April is Autism Awareness Month. As you may have figured out by now if you are regular readers here, JC Mitchell and I are the parents of AJ, a 4-year-old with autism. We’re not the first parents to have experienced not-so-welcoming churches, and we’re not the first clergy parents of a child with special needs to advocate for their child. There are some great resources available and I encourage you to check out resources on welcoming people of all abilities. You can also read back through JC Mitchell’s posts or mine, especially The Starbucks Welcome.
But here are a few tips to help get you started when a family with a special needs member asks about coming to your church or shows up on Sunday morning:
–First, welcome them. Greet the family like you would anyone else. Do what you would normally do for new visitors to help them feel welcome. In one church I visited, a few members chose to sit with me in the back where I was sitting, so I was not a visitor with my child by myself. It’s a good idea for any visitor to have someone sit with them and worship with them!
–Ask questions about what would make them comfortable and what would be helpful. For example: “What is the best way to interact with your child?” “How can we help you this morning?”
–If the family has a child and you have childcare or Children’s church during worship, invite them to those places but don’t pressure them. Some families prefer to have their children in worship with them, some children won’t leave their parents and go with strangers. All churches are different, and many newer churches are including of all generations. If a child goes to a different space than the worship service, ask questions about what their needs are and what can be done to help. Don’t assume you have to have professional child care workers who know about autism or other special needs (most parents haven’t had professional training, either!) Just ask basic questions about their needs, especially any dietary restrictions or allergies (just like you would for any other new child) and assure the parents their child will be safe with you. Make notes and listen if there are any specific concerns (for example, our child will wander if he is in an open area—he likes to explore). It is ok to ask a parent to help with a specific situation—such as using the bathroom if the child has toilet issues. But by all means, do your best to allow a parent to return to worship or Adult Sunday School as you would with any parent.
–Have child and adult “helpers,” if you have other children in your church. Identifying a slightly older child or youth who likes to help with children can be a great asset. For example, there is one older child in my husband’s church whose job it is to keep a specific eye on AJ so he doesn’t wander off during Children’s Church. Other adults who maybe don’t want to be drafted for Sunday School might be willing to help out with a child with specific needs.
–If a person with special needs remains in church, know that they will not all respond the same. Some may be sensitive to loud noises; others (like my child) may make some loud noises. Some people have to get up and move around. Some families choose to sit in the back and others choose to sit up front. As I have always shared, I often hear the sounds of adults saying “Shhh!” louder than I have heard any child’s noise. Know that there may be some distractions, but as a special needs person gets used to the worship, the routine and structure, they will be more comfortable and surprise reactions will be reduced.
–Don’t assume all families of people with special needs want to immediately connect with other families of special needs—most likely, they just want to connect with this new congregation! If they ask about other families with special needs, then help make the connections, but otherwise, introduce them and get to know them like you would anyone else.
–If a family looks like they have had an uncomfortable experience, ask them what you can do next time to help be more welcoming. Show that you are willing to listen and learn.
See a pattern here? Most families with special needs simply want to be welcomed like everyone else. And all too often, they aren’t. There’s an assumption made by well-intentioned church members that the needs are greater than what we can care for, than what we can provide. There’s worry about situations that might come up. Most of the time, parents have thought this through before even stepping through the door. Most families are aware of what information needs to be shared to make a comfortable experience for everyone.
I know that as a pastor, I don’t always have it right. There are times I still have failed to make people feel welcome, but I try to learn and work with my congregation to help make children and adults of all abilities feel more welcomed and included in worship. So this month, for Autism Awareness, let’s all try to do what we can to be a little more welcoming of people of all abilities, members of the family of God.