Providing a Safe and Loving Place for Children on the Autism Spectrum

Hi Friends, 

This is Mirim Kim, Tori Smit’s field education student from Knox College. I am privileged to share with you a personal story around a children’s novel that caused me to reflect on our need for cultivating a loving place for children with special needs in the church.

The novel Wonder, by Raquel Palacio, is a story about a home-schooled 5th grader named August Pullman, or ‘Auggie’, who has a medical condition often equated with Treacher Collins Syndrome which has left his face disfigured. Palacio was inspired to write this story after an incident which involved her own son noticing a crying girl with a severe facial difference. Fearing that her son would react badly, she attempted to remove him from the situation so as not to upset the girl and her family. Unfortunately, Palacio ended up making the situation worse. She realized that this experience could teach a valuable lesson to others and so she created this beautiful story about the adventures of Auggie. 

In the story, Auggie faces a larger world for the first time when he enters a private, residential, middle school with the hope that he will build a friendships with his peers. In the midst of a bullying atmosphere he receives the Henry Ward Beecher medal for being the student whose kindness has “carried up the most hearts.” 

Last week, my boys had a chance to watch the movie version of Wonder. After seeing the movie, one of my sons who is on the autism spectrum said that he resonated with the main character, Auggie. I wondered what relevancy he could find between himself and Auggie since he does not have any physical disfiguration on his face or body. He said, “my behaviour is like Auggie’s face.” My heart sank as I heard his words. For the first time, I realized that he had been aware of the reactions and responses he received from others due to his autism. He mentioned how he is also worried that he might disappoint God for his ‘misbehaviour’, by which he meant his not meeting the various expectations of participation, engagement, and interaction that others do at church. I was quite surprised to hear these words. I had presumed that he was unaware of people’s reactions to his occasionally noticeable autistic behaviours. 

Just as Palacio realized how her experience might be a valuable lesson for others, I also realized how my child’s own story might apply to other children’s experience of church and their view of God. According to Dr. Stephen Grcevich, author of Mental Health and the Church: A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions, “the children most likely to be excluded from the church are those with autism spectrum disorders and common mental health conditions-anxiety, depression, OCD, and ADHD.” I wonder what we can do as Christian educators to provide a life-giving and loving experience for children with special needs who might be self-conscious about their differences and thinking that church is not a place for them, or that God is not happy or satisfied with them. How can these exceptional children feel welcomed at church and know that the church is a safe and loving place for them?

In the Bible, Jesus welcomes children, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone, who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:14-15). Jesus welcomes them in love with NO STRINGS ATTACHED. 

I believe love is the greatest tool we have as believers of Christ. Practical tools such as noise reduction earmuffs, dimmed lighting and lower volume in the nursery room, wobbly chair, visual schedule, sensory-stimulating lessons and cozy pillow pile corners are all great ways through which we can provide a welcoming and safe environment, yet the crucial element in creating a safe and loving place for them is through their relationships with grown-ups in faith who love them as their own; church members need to provide words of affirmation, kind body gestures, loving eye-contact, and the initiation of wonderful conversations. The faith community needs to be a place where children can freely ask questions, smile and say hi to adult congregational members just as they would with their own parents and grandparents, knowing that they will not feel as if they are being judged and watched for misbehaviours.

It is my hope and desire as a mom and as a Christian educator to be an advocate for the power of love that we give our children by creating heartwarming memories, loving and accepting them for who they are and teaching them about God’s unconditional love. 

As your church considers ways of expressing their welcome and care for children on the autism spectrum the following are some resources you may wish to make use of:

Autism and Your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder, by Barbara J. Newman is from Friendship Ministries. This excellent resource equips churches to better understand ASD and to select strategies that allow each person grow in Christ and be more fully included in your church. You can order a copy of this book from Faith Alive.

Emotion regulation tool: The Zone of Regulation – by recognizing and validating a child’s feelings, their emotional sensitivity can be reduced dramatically.

Transitioning tool: Children’s ministry visual schedule -visual schedules are great supports for young children, children with autism and other disabilities, or for kids who thrive on structure. A schedule is just one small thing you can do to make your children’s ministry a more inclusive place!

In the same way these are wonderful church related Picture Icons to use with any child, especially the visual child. These can be used to create a schedule, give visual cues, and teach about the church.


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