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When a Child Shows Signs of Autism – Part 3

January 13, 2012

Today is the last in a series of three posts addressing whether or not a children’s ministry team should address a suspected autism diagnosis with parents of a participating child.  In Part 1 I shared two variances of a similar question churches often ask related to this question and the background on why churches seek guidance.  In Part 2, I talked through the issue of whether or not it is the church’s responsibility to alert parents to a potential learning disability, such as autism.

In this post we’ll dive into the issue of addressing the concerns in light of a child’s challenging behaviors.

Do the concerning behaviors pose a safety risk?   If the child in question has demonstrated unsafe behavior(s) then a more serious conversation with parents is both wise and warranted.  If the safety of any participant is threatened, then action is required on the part of the church.  It is both the legal and the moral responsibility of the children’s ministry team to provide a safe environment for every participant, including caregivers and volunteers. If a child is repeatedly communicating in an unsafe manner (e.g. hitting, biting, kicking, throwing objects towards others, running off), the church is obligated to address the concerns.

It is important for the church representative(s) to initiate the parent-meeting with the following in mind:

(1) Prayer is the single most important ingredient to ensure that the love of Christ exudes from the children’s ministry team in their conversations with the family.

(2) If a behavior is inappropriate or unacceptable for a child without special needs, then it is unacceptable for a child with special needs.   This guideline does require judgment.  For the child who lacks verbal communication skills and body control, she may spit in excitement.  While her actions are technically inappropriate and arguably unhygienic, if no one’s physical safety is threatened there is little harm in overlooking the behavior.  On the other hand, if the child is acting in a way that justifiably creates fear or the real potential for harm to anyone, then the conduct cannot be tolerated and must be addressed.  Very often behaviors can be avoided and managed after understanding what a child is trying to communicate.  For more ideas related to this topic, see the following two previous blog posts:

Addressing “Bad” Behavior

Addressing Aggressive or Unsafe Behavior

Providing written behavior management policies in the children’s ministry handbook may help to avoid hurt feelings while also setting up-front expectations for all participants and their parents. To prevent the perception or practice of discrimination, it is imperative that identical written behavior management guidelines are adhered to in both the typical children’s ministry and the special needs ministry environments. Enforcement of the behavior management guidelines should be uniform and irrelevant of a child’s ability or disability.

(3) Keep the parent conversation centered on the behaviors and not the potential diagnosis.  By avoiding discussion of any potential special needs or disability, the church is protecting itself from accusations of disability discrimination.  The conversation will be more productive if the focus remains on the solution.  Without a disclosed diagnosis, hypothesizing around any potential disability is likely to create unnecessary tension and offend the family.  The dialogue should remain centered around preventing, managing, and extinguishing the problematic behavior.

(4) Go into the parent meeting with possible solutions already in mind.  Parents are much less likely to be offended if they don’t feel the church is searching for an excuse to “expel” their child.  If the parents hear the team talking about a future that involves an ongoing relationship between the church and the child, the parents are more likely to respond favorably and with a spirit of partnership.    Some parents may resist the church’s initial recommendation.  But oftentimes a family will warm to the idea of a one-on-one buddy, chill-out time, or an alternative activity when they recognize the lengths the church is going to in order to help their child have a successful and positive church experience.

(5) Seek the guidance of the church’s insurance company and become familiar with behavior management practices in the local public schools.   It is unwise if not illegal to respond physically to unsafe behaviors.  Understanding how your local schools prevent and respond to undesirable behavior may help a church develop an appropriate policy.  In addition, it is imperative that a church consult their insurance carrier and legal adviser when crafting an accommodation plan for high risk situations.

For an excellent resource,  see Autism and Your Church:  Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism, by Barbara J. Newman (Friendship, 2011)

~ Amy Fenton Lee

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5 Comments
  1. SNAPPIN' MINISTRIES permalink

    Amy, thanks for this terrific series!!! This is SO needed by leaders in Children’s Ministry!

  2. Thank you, Amy, for this series. I know it’s a sensitive topic, but you’ve handled it wisely. I’ll be including links to all three posts on my blog in my weekly round-up of links tomorrow!

  3. Thanks for these insightful, practical posts, Amy.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. When a Child Shows Signs of Autism – Part 1 « The Inclusive Church
  2. When a Child Shows Signs of Autism – Part 2 « The Inclusive Church

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