April 2, 2015, is the eighth annual World Autism Awareness Day. According to the Autism Society of Canada, autism is the most common developmental disability affecting children in our country today. If your corps has any type of children's ministry, it is likely that at some point you will interact with a family living with the realities of autism, making awareness an important tool for effective ministry.

Autism is a general term commonly used to refer to what is actually a group of complex disorders of brain development known as Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. It is identified as a spectrum disorder because ASD affects the behaviour, social interactions and communication skills of each individual differently. And because each child with autism is unique, it can be difficult for youth and ministry leaders to figure out how to support these children and their families. So what are the pieces of the puzzle to minister effectively?

The Salvation Army - Salvationist.ca - The Autism Puzzle Lt Kristen Gray and her son, Josh

While I certainly don't claim to be an expert on the subject, as both a corps officer and a parent of a child on the spectrum, I can offer some suggestions for involving children with ASD in your corps' ministry programs and providing an environment of inclusion for the whole family. Here is what my experiences have taught me.

1. Start with the parents. Typically, the parents are the best source of information to help you understand the child's needs. They can tell you what their child's strengths and interests are and what kinds of supports the child (and the family) may need to allow them to become an active part of your church family. Ask specifically about likes and dislikes and what may cause anxiety or challenges for the child. Make sure that anyone who will be working with the child is aware of these things.

2. Identify one or two specific leaders or volunteers to work with the child. This doesn't necessarily have to be someone with a lot of knowledge or experience with ASD, just someone who is willing to get to know the child and work one-on-one with them—ideally for the long haul. Many children with ASD struggle to form social bonds so it may take some time, but if the adult is patient and allows the child to set the pace, it is often possible to make a meaningful connection. Alternatively, the family may already have a worker who could attend programs with the child.

3. Be aware that changes can significantly impact a child with ASD. Many children with ASD are creatures of habit—even more so than the rest of us. This means that if the child is accustomed to a program taking place with a specific schedule, in a certain location or with the same leaders each week, and something unexpectedly changes, it can be extremely difficult for the child to navigate and adjust to new circumstances. Of course, change is sometimes unavoidable, but being aware that this could create anxiety for the child with ASD will allow leaders to be intentional in looking for ways to minimize the impact. Often, simply making the child aware of an upcoming change is enough to ease the anxiety.
As Christians, we must be intentional in breaking down barriers to ensure that every child knows about and experiences the love of Jesus, regardless of their abilities or disabilities

4. Focus on the abilities rather than the disabilities. One of the world's leading autism advocacy organizations, Autism Speaks, points out that many of those on the autism spectrum have exceptional or distinctive abilities. These can include strong memory skills, exceptional intelligence, or special giftings in musical or artistic ability. Many children with ASD also have special interests, so find out where their strengths lie and look for ways to encourage these abilities.

5. Foster a culture of inclusion with other children and families. Most of us will remember the days when kids who didn't fit the “norm” were segregated in our schools, but these days many children with ASD are integrated into regular classrooms with their peers. Generally speaking, there is greater awareness and acceptance now. There are also lots of great books available for helping our “neuro-typical” kids gain a greater understanding of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I recommend discussing it with parents first, but don't be afraid to talk with the other children about how they can include the child with ASD in their activities. My own experiences have taught me that kids are often better than adults at looking beyond the disability.

Another piece of the puzzle to consider is how we can support these families beyond the walls of our church buildings. Part of belonging to a body of believers is caring for each other in our day-to-day lives. When someone in our church is ill or experiences loss, we visit them, cook meals or offer other practical support. Having a child with ASD affects the entire family and while the degree of the challenges will vary greatly from family to family, there are some excellent ways we can offer support.

6. Ask “how can I help?” Parents of children with ASD have busy lives with doctors' appointments, meetings with school support teams and therapy schedules filling up the calendar. Advocating for and meeting the needs of a child with a developmental disability can be both physically and emotionally draining, and many parents of children with ASD find it difficult to relax or take time for themselves. So perhaps you can prepare a meal for the family on a day that is filled with appointments, or invite the mom or dad out for a cup of coffee and be intentional about asking how they are doing. And don't forget about the other children in the family, who need to know they are cared for and important, too.

7. Be careful not to pass judgment. Not only do these children have a number of unique needs that must be attended to, but they also often struggle with expressing emotions appropriately, particularly when social and sensory stimuli become overwhelming. And for a child with ASD, this can lead to emotional outbursts, inappropriate behaviours and social withdrawal. Nevertheless, every child deserves to be loved and accepted, so it is important that their church family is mindful of these challenges and works to be supportive of the child and the family, even when our ASD children don't behave the way you think they should.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). Our children are our future and every one of them is precious in the sight of Jesus. Therefore, as Christian believers, we must be intentional in breaking down barriers to ensure that every child knows about and experiences the love of Jesus, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. And educating ourselves about the unique needs of all the children we serve will only give us greater opportunities to live out our Salvationist mission to share the love of Jesus Christ, meet human needs and be a transforming influence in the communities of our world.

Lieutenant Kristen Gray is the corps officer at Essex Community Church, Ont.

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