by Lyn Roehrs and Lyn Benger

What can we do as church to support families living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Every day, every hour, ASD families are trying to find ways to provide an environment in which their children can function and flourish. Now let’s think about one of these families planning to come to church and look at some of the issues they may be facing:
• This is not the regular school/kindy routine and the whole family needs to get ready
• They have to wear different clothes and it’s a different time of day
• There may be battles over breakfast and over what they can take with them to church. ‘No, not your 50 cars or a tub of Lego.’
• When finally in the car … is the seatbelt on? Do they feel squashed in? Are they squabbling with their siblings in the back seat?

When they arrive at church, what does the child who has sensory issues face?

• Unfamiliar surroundings
• Being greeted by an unfamiliar person
• Lots of strangers crowded around
• Handshakes or hugs – ugh!
• Strong smells from perfume, hairspray or flowers
• Loud music and bright lights

The child may well think, ‘And you expect me to sit still and be quiet in church? But I need to wiggle/make loud noises/fidget/move about … and I can’t cope with that music, those lights and people so close to me. Help! Get me out of here!’

A meltdown is on the way as the child is overloaded with sensory stimulation. How does the congregation react? Do members criticise parents for their ‘lack of discipline’, ignore or even exclude the family?

The family makes a hasty retreat. The parents and siblings miss worshipping with their church family, the social contacts, support and understanding, just when they need it most. Will that family return to church – or is it just too difficult? At The Ark at Salisbury Lutheran Church, we pondered this problem and came up with ways to make our church more inviting for our families and visitors with children with sensory issues.

We applied for and received a mission stimulus grant from the LCA to fund projects to support families living with ASD. These included upgrading the church welcome area, creating a sensory area, providing some education for members, including hosting a workshop, and staging a ‘Purple Picnic’ for families in support of autism awareness.

We refurbished the foyer with two areas, as some of the children prefer isolated play. We also provided comfortable seating for the families, including lounges, beanbags, cushions and a swivel egg chair. We purchased squishy fiddle toys and placed them in drawstring bags, and bought some weighted stuffed animals and wiggle cushions from online suppliers. We also purchased several headsets that were very helpful in filtering out noise.

On Pinterest we discovered a variety of easy-to-make ideas for sensory toys, such as gel pads, sensory/calm-down bottles, mazes and weighted cushions. We also bought cheap waterwheel toys and church members made some puzzle cubes. Even a bundle of colourful pipe-cleaners can be twisted, curled and joined to keep young hands busy.

We were careful not to purchase any items with small parts that could become a choking hazard. The toys are regularly disinfected or washed, and checked for safety. The items are placed in one area of the foyer but are available for all families to use. Many families are taking them into the church with their children rather than staying in the foyer, which is wonderful.

We also put posters around to help other members of the congregation understand why we have those things in the sensory area. And one of the children got up in front of the church to explain why he chose the items he did and what they did for him.

We also have a library of books available for our congregation, as part of the ASD education and awareness process. Members have become aware of the challenges that these children have, what the sensory issues are, and what is in place to help them.

We also have two groups that meet regularly, offering an outlet for families with children on the spectrum.

Volunteers are an integral part of the programs and groups we run to support families – from creative input for the sensory area, to staffing the crèche, providing meals and helping in the kitchen – we couldn’t do without them.

We’re all learning as we go along. We just want to continue to see where God leads us. Because he’s led us big time in this.

Lyn Roehrs is a member at The Ark at Salisbury Lutheran Church. She has been a part of planning and introducing its programs, groups and facilities aimed at making the church more inviting for families living with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other sensory issues.

Lyn Benger is Care and Connections Coordinator at The Ark.

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