Understanding and Reaching Children with Autism for Christ
It’s a fact. Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) scare Sunday School teachers and leaders or frustrate them beyond the reaches of compassion. How does someone teach or even control children who inexplicably scream, rock, run away with their hands over their ears, repeat words or phrases over and over again, hide in a corner, refuse to make eye contact, fail to concentrate or even follow “simple” directions, violently flail their hands and arms, or act out in other ways that are often associated with a misbehaving or extremely poorly parented child?
The problem? People frequently fear what they do not know or understand or they simply jump to uninformed conclusions. Although there are children who throw tantrums or “act out” because they don’t get their own way, that’s often not the issue for a child with ASD — if they want their own way, it’s likely for a reason they can’t fully communicate.
What is ASD? According to the Autism Society, it is a complex developmental disability that has a wide and varying range of severity and symptoms that affect a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. It has no single known cause or cure, though early detection and intervention lead to significantly improved outcomes.
In talking with those who have children with mid-range ASD and those who work with them, what makes ASD possibly more challenging than most disabilities is its variability.
“It is said,” states Sarah Simmons, whose son Zechariah (10) has mid-range ASD, “that if you meet one child with ASD, you’ve met one child with ASD.” In other words, no two cases of ASD are exactly alike.
Sarah and her husband of 22 years, Lane, make their home in Springfield, Missouri, along with their daughter, Grace, who is a typical 8-year-old. They have used the only method available to help Zechariah in his journey through life — a trial-and-error approach. It has not been easy. The range of impact, the triggers that set Zechariah off, the communicating and calming methods to use, the preparation to help him face new challenges . . . one might compare it to taking one thousand symptoms and methods, mixing them up, and blindly drawing out 100, then trying to figure out what sequence to put those 100 things in to. The problem is, as Zechariah matures and new experiences are encountered, triggers can be added and methods that once worked, can cease to have the same results, without warning.
“It’s kind of like parenting in the dark — we have no idea what issues we’ll be dealing with or when we’ll be dealing with them,” Sarah Simmons says. “Patience, a lot of patience, is required. You have to break things down to very basic steps to find the problem . . . when you can’t communicate basic ideas to someone, you’re limited in what you can do.”
Joe and Jennifer Butler, AG US missionaries with Intercultural Ministries and co-founders of Ability Tree, a program that ministers to children with ASD and their parents, agree. Sentences need to be “black and white” and direct, such as “Please sit down in this chair” rather than “Please sit down (vague) like the other children are (redirects attention to children).”
But many children with ASD also have extremely strong responses to seemingly simple things, such as louder music, flashing lights, or something as common as a group of people talking or even a sneeze. The problem? Experts believe its caused by the brain having a lack of filters to organize, ignore, or prioritize messages to the brain.
“Many of the things people who have autism do are designed to protect themselves from stimuli,” Simmons says. “They set up all kinds of mental boundaries.”
Most people can hear multiple sounds at once, but, for example, can focus in on the conversation they are having. A person with ASD might hear the conversation, a siren outside, the sounds of other conversations, and the sound of a door closing and their brain gives each sound the same level of importance, so instead of hearing the conversation, it’s a cacophony of sounds mixing in their brains demanding priority attention. It’s the reason many children with ASD cover their ears when entering stores — or children’s church.
Children with ASD experience incredible levels of frustration because of the overwhelming information their brains receive and the inability to fully communicate what they’re experiencing. Therefore, they create mental and sometimes physical boundaries.
Children diagnosed with ASD can have symptoms that range from mild (such as good communication, but struggles with concepts) to severe (rarely even makes a sound). It should be noted that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is not a part of ASD, but children with ASD can also have ADHD.
Patience can’t just be a virtue for parents and teachers of children with ASD, it has to be a lifestyle.
Autism spectrum disorder is a growing challenge in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the estimated prevalence of ASD in United States children increased by more than 120 percent from 2002 (1 in 150) to 2010 (1 in 68), with almost 1 in 54 boys being born with ASD.
Currently, more than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder, with the prevalence having increased 6 to 15 percent each year from 2002 to 2010. With this growing trend, the likelihood of ASD indirectly or directly touching a current — or future — church family becomes increasingly probable.
Some may simply point a finger at a church or an intimidated/frustrated Sunday School teacher and criticize the organization or individual for the lack of understanding or “preparedness” to minister to children with autism, but that appears to be a “knee jerk” reaction. ASD is similar to most any other disease or disability — unless it has impacted the life of a family member or close personal friend, most people know very little about it.
The Butlers are testaments to that. “Before having a child with multiple disabilities, I had no clue,” Joe admits, whose middle child, Micah, has ASD. “I knew people with disabilities, but I fell into that category that I wasn’t an expert, so I didn’t say or do anything. But when I became a parent of a child with disabilities, that all changed.”
However, reaching children for Christ who have mild ASD isn’t out of the question for most churches as it isn’t that much different than reaching a child without ASD. Communication with parents, remembering routine and repetition are very important, simplifying concepts, and being aware of times of potential sensory overload (when it might be best to allow a child with ASD to go into the hallway with a sponsor or peer buddies) are keys to success.
“Be very straightforward and have expectations for them, treating them like other children, with time outs being in order if necessary,” Butler says. “But if a child starts crying or is acting out, try to learn what was going on just before the behavior issue began — see what it was that set that child off and what could possibly be done to avoid that in the future.”
When working with children with mid-range ASD, the challenge is greater as these children have a limited vocabulary and often have a wider variety of “triggers.” This doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t know what they want to say or what’s bothering them, it’s just that their minds can’t figure out how to put it all together in order to communicate it in a way others can fully understand. To reach these children takes commitment and a God-given patience and love for children with disabilities.
When the Butler’s son, Micah, who’s now 16, comes home from school, Joe says that even for him and Jennifer, it can still be a bit like translating Morse code as Micah’s staccato descriptions and thoughts jump back and forth in singular fashion. Yet patience and persistence pay off.
One of the ways Zechariah responds to stress, Simmons says, is through scripting — repeating a word or phrase over and over dozens if not hundreds of times. She explains that they try to turn that response into something positive by scripting Scripture verses with him. “The Bible says God’s Word will not return void, so we’re believing that the Scripture verses he’s learning, which he may not fully understand, will be used by the Holy Spirit to direct his life toward God.”
“You could compare reaching a child with mid-range or more severe ASD for Christ to that of being a missionary being placed in a foreign culture, with little to no language training, and the people he or she is trying to reach having no concept of Christ,” Butler says. “But the one thing we must remember is the spiritual. God is sovereign. The Holy Spirit is at work in ways we may never see or understand.”
For children with severe ASD, where even making sounds is rare and communication seems hopeless, maybe even useless, the “reward” of seeing a response may be never take place this side of heaven or may be limited to a glimmer in the eye or an unexpected sound. Yet Butler says he fully believes that there will be children who had extreme ASD on Earth who will be thanking people one day in heaven for sharing Christ with them despite their disability.
Whatever the range of ASD a child may be coping with, the ingredients needed to communicate to him or her include: being concrete in examples, routines and repetition, avoiding verbal overload by being specific and direct, keeping the environment as calm as possible, and loving patience. It is important to note that a child with ASD may have multiple disabilities that also need to be considered in order to get to know and understand him or her.
However, what all Christians need to understand is that children with autism don’t have a free pass to heaven.
“God is sovereign and loving, and knows what they believe and understand,” Butler says. “Our job is to preach the gospel to all nations, to all people . . . and for kids with ASD, we have to do that through our words and actions and also realize it’s a spiritual process; it’s not just by our might.”
Butler also offers a word of advice for parents who are seeking a church where their child with ASD will be welcomed.
“We can become so used to our child being treated special at school and having things done for him or her, that when we don’t receive the same special treatment at a church, we tend to bristle and get defensive,” he observes. “We need to remember that these are people who are just like you and me. Before we had a child with a disability, we didn’t know what to do or say or how to help either . . . instead, go into a church with a loving and respectful attitude, speak with the pastor — you might just realize that God wants to use you to change an environment and make a church more inclusive.”
The challenges for parents and church workers in reaching children with ASD are literally as multiple as the unique — and often evolving — challenges that each child with ASD has. But the process of introducing Christ begins with first understanding ASD, then actively working with and demonstrating care for children with ASD (and their parents), and finally prayerfully trusting in the Holy Spirit to use the expressed and demonstrated love to communicate the Word of God into hearts and minds of children with ASD in a way only He can do.
For more information about how to assist children with ASD to develop as individuals and in coming to know Christ as their personal Savior, see the Ability Tree website or Facebook page. To follow Sarah and Lane Simmons’ experiences with Zechariah, follow the Facebook page, An Austism Post.