4 Ways to Welcome People on the Autism Spectrum at Church
Here is how churches can welcome those on the autism spectrum (ASD).
1. Provide training about autism for church leadership and volunteers.
Include information about autism: what it is and what challenges people on the autism spectrum face when socializing in large (and small) gatherings. Let the staff, small group leaders and Sunday school teachers know that a person with autism may not look different, but they may act differently than a typical person. This training could be during a Sunday school hour or a half hour session as a component of a larger training. The key thing to convey is that no matter how different someone on the autism spectrum may seem to be or how unexpected some of their behaviors may be, love and respect for the individual with autism and an acceptance of that person is what matters most. With an increasing number of children and adults who are diagnosed on the spectrum, chances are they will be visiting your churches. It makes complete sense for the church to be prepared to welcome them.
2. Be the one who initiates.
Individuals within the church need to initiate and develop relationships with the person on the autism spectrum. They also need to understand that fully including someone with autism may require accommodations. Don’t assume individuals with autism will blaze their own trails into the church as a whole, a Bible study or small group. You will need to be the one to make the effort (as you would with any new visitor to your church). Some people with autism may have a hard time remembering names and faces, especially in a large group setting — which might be overwhelming — such as a chaotic church vestibule. When you see the person at church, greet him or her, and don’t be offended if it takes a while for your name to be remembered. Don’t be offended if people on the spectrum seem stiff and unsure; they might be doing their best to cope with sensory overload and trying not to have a meltdown.
3. Follow up.
Once the initial contact has been established on Sunday morning, focus on authentic friendships with the person with ASD. Follow up by checking in and asking about some detail that may have been shared during a previous visit. Many people on the spectrum have special interests and may love to talk about those — make time to listen. Follow up the following week at the next meeting, on Sunday morning, by phone or text in a few weeks — it doesn’t matter; just be faithful to follow up.
4. Invest time in cultivating friendships.
Do something practical to show your interest and care. After a few meetings, invite the person to join you for a dinner in your home or a get-together outside of church. If a specific need has been mentioned that you could possibly help with, offer that help. If such an invitation seems to make your friend uncomfortable, keep focusing on building an authentic relationship until the trust is established to spend time hanging out outside of church.
When people feel included in a group, they tend to feel more comfortable — it is no different for people on the autism spectrum. All people should feel they belong in their church family. The church will only benefit from the gifts of those on the autism spectrum. They have gifts and talents to share, wisdom and insights to offer.
Honestly, it only takes one person to begin the transformation of your church into a place of welcome for those who are different. You can start this by providing awareness training and creating an ongoing plan for the church and its members to be hospitable and accepting.
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