reinforce that one goal. Review often.
Consider a buddy. Some children with autism may not be able to navigate scenarios where a teacher’s attention is diverted, such as when they are helping another child, or being in a large group of children. The support of a buddy can be a child’s lifeline in those situations. Buddies are simply a 1:1 helper who remains in the class or program with the child who needs extra support. Responsibilities vary based on the needs of the child but could include helping the child stay on task, helping navigate peer play, encouraging fine motor skills during challenging activities, or making sure a child who is prone to elope (run away) stays safe. Learn more Buddy Ministry Tips.
Opportunities in Relationships with Others
Nursery age. Relational skills grow tremendously throughout childhood. Use the nursery years to help children on the autism spectrum feel safe and loved by their caregivers at church. Establish church as a wonderful place to be, with few demands. When possible, create a calm, quiet environment. Allow children to bring something they love to the nursery and share in their interests.
Preschool age. As children enter the preschool years, they begin to become aware of other kids around them and play side by side. Young children on the autism spectrum may not be aware of other kids or adults. They may prefer independent play. Rather than redirecting them to activities with other children, try to enter into their world and join their play. Take an interest in what interests them. Utilize the things they love and their restricted interests to teach skills and motivate learning.
Elementary school age. As kids enter the elementary years, you can begin to lean on your typically-developing children to build relationships with children on the autism spectrum through play. Encourage children to join in the play of students who have autism, even if their interests are limited. Positively reinforce emerging social skills with praise and access to things they love.
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