According to Autism Speaks, the non-profit research and awareness organization, 2.7 percent of children and 2.2 percent of adults in the United States have autism. So, in a church of just 200, at least two children and two adults probably have autism. Your church probably has autistic brothers and sisters attending. Do you know their names?

Autistic people can feel intimidating to neurotypical (non-autistic, having typical neurological patterns and makeup) people. Autistic children and adults may or may not be able to read social cues, may dress differently, speak differently or not speak at all. They may not easily fit into the usual Sunday school classes, youth groups, and adult community groups. They may need quiet spaces, breaks from worship or group meetings, and predictability. How can the rest of the church love these brothers and sisters? And how can the autistic community in the church love the neurotypicals?

We must begin by acknowledging a few basics. All humans are made to image God, and all do so differently. Neurotypical people are not morally better or of more value to God by design. They may navigate relationships more easily and assume more traditional roles in society, but those on the autism spectrum bring unique skills and abilities to the table that neurotypical people may benefit from.

Having said that, perhaps we can reframe the question. Families touched by autism do need help. And the church should be a part of serving those needs. But the church must also recognize the dignity and gifts of those who have what is now officially called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), especially those who are adults. Perhaps our question could be framed in this way: How can the church dignify, serve, and celebrate the gifts of those among her who have ASD?

A Church that Cares for Those With ASD

First, let’s talk about the children. Remember that autism does exist on a spectrum. Some children may be nonverbal. Others may communicate clearly but have trouble reading social cues. Many may learn to talk later than most children and need help expressing themselves. Some need more structure in a setting like Sunday school to calm anxiety and create predictability, a common need for many with ASD. How will you know who needs what? Just ask! When parents contact, visit, or join the church, ask what special needs, if any, their children may have.

To make new families aware of the ways the church can  help their autistic children, consider orienting them during the announcements at a Sunday service or through the bulletin. In these ways, churches can clearly convey their willingness to meet the needs of these children. For example, some autistic children may simply need a parent to come with them the first few times during Sunday school or kids’ church. Other children may need caregivers or trained help to attend programming with them. If so, ask the parents if it would be possible to train 4-5 volunteers to be the child’s “buddy”. Then, the parents can attend Sunday school or perhaps the worship service if they occur concurrently.

Once you’ve discovered the needs of those currently attending, then you might ask to see who isn’t attending because needed supports have not been available. Communicate the possibility of help for these parents through church wide emails and announcements. Some of these families, whose unmet needs have been barriers to attendance, could be encouraged to see what help is available. Include a contact person’s name on your church website for questions and further planning. In their search for support, parents of autistic children are often looking to see if there is some sort of special needs ministry or help. Other helps for parents may include a quiet room or a sensory room with some calming seats and fidgets that are preferred by children. Depending on how many ASD families attend the church, a support group for parents might be a huge encouragement for them and draw others into the community.

A Church that is Hospitable

But what about the adults who have ASD? This is where the church can make some real improvements. We have begun to recognize the needs of children with ASD and are, for the most part, open to finding volunteers, spaces, and accommodations for them just as their schools might. But adults on the spectrum may also need accommodations. Just like ASD children can get overwhelmed by loud noises or a crowd of people or need a place to escape, so can adults.

What might these announcements or notes in the bulletin look like? When asking people to stand for a song or a reading, pastors often remember the injured or elderly among them by mentioning that everyone should, “stand if you are able.” In the same way, a pastor or worship leader could mention that there are quiet rooms for both children and adults who may need a break from the noise or the crowd. The leader might also announce  that anyone is free to stand in the back if sitting still is a difficulty, as is true for many on the spectrum. You can tailor the announcement to your space. Mention something that lets worshippers with ASD know they will not be judged if they need to move around or look different than the rest  of the worshippers.

All the above can make a church more hospitable to people with ASD. But these brothers and sisters do not only bring needs to the church; they also bring blessing. Some may employ their amazing attention to detail to create materials for or maintain systems in the church. One teenager with ASD in my local church made toys for the kids in the nursery. An adult man with ASD maintained the financial system and updates for his smaller church for many years. Another adult man who happened to be a writer wrote several beautiful liturgies for his local church that are still in use 20 years later. A woman with ASD in another church catalogued the church’s large library and created a check out system for its members.

Families who have members with autism do have needs that the church can address. If you want to help your church, start by asking questions of those already in the pews. Find out what barriers exist that keep them from being a regular part of worship and other group meetings. You can also ask parents how the church can help. While these are important needs that should be addressed, we must always remember that those with ASD are image bearers. They were given gifts by their Father for the good of the church. We can dignify and encourage them as we would any other member, receiving their contribution as a kind blessing from our God.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Christine Gordon

Christine B. Gordon, MATS, is wife to Michael and mother of three. She is the co-founder of At His Feet Studies and a visiting instructor at Covenant Theological Seminary. She loves to walk, make music with other people, and share bad puns with her family.