This is the third in a series of posts written by a mother of a son with autism, reflecting on her experience with her church community. Some of her observations serve as challenges to the way we do church, while others should be encouraging to the people who have made a difference in the lives of her and her family. The names in this story are fictional, but their experiences are not.
We tried putting Michael in Sunday School one year. We hired a worker, who proceeded to tell the Sunday School leader that Michael didn’t actually require one on one support. I walked in on this conversation at the end of Sunday School as she was saying this, and I asked where Michael was. We eventually found him in another room altogether – the service room. It was made quite clear that this worker didn’t like the assignment and we hired another one.
At that time the program for his age group (preschoolers) was awesome. Grouped by age, they each started in their own room, and then rotated rooms throughout the hour. Michael started in the play room, rotated first to the music/story room, then to the craft room and finished off in the play room with snack. Even though story, music and craft were way out of his developmental realm, he caught on to the routine and eventually even lining up wasn’t as big as a struggle as at the beginning. For an autistic boy, beginning and ending with play was perfect since play was the ‘reinforcer’ for staying engaged with the group. Thankfully, both workers had experience working with children with autism and special needs, one being an EA the other an ABA therapist.
After that year he became too old for the program. He was clearly physically too big for that group and his age group moved to the gym. The gym typically creates huge sensory issues for Michael, with its large space and echoing noise. This is getting better at schools, but back then we couldn’t fathom him in a program that wasn’t geared for his needs and was housed in a gym, which was begging for him to run like the wind! Having a worker and a few accommodations wouldn’t have sufficed.
The church offered to pay for workers. I think they recognized by then that a volunteer wouldn’t be enough unless they were trained and had experience working with children with special needs. The worker that was hired literally ran around and fended off extreme behaviour from him! It was nice to go to church as a family while it lasted.
Our Children’s pastor lovingly and consistently tried to accommodate Michael year after year. She said to us at one point that not only was she concerned about Michael but believed that others would benefit from him being there as well. Now that Michael is too old for Sunday School, though, we have not heard from anyone on the pastoral or member ship team about trying to include him at church.
Some day we hope it will be possible to go to church as a family to worship and fellowship again.