As you know, it’s Autism Awareness Month! This month-long concentration gives all of us repeated exposure to tremendous information about autism spectrum disorders. And, just like doing sit ups or bicep curls, this repetition flexes our ministry muscles so that we’re better able to meet the needs of all students.
Repetition is also great for kids with autism! Often, when a student on the spectrum visits a new place or experiences a change in routine, he or she experiences anxiety. This can set the child (and his teachers and classmates) up for failure…and his parents for isolation and disappointment. Offering an opportunity to practice new routines and experience unfamiliar settings can greatly increase the likelihood for success.
Consider this: Philadelphia International Airport has recently created an “airline experience” for families affected by autism. Families come to the airport, check in, go through security and board their plane.
Dr. Wendy Ross, who designed the program, described the economic impact of difficult travel: “These families (affected by autism) are not going out, so for businesses, that’s a huge loss.” Dr. Ross also mentions that the goal of the program is to educate both airline officials and families, giving them strategies “to build a bridge between them.”
When families affected by autism don’t buy airline tickets, purchase goods and services, or book hotel rooms, it certainly does affect the economy. When they don’t come to church, it affects the Body. We miss out…we’re incomplete! In order to “build a bridge” we can provide an opportunity for children with autism to practice coming to church, thus allowing them to become familiar with the building and routines. This “church simulation” should take place on a day or evening when the building is relatively quiet. The experience might include the following:
- Checking in at the information/name tag table
- Entering the classroom
- Reading the schedule for the class
- Listening to music
- Looking at pictures of other children in the class (if photo releases are signed by parents in the program)
- Working on a small craft or coloring sheet
- Taking a bathroom break (if the child needs assistance, two adults or a parent should be present)
- Praying together
- Enjoying a snack
- Reading a Bible Story
- Saying goodbye and leaving the building
All of this can be accomplished in 20 to 30 minutes. Although this investment of time is a sacrifice for the pastor or volunteer, it will likely pay huge dividends for everyone, as the child will be better prepared to attend a regular service. In addition, the child may begin to recognize church as a supportive, safe place. The parents will hopefully enjoy the luxury of an easier “drop-off” time, along with the ability to “blend in” and perhaps even sip a cup of coffee before the service.
This article originally appeared here.