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Making sacred spaces and safe places for families with special needs children. Autism Awareness: How the church can be prepared. Meet the Higgins. Melanie Michaela Kelli Chris. Michaela 8 years old, 3 rd grade Autism Spectrum Disorder: Higher-functioning

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meet the higgins
Meet the Higgins


who are we

Michaela8 years old, 3rdgradeAutism Spectrum Disorder: Higher-functioning

Hypersensitive to sounds and smells. Very energetic. Academically at grade level. “Mainstreamed” among neuro-typical children. Loves “My Little Pony” and rockets.

Melanie4 years old, developmental pre-schoolAutism Spectrum Disorder

Hyposensitive: high pain tolerance. Pre-verbal. Eating difficulties (overstuffs). Very curious and loves to bounce, figure out puzzles, use the iPad, play with dolls and “My Little Pony.”

what is autism

Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first 3 years of life, and affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills along with sensory issues.

With the May 2013 publication of the DSM-5 diagnostic manual, all autism disorders were merged into one umbrella diagnosis of ASD. Previously, they were recognized as distinct subtypes, including autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome. 

What is Autism?
what is autism1

1 in 68 children in the United States have been diagnosedwith autism.

  • Children with autism often experience the world around themdifferently.
    • Sensory problems (such as hyper-sensitivity or hypo-sensitivity) can cause difficulties in adapting to the environment.
    • Loud noises, strong smells, bright lights, hot and cold sensations
typical behaviors of a child with autism


    • repetitive motions or sounds used to self-sooth during stressful situations. (swaying, fidgeting, spinning, jumping, bouncing, vocalizations, etc.)
  • Placing hands over ears
  • Extreme reaction to touch or loud noises
  • Running and wandering
  • Unresponsive to verbal commands
  • Problems with recognizing social cues
  • Have a hard time expressing needs and wants
  • Easily overwhelmed
Typical Behaviors of a Child with Autism
the behaviors of parents

Often anxious of entering uncontrolled or new environments

Experience worry of “judgment” from others

Worry that their children are a “burden” to others

Embarrassment when their child(ren) acts-out or experiences a meltdown around others

Sometimes feels isolated

The “Behaviors” of Parents
Why parents of children with autism feel they can/cannot become part of a church or faith community.Stories

Parents of children with autism often feel “pitied” or “patronized”

“They’ll be OK” is not reassuring!

Listen – many parents sometimes just need a friendly ear.

Oftentimes help is needed, but parents may be afraid to ask. It’s OK to ask the parent if they need help with something.

education for the congregation

Publish monthly articles in your newsletter.

  • Give Sunday School teachers resources on how to handle children with autism and other special needs children.
    • There are many groups and organizations that provide free training.
  • Provide autism information brochures or bulletin inserts for members
Education for the Congregation
creating a comfortable space

Reach out to families with special needs.

  • Offer to allow the families to bring their children to the building during quiet times. (during the week)
  • Be sure to ask if the families have concerns or special requirements.
    • Special diets, avoiding triggers, using sensory toys, using visual cues (PECS storyboards)
  • Reassure families that they are always welcome!
Creating a Comfortable Space
comfortable spaces worship

Be aware of noise from music, organ, choirs, sound systems can overstimulate.

    • Provide sound-reducing headphone to help with noises
    • If possible, create a “cry room” or other quiet space that includes a volume-controlled audio feed of worship
  • Be aware of smells from flowers and candles.
  • Changes in décor.
Comfortable Spaces: Worship
comfortable spaces worship1

Crowded spaces: special worship services (Christmas, Easter, large rooms,lobbies, etc.)

Routine: provide a “regular” seat or location for families, if requested.

Routine: changes in worship orders can cause anxiety

Using props (especially noisy!) during children’s moments/worships.

Comfortable Spaces: Worship
comfortable spaces worship2

The best tool a parent of children with autism can have is preparation:

A simple heads-up on changes in worship, decorations, or the use of louder or unusual sounds can make the world of difference in how children with autism react to certain situation and stimuli.

Comfortable Spaces: Worship

Provide basic sensory toys in the nursery or education areas

    • stress balls, weighted lap pads, various textures
  • Be aware of extreme over stimulating areas of the church
    • sights, sounds, smells, crowds, etc.
  • Provide a space for parents to take their children if they need a “sensory break.”
    • a simple, quiet room is best for this!

This prevents many parents of children with autism from attending church regularly.

Do a “safety audit” – make sure basic child safety guidelines are being observed

Keep outside doors closed – especially those leading to parking lots or streets.

An adult needs to be with autistic children at all times – unless otherwise specified by a parent.

comfortable spaces sunday school

Routine is key!

  • Give prompts (“5 minutes left!” “2 minutes until it’s time to put away the craft.”)
    • Visual timers are also a great way to keep children with autism on-task.
  • Ask parents for routines and methods used at home or school.
  • Have “breaks” or “calm-down” space available.
Comfortable Spaces: Sunday School
comfortable spaces sunday school1

Some children with autism may need one-to-one assistance.

Many organizations have programs available to train volunteers, Sunday School teachers, and staff on how to manage and assist a child with autism.

Always include children with autism in regular class activities, when possible.

Provide a “reserved” seat for children with autism to help encourage routine.

Comfortable Spaces: Sunday School
comfortable spaces sunday school2

Again, the best tool a parent of children with autism can have is preparation:

A simple heads-up on changes in Sunday school routine, redecorated or refurnished rooms, new room assignments, and new curriculum can make a big difference in how a child with autism reacts to new situations.

Comfortable Spaces: Sunday School
sensory rooms

Quiet spaces, simple, comfortable

  • No bright colors or patterns or murals
  • Controllable lighting: dimmers, soft
  • Provide sensory toys and ways parents can help calm children that are overstimulated
    • tunnels, bean bags, rocking chairs, manipulative objects, swing, lap pad, weighted blankets
  • Provide a volume-controlled audio feed from the worship so parents don’t feel “left out” of the experience.
Sensory Rooms

Autism Society of“Allies” are a great resource on education and how to start the process of your congregation becoming special-needs friendly.

Easter Seals Crossroadswww.eastersealscrossroads.orgRespite: giving caretakers breaks. “Parent's Day Out”

Autism Speakswww.autismspeaks.orgGeneral information and national/local advocacyas well as information for faith-based organizations.

Local Autism Support Groups


questions discussion
If you would like a copy of this presentation and the resources referenced in today’s session, please leave us your e-mail and we will be happy to send you more information.Questions & Discussion