Though many people consider church or synagogue a refuge, for many families with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it may feel like anything but. These families may worry that their children will become disruptive during services, and often stop attending, even if religion is an important part of their family life. Many places of worship are recognizing the need to accept and accommodate the needs of families living with ASD, and in turn, more and more families are feeling more comfortable attending.
Why might religious services be difficult for an individual with ASD?
Often places of worship are crowed, and pews are packed with unfamiliar people. There are smells, such as candles and incense, which may be unpleasant to the individual with ASD, and there may be noise, such as group scripture recitals, music, and even shouts of praise. Also, traditional places of worship expect members of the congregation to sit still and quietly during certain parts of the service. This can be especially difficult for an individual with ASD.
How can I prepare my child for attending a religious service?
- The more familiar a child is with a place, the more comfortable it will be. Visit your local house of worship ahead of time to get a program or order for the service. You can share this with your child so that he or she knows what to expect. If it has been a while since you attended, you may want to go on your own at first so that you are familiar with the service yourself and can give your child an idea of how long certain portions of the service will take. Also, consider taking your child to visit during the week when services are not taking place. A social story™ with pictures may also be helpful.
- You might want to speak to the staff at the church or synagogue to ask if a seat can be reserved for your family ahead of time so that your child knows exactly where he or she will be seated. (Just make sure the staff remembers to reserve the spot!) Some families like to be in a place where the child can move around (such as in a balcony area), others prefer the back of the church, and still others like to sit in the front where their child can see what is taking place. You might also want to sit near an exit so you can leave early if needed.
- If there are certain parts of the service where members of the congregation “greet” each other, explain this to your child ahead of time and determine how you will handle this part of the service. If your child doesn’t like to be touched, be prepared to let those sitting around you know this ahead of time.
- If there is a portion of the service where children leave to go to a different setting, determine ahead of time how you will handle this. Will your child go with a sibling? Stay in the pew with you? Leave to go even if he or she is older than the rest of the children?
- Make sure you speak to the staff who will be running the children’s program (Sunday School or Children’s Church, for example) to provide them with information about your child and any accommodations or strategies that may be helpful (for example, visual schedules and limited choices). Offer to provide them with information about ASD. If your child uses a communication device, make sure your child brings it to the program and that the teacher knows how to use it too. Consider sharing your child’s school behavior plan with the staff. In the beginning, you may want to attend the children’s program with your child until he or she is comfortable there.
- Consider bringing small, preferred activities with you to keep your child busy during the service. However, if you wish for your child to truly learn to participate, you may find it hard later on to break your child of these distractions.
- Enlist help when needed. If your child has a community aide (for example, Therapeutic Support Staff), see if this person can attend services with you. Your child’s behavior team can create a positive behavior support plan for services.
- Reward your child for positive behavior at different increments in the service and again at the end. Establish these rewards ahead of time. For example, perhaps you give your child a token when he makes it to the first hymn, scripture reading, or prayer. If your child accumulates five tokens in the service, he can engage in a preferred activity afterwards.
- Choose services to attend which are less crowded or less formal. Some worship services, such as early ones or ones during the week, are not as busy and may even have a more relaxed format.
- Don’t force your child to wear uncomfortable clothing. Make sure your child is wearing something he or she is used to wearing. Even if members of your congregation “dress up,” perhaps you can find a way for your child to still be comfortable. If your child needs to wear a yarmulke or other religious apparel, practice wearing it at home.
- Make sure you plan for “special” services, such as those around holidays, baptisms, bar/bat mitzvah, communions, etc. These services and ceremonies will not follow the typical schedule, and you will need to prepare your child for any changes.
- When it comes to preparing for your child’s confirmation, bar/bat mitzvah, and other milestones, make sure you discuss ways that teaching materials can be modified for your child. Many congregations are willing to make accommodations for children with disabilities.
How can I help prepare my place of worship for my child?
- Speak to the priest, rabbi, minister, or other leader of the congregation about your family’s situation and your child. Let him or her know what your needs are.
- Offer to train any staff who might work with your child. Alternatively, offer to find someone (a trusted teacher, perhaps) to organize a workshop for you.
- Obtain books and other resources for your place of worship. The resources listed below are a good place to start.
- Offer to help organize a community awareness day at the place of worship.
- Provide teachers in children’s programs with visual aids and materials. If your child has food issues, offer to bring in snack.
- Going to Church: A Guide for Children with Autism
- Going to Synagogue: A Guide for Children with Autism
- Inclusion in Worship
- Autism and the Church: How to Serve Autistic Children
- Catholics with Autism
- The Jewish Perspective, from the Autism Society (page 4)
- Your Religious Community: Resources
- Autism and Faith Resources