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Ministering to Those on the Spectrum

March 22, 2016

As I tried to write down thoughts about ministering to those on the autism spectrum, I realized this post was getting to be too long. So here is part 1. Serving those on the spectrum involves ministering to the parents just as much as the children. Here are a couple of things to remember…


  1. Try to See (from the parents’ point of view)

All parents face challenges in bringing children to worship services and Bible classes, but there are some challenges specifically related to children on the spectrum. I talked on the phone with a father about a year ago who was thinking about bringing his family to visit, but he was concerned because he had a child on the spectrum who would sometimes grunt or make loud noises unexpectedly. He was worried they might be disruptive, and there wasn’t anything they could do to control those noises. We talked for a while, I shared our story, and we even had a few Graymere members on the lookout for this family so they could welcome them, but they never visited. I wish we could have had the chance to encourage them, but I can understand his hesitation.


Before we had children, I had a LOT of opinions about how my children would behave. I knew exactly what I would to ensure they displayed manners, sat calmly during a worship service, and spoke to others with respect. Can anyone else relate to having excellent parenting opinions before actual parenting experience? When we did have our first child, I learned what every parent learns – parenting isn’t as straightforward as you thought it was.


This is also an important lesson to learn for children on the spectrum. Let’s say a boy on the spectrum begins to have a “melt-down.” He is kicking, screaming, and crying. You can try to reason with him, and you can even try to discipline him, but at that moment, he isn’t thinking clearly. You are asking him to control emotions which are currently out of his control. A better strategy might be to take the child into another room, away from people and other stimuli, and hold the child to provide a sense of stability during the meltdown. For some, rubbing the arms and doing joint compressions helps relieve stress. Others respond well to weighted blankets that give them a sense of security. Once the meltdown is over, you can have a discussion about what happened. At least that is true in our case – for some children on the spectrum, a discussion about a meltdown is not possible.


Here’s the tough part about this. If you didn’t know the situation, it might look like the parents are allowing this meltdown to occur because of a lack of discipline. Before I had kids, if I saw a situation like that, I would have been tempted to think, “Well, those parents just need stricter discipline. I could solve that problem if it were my child.” What I would not have realized is that there was far more at play in this situation then I knew and that the parents understood the situation much better than I did. Believe me, I have learned that the hard way.


The flip side of that coin is that children are children, and all children need boundaries and discipline. So there are other times that same boy will do something just because he is a boy, and he needs to be punished to learn the consequences of his actions. Every parent has the responsibility of discipline. The challenge for a parent of a child on the spectrum is determining which is which. Do I need to allow space for him to calm down because this is a spectrum issue, or do I discipline him because he should know better? I don’t mind telling you this is one of the most challenging things we deal with, and we haven’t always gotten it right.


This brings me to one of the reasons I can brag on our church family. Everyone at Graymere has been understanding as we have tried to teach our children. They have been good sports when Luke or Micah was in a bad mood, and no one has minded when we have had to take a few minutes to deal with a meltdown. I think having such a large group of people who love them and want to talk to them every day has really helped them develop. I know it has helped them increase eye contact and respond more politely (not 100% of the time, but we are working on it). Ultimately, they have loved us, supported us, and simply let us be a family that is trying to figure things out, which means the world to us.


  1. Try to Listen (to parents and teachers).

When you have a child on the spectrum, you develop a “team” of sorts. It might be made up of a special needs teacher, a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, a behavioral therapist, or all of the above. You get used to meeting with different people and keeping up with what everyone has to say, and it is all valuable. You do a lot of listening, so it is always helpful to vent. I can’t count the number of times I have caught myself rambling on to a friend at Graymere about what was happening in our lives and what we were learning about autism. I always appreciated the patience of those who would let me rattle on and encourage me. I have a hunch that if parents of a child on the spectrum attend your congregation, they could use that same kind of listening ear.


If a child in your Bible class is on the spectrum, be sure to listen to the parents. They will know best what to watch out for and how to handle issues as they arise. Be honest with them about behaviors you notice in class. I can’t speak for everyone, but I would imagine most parents will want Bible class teachers to tell them about anything that needs addressing so that they could work on those things at home. Our boys have been blessed by excellent teachers. We always appreciate knowing if something happened in class.


Also, listen to them tell you what their child enjoys – activities he likes or games she likes to play. This will help you have something to talk to the child about, and it will help you see the person instead of the diagnosis. Depending on the circumstances, this can be challenging, especially if the child is not verbal. Yet making the effort goes a long way for the family. A child on the spectrum might avoid eye contact or take a long time to reply to a greeting (if at all). Don’t let that discourage you from greeting that child (the parents are likely working on the issue, and more learning opportunities are helpful in that process), just realize that is common behavior.


If you have teachers in your congregation, be sure to listen to them. They will be your best resource in this area. Even if they do not teach classes of special needs children, they have likely taught students on the spectrum and done coursework or continuing education in that area. Several members at Graymere have experience in the field of special needs, and they were (and are) incredibly helpful to us. Their advice has been invaluable.


I hope that has been helpful; feel free to leave other thoughts and insights in the comments section!


One Comment leave one →
  1. Allison Clanton permalink
    March 22, 2016 10:05 pm

    Beautifully put! Thoughtful, informative, transparent. Thank you for taking the time to reach out to others about this very important topic. You and your sweet family are an awesome encouragement to me!

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