Children’s Ministry and Autism

It was no surprise last week when CDC (Center for Disease Control) announced the latest findings regarding the alarming increase in Autism incidents. The research sited a swift rise in cases of Autism, a 78% increase from 2002 to 2008. In 2002, 1 in 150 children were diagnosed with Autism compared to 1 in 88 in 2008. Autism affects one million children in the USA and is associated with a spectrum of disabilities, including repetitive behaviors, social deficits, communication challenges and inflexibility. Many children with Autism have high IQs, while others have cognitive challenges.

While the medical community continues to debate the suspected causes of Autism, ranging from a genetic link to environmental factors, one thing is undeniable:  we as the church need to make ways for the families impacted by Autism and other disabilities to belong to community and to be loved by the church, as God loves. Many of those changes, considerations and modifications need to begin in children’ s ministry.

Houses of faith should intentionally seek out and bring in the families of children with Autism, who more needs God’s love, grace and mercy than a family in need or crisis. As a special-needs mom, I can attest to the fact that I and other parents spend a lot of time in crisis mode. Being intentional about bringing in these families begins with a changed heart, a commitment to love like Jesus, and then equipping leaders and volunteers with the necessary tools and knowledge to get their jobs done. Children’s ministry training needs to include disability etiquette, disability awareness, and curriculum differentiation/modifications, as well as behavior management and sensory needs of the child with Autism. These and other topics should no longer be left to the expert or special educator but to every childcare worker and church leader. With 1 in 88 children now diagnosed with Autism, this population will have a huge impact on children coming into church and ministry. A children’s ministry of 500 children would potentially have 6 or more children with Autism in addition to other children with other special needs. What do we do to train children’s ministry staff, leaders and volunteers to better include, engage, reach and teach God’s word to all His children of all abilities? What are some basic teaching tips?

Click here to see a list of downloadable materials from our Access Ministry website.

Following are a few tips to consider:

  • Give children warnings before transitions; provide countdowns or timers to the next activity.
  • Set expectations high; believe every child can learn and achieve.
  • Vary goals based on children’s ability levels.
  • Treat children with empathy, not sympathy.
  • Capitalize on children’s strengths or areas of focus; get to know what excites each student.
  • Know what each child does independently and what they need assistance with.
  • Allow extra processing time when instruction, directions or multiple steps are given.
  • Use visual aids and schedules to help cue children; vary modalities while teaching.
  • Be patient with behaviors; begin to look at the function of a behavior—what need does it meet?
  • Praise students for appropriate behaviors.
  • Use nonverbal communication strategies:  learn basic sign language, and use picture symbols.
  • Most importantly of all, welcome these children into programming. Let them experience God’s love through you as you become the hands and feet of Christ. Have the same inclusive mindset our God does:  all are welcome; He excludes none.

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