“The chances that a child on the autism spectrum participates in your Church School is very likely. How can we make sure we are ministering to the child and the adult in our classrooms?”
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. Some persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music, math and art.
Autism appears to have its roots in very early brain development. However, the most obvious signs of autism and symptoms of autism tend to emerge between 2 and 3 years of age. Autism statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around 1 in 110 American children as on the autism spectrum–a 600 percent increase in prevalence over the past two decades. Careful research shows that this increase is only partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness. Studies also show that autism is three to four times more common among boys than girls. An estimated 1 out of 70 boys is diagnosed with autism in the United States.
Autism at Church School: Tips for Teachers
The chances that a child on the autism spectrum participates in your Church School is very likely. Since most Church School teachers are volunteers with little training in working with children who have special needs, how can we make sure we are ministering to the child and the adult in our classrooms?
Rhythms of Grace, a model for ministering to children with special needs, including the autism spectrum, offers these suggestions:
- Simple directions. Use as few words as possible, speak slowly and give 3 steps or less in a sequence.
- Enough response time. When asking questions or giving directions, give ample time for the child to respond.
- Eye contact. Do not force eye contact for a child with autism.
- Repetition. Ask the child to repeat key words in directions to verify understanding.
- Pictures. Use visual cues whenever possible to accompany verbal directions.
- Listening. Never assume that a child with autism is not listening, even if they appear to be “in their own world.”
- Transitions. Give warnings, use visual cues (icons or signs), use auditory cues.
- Routine. Keep the same routine when possible. If a variation is expected, give ample warning. Review routines at the beginning of the day, breaking it down into small chunks. Give visual guides to remind the child of the schedule.
- Advance notice. Give a ‘count down’ (“5 minutes,” “3 minutes,” “1 minute”) when it is time to change activities.
- Auditory cues. Use music to aid in transitions. Sing a song as activities change, or use a bell or recorded music as a cue.
- Firm touch. Firm, consistent pressure is best. Soft, soothing ‘back rubs’ or ‘reassuring’ arm brushing or tapping can be unsettling.
- Firm brushing. Use a firm stroking motion in one direction on arms or legs for soothing.
- Gross-motor precedes fine-motor. Jumping, running or swinging arms vigorously can help to settle a child for fine-motor activities.
- Avoid loud noises. Prepare the child when possible for loud noises. All children to cover their ears or leave the area.
- Limit self-stimulating. Set limits on ‘stimming’ (lights, waving fingers, patterns) time.
- Sensory defensiveness. Notice and plan for particular likes/dislikes. Note which textures are unsettling for some and soothing for others.
- Safe place retreat. Provide safe space from which to observe – allow the child to retreat to a safe space with comfort objects if an activity becomes overwhelming.
- Buddy pairs. Support, encourage and facilitate friendship and pairing.
- Use a timer. Set limits for conversation on one topic.
- Words and deeds. Use a verbal description to match a physical/social cue. For example, say “I am happy to see you” with a smiling face.
Sharon Ely Pearson is a 30+ year Christian formation veteran, currently serving as an editor and the Christian Formation Specialist for Church Publishing Incorporated. Wife, mother, grandmother, and author, she enjoys connecting people with each other and the resources they need for growing in the knowledge and love of Jesus.
Rhythms of Grace: Worship and Faith Formation for Children and Families with Special Needs by Audrey Scanlan and Linda Snyder offers lesson plans to use in classrooms for all ages and abilities.