Your church probably has at least one or maybe many members who do not communicate the same way as typical people because they have a condition called autism or ASD. Click here to read more about what autism means. This article is intended to inform all Christians, and especially church leaders and teachers, of how to help people with autism serve the Lord in the church more comfortably and fully.
“Autism, also called autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a complicated condition that includes problems with communication and behavior. It can involve a wide range of symptoms and skills. ASD can be a minor problem or a disability that needs full-time care in a special facility. ” https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/understanding-autism-basics
People with autism are not excluded from believing in God, having strong faith and desiring Christian fellowship, but they may have traits that affect the expression of their spiritual life. Some things that non-autistic Christians do to worship, serve, and follow the Lord do not come easily for others, such as speaking up or praying in a group, singing in public, attending and joining groups, expressing emotions in typical ways, fellowshipping, evangelizing, volunteering, and basically anything that involves communication with people they do not know well or doing a task that is not part of their routine.
This does not mean that people with autism cannot do these things, but it’s important to be aware that they may need more encouragement, instruction, time to prepare, structure, and understanding if they do not perform tasks in the typical ways. This does not mean they are doing it wrong, they are just doing it the way that makes sense to them. If there is only one accepted way to do something, it is important to make that clear and give explanations until the person understands, or offer them a different way to serve. Never assume that someone already knows how to do something. It could be their first time. Also they need to not be expected to be a social butterfly or pushed to do things that may be causing them extreme anxiety even if you don’t see it. Autism can be present in highly intelligent people so you may expect a certain church member to do certain things for the church, but not be aware of the struggles they have with certain aspects of those expectations. Sensitivity to individual needs goes a long way to building fellowship.
People with autism can have strong faith, deep love, and the desire to serve, but the established ways of serving in many churches do not always make room for them. Churches can help by putting out clear information when soliciting volunteers, offering classes, and scheduling events. People with autism often have a need for structure and knowing all the details in order to feel comfortable. Also consider that some are sensitive to loud noises, smells, and foods. Knowing exactly what food will be served, what type of music will be played, how long something will last, what to wear, what is expected of them, and what other people will be doing will go a long way in helping them feel comfortable joining various activities.
The definition of autism includes a broad range of communication and personality differences and struggles. You may not even know that someone has those differences if they are practiced at hiding them. It is possible to structure activities so that people with autism will feel comfortable participating even if you don’t know they are struggling. Most importantly, never assume that someone in your church is not a Christian or is not interested in participating in serving, joining a group, or meeting other people based on the fact that they do not do those things. These people may want to participate but need more time to build courage, more reassurance during the activity, or may simply be unable to participate due to other reasons. The only way to know is to talk to them, offer information as stated above, let them know you like them even if they only show up occasionally and do not shun them. Smile and say Hi. Even in the church can social norms cause the less sociable, less talkative, introverted, more sensitive person to feel inferior and unwanted by the people who seem to have it all together and know everyone. God’s house and God’s family should be a place where all people are welcome.
Having autism can make some people seem aloof, rude, or uninterested. It’s important to consider that appearances can be deceiving and that not everyone is going to express emotion the same way. Be careful not to judge interest based on how much someone smiles or makes eye contact because this can vary. People with autism often have trouble interpreting social cues from others, such as facial expressions and body language, and will do better if you explicitly state what you mean and how you feel when you are chatting. Often people want to serve and will volunteer as long as they feel fairly safe and are comfortable with at least one person in the group. If you have a desire to help others join in, seek out the quiet ones. Do not push them away if they stick by your side a little more than usual. Having faith is not always enough to overcome severe anxiety. Give them time to adapt to the situation and new experiences. Also, allow people, especially children and teens to ‘just watch’ if that is what they want to do. Do not force anyone to participate in activities just because you are sure that ‘they will like it’. Not everyone has fun the same way. Lastly, consider using name tags and do not force the entire group to introduce themselves on the first day of any meeting.
Training church staff and teachers to be aware of communication differences, the possibility of hidden needs, and the importance of providing options and the flexibility described here can go a long way to increasing participation in your church’s activities and recruiting volunteers who might otherwise be reluctant to join in and in so doing will strengthen the body of Christ, the church. May God bless you as you seek and serve Him in love in this way.