Marty Haugen, a hymnist and musician, said it best when it comes to going to church: all are welcome in this place. But what about those with autism? Do they seem to believe in God or are they switching to a religion? Church is just one place where autistics bear their crosses instead of leaving them on the bottom of Jesus’s cross, but why?
Ah, the good old church pipe organ – and it’s sure to set off a meltdown because of its dynamics!
Well, I believe that church is more like being crucified to a cross if you see it in an unprepared autistic’s eyes. First, there’s the break in routine, especially in those doing church for the very first time. No longer do they have to be in their comfort zones watching a singing fruit and other kit and caboodle on TV all day – they have to face church as a family. (Remember: the family that prays together stays together.) Then, for those who make verbal and physical stims, the service is oftentimes the hardest (not to mention the most tedious) part because one has to remain quiet as he or she sits perfectly still in the pews.
Finally, mix in the sensory overload ingredients that induces a chain of loud, disruptive meltdowns. You will need lots of motley interior architectural details (if it’s a historically significant edifice) like stained glass and very colorful frescoes, echoes from the walls, and loud music (especially if the church has a pipe organ the size of a typical ranch home). Going to church is like scaling Golgotha to many autistics without planning to be crucified to the cross of sudden transition, expected and enforced decorum, and excessive sensory input.
Here are two examples that showcase how hard going to church can be when you have a child with autism. In 2008, the then 13-year-old Adam Race of Minnesota caused a stir in his former parish in Minnesota by shoving a child and several senior citizens when dismissed from Mass, urinating and making spitting faces in the edifice, putting a girl on his lap, and starting the engines on two cars. The priest was at his wits’ end when his family refused other options like televised Masses, so he threatened to call the police on her upon returning to the parish for Mass with her son by using a restraining order against her.
The Races went to another parish in response to the clergy’s actions. But that ban from church didn’t stop there in terms of issues that autistics have when clergy and congregants have to deal with.
Then, there are some rituals some autistics lose grip on its concepts. Take Communion, for example: some autistics simply would just spit the host out or drop it off from their tongues. It’s mostly because they have issues with the texture of certain foods to come, and some of the time, the host is fashioned from whole wheat flour.
That’s what happened to the then 13-year-old Matthew Moran of Arizona a few years before Race’s behavior got out of hand so much that he got banned from his parish. He lost grip on the concept of that said Holy Sacrament due to a swallowing problem. He can’t swallow anything but macaroni and cheese, rice cereal-marshmallow squares, french fries, mashed potatoes, and few others.
The priest accommodated that handicap until New Year’s Day 2006, when he stopped offering Communion to him. The Diocese of Phoenix also allegedly denied that opportunity of receiving the Body of Christ. (A letter revealed that Matthew was just unable to approve that practice.) A year later, their church installed a new priest and he worked with the family to have him receive communion via drinking the wine from a smaller chalice.
But prepping your autistic child to go to church takes more that consulting the clergy or pastors about the disability: you really have to prepare your child. He can be fixated on the same routine, such as watching his DVDs each Sunday. Provide him with a picture schedule to let him know of the new Sunday routine. The “First, Then” card is also a great tool – just show him the card that visually (meaning pictures and PECS) says, “First church, then the mall,” and watch the meltdowns lessen.
Social stories also ease him into going to worship God as a family. You can either Google the tool up, buy it, ask your therapist to fashion one, or make your own. Make sure you do it in the lines of:
Today is Sunday.
My family is going to church.
We wear nice dresses.
We drive to church…
or something more or less similar. If you are Catholic, check out the brilliant, down to earth example of what’s expected at Mass on the blog Simply Catholic – it’s also perfect for preparation and social skills fostering.
Also, show them pictures of your parish or take them on a tour of it when there’s no service. There are stories on positive experiences with touring churches on the Diocese of Pittsburgh website and it’s worth reading and emulating!
If your church has an organ (either pipe or a digital one that sounds like it), ask your organist/music director to play to your child to get used to the accompaniment of hymns, preludes, postludes, and interludes expected in the service (or play it yourself if you are really good with it if you ask permission) to get your child used to that sound. Oh, and don’t forget your “buzz-off” or “X has autism” cards if you suspect someone staring at your child, too.
With careful planning, church could go smoothly for your child, for the clergy, for the fellow congregants, for the attending ministries, and for you. Again, Haugen said that regardless of disability, all are welcome in this place: church.