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Teaching Children with Autism – The Intangibles

September 30, 2010

This post is Part I of a two-part series written by Christine Hoover, a friend of this blog.  Today’s post addresses the valuable intangibles the children’s ministry team can instill and offer when seeking to successfully include a child with autism.  Part 2 will give specific examples of the tangible ways a church can adjust its classroom and lesson plans to enable successful inclusion.

Teaching Children with Autism – The Intangibles

As parents of a son with autism, my husband and I are actively involved in the social, educational and spiritual development of our son.  And we delight in the skill and love of a children’s ministry team member who reinforces our work.  God has placed incredible school teachers and church volunteers in Will’s path. They have not only impacted our son, but they’ve also ministered the Gospel to our entire family.  Reflecting on the teachers and volunteers who have successfully taught my son, the following steps will help capture the heart, attention, and mind of a participating student with autism:

  • Gain a biblical perspective about disability. Good children’s ministry teachers know that children with autism are made in God’s image.  Children with differences are not to be feared, ignored, or excluded. This understanding pervades everything a ministry volunteer can do inside the classroom.
  • Learn about autism and about the individual child. The volunteers inside our church’s preschool ministry had no prior experience working with children with autism.  But they accepted Will and they educated themselves.  Read books about the disability, about teaching children with autism, and about the family’s experience and needs. Most importantly, study the individual child. How does he learn? What helps her engage in the story or the craft? What frightens him? How does she need help socializing appropriately in the classroom? Asking open questions of parents with a tone of love and acceptance will nearly always reveal invaluable information.  Ultimately, the families of participating children with special needs are the best resource.
  • Have high expectations, but accommodate for needs. My experience has been that when people don’t know my son personally the autism label hinders their expectations of him. If a teacher lacks a full understanding for my son’s capabilities, he or she may permit substandard class participation or behavior.  Children with autism can and want to engage, but often need help knowing how.  A little grace (and creativity!) can go a long way when a child needs minor adjustments in order to successfully participate.  For example, when Will was four, he self-stimulated by holding toy trains in his hands. Though other children were not permitted to hold toys during the Bible lesson, Will’s teacher allowed him to hold a train so that he could sit quietly for story time.
  • Help other children value the child with autism. Nothing makes me happier as a parent than to see a children’s ministry worker instilling a team mind-set among all classroom participants.  With the right leadership, other teachers and students will follow by accepting and protecting the child with special needs.  Do not underestimate the positive effect of allowing the child to assist (even if it takes extra time), praising their skills in front of other children, and encouraging interaction between typical children and those with special needs.
  • Communicate with the parents. Children with autism may struggle with communication skills.  As a result, parents may not learn of their child’s experiences inside the church environment without being told by the children’s ministry team.  Sending a parent email or offering a handout that outlines the day’s Bible lesson and activities is a valuable takeaway.  In addition, it may be particularly helpful for the dismissing childcare worker to offer one or two positive anecdotes about the child’s experience during that day’s programming. 

Stay Tuned for the next post, Teaching Children with Autism:  The Tangibles

Like this post or any of its content?  See Rules for Repost.

Christine Hoover is a church pastor’s wife and mother of a son diagnosed with high-functioning autism.  For more on Christine Hoover and her writing, see one of the blogs, FindingHopeinAutism or HooverHousehold.


Other posts and articles by Christine Hoover:

Supporting a Family Receiving the Autism Diagnosis

Questions to Engage the Parents of a Child with Special Needs

A Parent’s Prescription for Disclosure

To Tell or Not to Tell:  An Open Letter to Parents


**NOTE** I paid a graphic designer for the puzzle piece cross at the top of this post.  If you would like to use this graphic, please contact me.

  1. Kit Wang permalink

    Thanks! As a parent of a child on the spectrum, and as a priest in a congregation w/kids on the spectrum, it’s useful to see autism addressed regarding Christian Formation.

  2. Thank you for shining light onto this very important subject!

    I know a parish that is struggling with fully including *adults* who have autism, Asperger Syndrome, or other developmental disorders in the life of the parish… whether those adults have the diagnosis or not.

    The dynamics within a governing body (church council, board of elders, vestry, etc.) change significantly when such a member joins. How do you deal with conflict in healthy ways, when one or members have a low threshold for tolerating conflict? Other groups within a church — altar guild, choir, praise team, committees — can be affected as well. Often, such an adult ends up (benignly?) sidelined, but can end up booted out of a group, humiliated and alone.

    This isn’t kingdom-of-God behavior, but we all know that kingdom behavior is really difficult. How do we make sure that our brothers and sisters on the spectrum — of any age — are fully included in church?

  3. Undercover Nun (I love the ID!) –

    Kudos to you for caring for ALL the members of a parish and wanting to help facilitate unity among your full body of believers! This blog centers around issues pertaining to children (although there is some natural overlap with adults), and so I will confess I am not the best “go-to” person for these questions.

    These 3 links might provide information and access to experienced ministers and consultants who specialize in disability ministries focused on adults:

    In the meantime, and without knowing any specifics – one general idea is to establish a set of guidelines for expected conduct and handling conflict. This may seem insignificant, but much like business corporations which have formal codes of conduct (and possibly even publicized HR procedures for handling conflict), these can too be useful for churches. Oftentimes individuals with learning differences need things to be more literal and spelled out. So whereas some members of this parish may be operating under the assumption that everyone is supposed to be “treated with dignity and respect”, some individuals may need to see more literal and concrete guidelines. Rules issued through a “Core Values and Expectations for Conduct” would spell out exactly what it does and does not look like to treat others with dignity and respect (voice tone, interrupting/listening, hitting/biting/spitting, hands & feet to self, obscenities, insults, etc).

    I have seen policies and procedures for adult disabilities ministries that have a code of conduct in their church issued handbook. There are typically 10 or fewer sentences and all are basic and easy to understand. These guidelines are referred to often when participating individuals require the reminder or the consequences.

    While not required by law, it is wise for churches to create policies that mirror those of public programs (which handle many issues under the guidance of the Americans with Disabilities Act laws). Keep in mind that any behavior driven policies & procedures should be issued to the full church and in a manner that no one is discriminated against. While churches have not historically been held to the same legal standard as the secular world, let’s not push it! It is best for churches to contact local schools and other federally funded programs with experience serving individuals with special needs and use their policies as a model.

  4. Adults with ASD and ID (intellectual disabilities)
    Friendship programs are great places to begin the inclusion in parishes because our Bible studies have relationship building structured into them. Through a one to one mentor/friend bond created in a group setting very often a person with ASD finds acceptance in a non-threatening situation. Since social interaction is often one of the areas of difficulty it is easier to deal with in this accepting atmosphere. Then with the mentors assistance helping the individual transition from there to other aspects of the congregational life works better.
    For more information see our website and or contact us directly at Friendship Ministries. We work with over 65 denominations both Catholic and Protestant.
    There is free webinar called Autism and Children’s Ministry- most of the ideas there are useable for adults with ASD. We titled it for children since most people today are focused on children but one should remember these same children will grow up and spend more years as an adult with a disability and congregations need to be ready to nurture their spirituality.
    The key is to know the individual as Christine states so well.

  5. The above comment is from Nella at Friendship Ministries. Friendship ( is a great resource for churches looking to do comprehensive disability inclusion. I frequently call on for help, especially on issues pertaining to adults. (Thanks Nella!)

  6. Y’all are awesome! Thank you so much!

    One of my current “things” is that we do so much work to make church a place that is safe FROM all kinds of bad things. But we don’t always work as hard to make church a place that is safe FOR all of God’s children.

    Thank you again!
    Love and blessings,
    Undercover Nun

  7. Shannon permalink

    This is a very interesting article! My son is on the spectrum and our church struggles to deal with him. It is a very tough situation. He is non-verbal and almost five years old. The people within our church arekind and loving people, but they are at a loss of what to do for him. I am a Special Ed teacher and have a lot of information that I try to share but I feel that they are scared of him! We all need to hold one another up in prayer and think of our precious children and how they need to be accepted by all of society!

  8. As a mother of a child with autism, I just wanted to say thanks. Thanks to people like you led by God our children can be ministered in a way they can understand or at least grasp better. Thanks! God bless you now and always!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. NAS welcomes new adult autism strategy for England | Autism society Blog
  2. Teaching Children with Autism – The Tangibles « The Inclusive Church
  3. The Children’s Ministry Blog Patrol (September 2010) | Dad in the Middle
  4. Good Finds! Free Autism Webinar by Friendship Ministries « The Inclusive Church
  5. Questions to Engage the Parent of a Child with Special Needs | The Inclusive Church

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