[Editor’s note: These guidelines for ministry to autistic kids are intended for use as a supplement and are not a substitute for professional advice from a practitioner or ASD specialist who can assess your church’s unique situation.]
At the Orange Conference Special Needs workshop, Stephen “Doc” Hunsley, M.D. offered excellent practical pointers on training volunteers for ministry to autistic kids, helping kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience success. He defined ASD as characterized by:
• Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts;
• Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities;
• Symptoms must be present in early developmental period (typically first two years of life);
• Symptoms cause significant impairment in social, occupational or other areas of current functioning.
The term “spectrum” refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills and levels of impairment or disability that children with ASD can have. Some children are mildly impaired by their symptoms, while others are severely disabled. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) no longer includes Asperger’s syndrome; the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome are included within the broader category of ASD. Almost half (46%) of children identified with ASD have average to above average intellectual ability. (Sources: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/ and http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html)
Dr. Hunsley also provided coaching on the following 10 scenarios a volunteer might experience while engaging in ministry to autistic kids.
10 Possible Scenarios in Ministry to Autistic Kids – and What to Do
1. Agitated Student
- In ministry to autistic kids, get on child’s level.
- Stay calm, talk them through what is going on.
- Use simple language.
- Let them know what is expected using “first, then” language: “First we are going to listen to the story, then we are going to have a snack.”
- Have student repeat the statement back if they are verbal.
- Give the student a choice as part of the solution “You can choose the red chair or the black chair for story time.”
2. Overstimulated Student
- Take note of factors when student is agitated.
- Give the student warnings ahead of time: “Two minutes left for this activity.”
- Give student the chance to acclimate/cool down ahead of time (remove from activity ahead of others).
3. Large Group Challenge
- Student appears upset, hands over ears, squinting eyes = sensory overload
- Look for the trigger(s): overcrowded room, lights, noise, smell
- Try moving student to another part of room, e.g., nearby volunteer might have on irritating perfume.
- Provide a sensory toy such as a squish toy or fidget. This gives them something to focus their energy on.
- Massage on shoulder. Deep pressure for some students is relaxing. (Ask parents for guidance.)
- Keep noise reduction earphones on hand and provide as needed.
- Allow student to participate in a more controlled environment while still feeling part of what is going on. (For example, student may be in a nearby room where they can still see and hear, but they have some distance from the intensity. Also consider going to a room that provides a livestream of what is happening in the large group.)