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Orange Conference Workshop Notes: Including Students with Autism

April 30, 2014

Doc kicked off Orange Conference Special Needs Precon workshops by offering practical pointers on training volunteers and helping kids with autism experience success.

Hunsley 1

Hunsley 2

Doc’s shared about his background as a retired pediatrician and most importantly, the father of a child with autism. The pictures above are of Doc’s son Mark, who most shaped Doc for his role of a People Care Pastor and a Special Needs Ministry Leader.

SOAR logo

Above is the newly designed logo Doc showed for Grace Church’s Special Needs Ministry.

Doc provided a fantastic handout that answers the following questions:
Why is training important? 
Who needs training?
What should we talk about in training?

Doc’s handout provides a detailed blueprint for special needs ministry training events. To access the handout, click here: OC14_ Autism_Hunsley_Handout

Doc then walked the participants through 10 scenarios a volunteer might face and coaching for how to respond:

Agitated Student 
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 back the statement 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.”

Overstimulated Student
Take note of factors when student is agitated.
Give the student warnings ahead of time: “2 minutes left for this activity”
Give student the chance to acclimate/cool down ahead of time (remove from activity ahead of others.)

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, going to a room that provides a livestream of what is happening in large group.)

Objects in Mouth
If you offer snacks, this might be good time to pull them one out for student.
Student may need a way to “fidget” even if with hands, provide box of fidget toys
Clean your toys regularly!
If continual problem, ask parents how they address it at home. Parents may have preferred chew toy that can come to church.

Meltdown
If the are in danger of hurting themselves or others, it needs to be addressed.
Meltdowns can happen at any age.
Create distance between individual having meltdown and everyone else.
Take the classroom or small group out of the environment (suggest bathroom break.)
It is often easier to remove everyone else and not the person with the meltdown.
Try to figure out what the trigger or core problem that caused the meltdown.
When possible, remove the problem.
Recognize that you might be the trigger for the meltdown.
Call for help as soon as serious meltdown starts.
You don’t want to immediately call parents if you think this can be handled. (You will tell parents at pick-up.)
If student is in danger of others, be mindful of your own safety.
Talk soft, talk soft, calm.
Find way to talk about something they can look forward to…snack, favorite activity, when parents will arrive.
Look for obstacles to remove, ex. diminish the lighting in the room, lower noise, offer a weighted blanket.
(Homemade weighted blankets are great.)
Doc recently used a 15 lb weighted blanket to help calm a teen in their ministry who was showing early signs of meltdown.
When nothing else is working, do get the parents.

Runner
Be prepared for fast kids who could be locksmiths.
Recognize that some “runners” see it as a game.
Don’t chase a kid who runs because it is a game, you won’t win the race.
If it isn’t a game, then they are probably trying to escape something…look for the trigger.
Create a code word for your church security team for “runner”.
Church security should have a plan to cover every “escape route” and door.
Common for runners to hide…don’t be surprised to find a student in an impossibly small cabinet (away from all stimulation).
This is more likely to happen during transitions.
For identified runners, have someone walk immediately beside them and hold hand.
Look for opportunities to reward student for good behavior to motivate for continued good choice.

Parent Conversations
Try hard to look for positives to share with parents.
Most parents have been told they are “horrible” parent at some point.
The church needs to be place of refuge where parents know their child with special needs is loved on.
Find way to communicate acceptance and non-judgment in parent convo’s.
Ministry coordinator needs to be involved, to help determine if convo is needed and how it should be communicated.
Some “bad” days aren’t worth mentioning to parents.
If there is a Sunday that is out of the ordinary, the parents DO need to know.
Talk to parents in private, not in hallway.
Talk in “sandwich”: Offer positive for what the child did that day, then state the FACTS (no emotion) about the negative, then follow with different and additional positive

Peer Interaction (Verbal child is struggling to interact with non-verbal peer)
Recognize that students usually ask the adult helpers the question, not their peers (true for typical and neuro-typical).
As the leader, include the child who does not communicate verbally in the response.
Encourage the peer to ask “Yes” or “No” questions so that student can answer with head nod.

Unengaged Student
A student may be doing his/her very best just to be calm.
Don’t push a student to be involved, they may still be learning.
A student walking or playing in back of room may be annoying to teacher…but he may be learning.
Ask the student a question from time to time. You may be surprised in what he learns.
Recognized that an unengaged student may still be “getting” the Bible story.
Sometimes, it is okay to invite student to participate. Offer hand (hand over hand) to help do motions.
Recognize opportunities to “help” student have fun, dance, etc.
If student does not respond positively, leave them alone.
Let the student dow hat is comfortable.

Seizure
Most important thing is to look at the clock and time seizure.
The length of time for a seizure is the most important info for medical team.
(A five-minute seizure is an emergency.)
Help student to be safe, lay on ground.
Do not put anything in the child’s mouth.
Call for help. Call for parents after situation is secure.
Talk to parents ahead of time, always ask about seizure history.
Some kids have many seizures are not necessarily a “big deal”.
For other students, seizures are a huge deal.
Get coaching from parents on how to handle.
(Some parents will tell you they don’t need to be called out of service for minor seizures.)
After a seizure students will be lethargic.

Question:
Q: Do you ask parents about their child ahead of time?
A: Yes, every family of a child with identified special needs completes a “Plan of Care” before leaving their child in church care. In cases where child shows signs of special needs but they aren’t identified (family may not recognize or share issues), then Doc approaches parent with the idea to provide a buddy as a solution to help student experience success in church…and in this conversation Doc can interject questions that would be covered on the church’s Plan of Care (intake) forms.

Q: What age do you require buddies to be?
A: It is determined on an individual basis. We have one 8-year old peer buddy who is better than some of our teen volunteers. Teens are great, I just share it as an example to say that younger kids can be great.

Doc Quote: “The Church should be a refuge for families with special needs.”

You can connect with Doc on Twitter @DocHunsley or follow Grace Church’s special needs Ministry, SOAR, on Facebook.

One Comment
  1. This information is very helpful! We have a special needs ministry at our church, and sometimes we are uncertain of how to handle certain situations. Thanks for your good, knowledgeable advice.

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