5 ways to reach out to an autistic child at church

Mom and William

I’m going to tell you a little secret.

Sometimes I forget that, long ago, I did not have the slightest idea how to relate to my own son because of his difficulties.

Our tricks (that were, at one time, nothing short of little miracles) are habits now, things we do a zillion times a day. When I’m in that rhythm, it’s easy for me to miss that people really, genuinely want to know how to connect with him–they just don’t know the tricks yet.

So, my bad, guys. At the completely legit suggestion of some friends, here are some practical ways to get to know someone with autism. And, of course, as always, keep in mind that these can apply where appropriate. Every person with ASD has different challenges and different strengths. No two look exactly alike.

But this first one’s really important, and I can’t picture it being the wrong move, ever.

1. Talk to the family. 

Special circumstance alert: If you don’t know the family, you may not know if there’s a diagnosis. In this case, tread lightly. I cannot emphasize enough: Do not be the person who suggests their child has autism. Do not ask what is wrong with their child. Get to know them like anyone else and allow them to offer that information. Once they do, you can then proceed to ask questions. Once you know from the mouth of a parent that their child has autism, here are some questions to ask that they will appreciate:

  • If I wanted to talk to your child, what would be a good way to start the conversation?
  • What does she like?/What does she do well?
  • May I touch his shoulder to get his attention? (Not all kids are aversive to touch. Some, including William, seek it out)
  • If I want to talk to her, what should I make sure I don’t do?

2. Sit nearby.

Familiarity is everything to ASD kids. You don’t have to make googly eyes at him throughout the service. You don’t have to offer to hold him or try to intervene when he inevitably throws himself on the floor screaming (in fact, please don’t do that last one). Just be nearby, in a non-threatening capacity, where he can watch you from week to week, and decide you’re okay. He’ll be more likely to respond to you if he feels like he knows who you are and what he can expect from the sound of your voice, the colors of your clothing, and the way you shift your weight or sit down.

Those things don’t matter to us, but it makes his world make sense.

3. Ask the child or her family about her interests.

This is a springboard for all conversation. Obviously, I can’t speak for every family with autism, but every autistic child I know has obsessions. Maybe she could talk all day about the different classes of fish. Or maybe she has the number of lightbulbs in the church memorized.

So, unless the family is following some kind of program specially designed to deliberately avoid those obsessions as topics, this is almost always a very good place to earn their trust. You can use this information moving forward.

However, unless you have specific go-ahead from a parent, do not buy toys that feed her obsessions. This could actually cause her to lose a lot of ground socially, and parents will either end up having to hide the toy or donate it. And trust me, they feel really, really bad doing that.

4. Utilize side-by-side play. 

Actually, I’m kind of stealing this idea from a well-established philosophy and method of treatment called Floortime, in which a parent or caregiver follows the child’s lead as they play, and use that as both a motivator and teaching mechanism for social interaction.

Here’s how you can use it to interact with him:

William is playing with a truck on the floor after church. You pick up a toy bus and sit next to him and mimic what he’s doing. If he doesn’t pick up his truck and walk away (he might), that probably means he’s open to playing with you. Try crashing your bus into his truck with a friendly, maybe funny, PSSSHKLLLP! crashing sound effect. Or stand up and drive your bus over the edge of a table.

He likes that sometimes.

5. Educate your kids.

Tell ’em what I just told you. Really. In fact, as the parent of a child with autism, I personally give you permission to say these things to your kids, and it will not make you a bigot or unsympathetic in any way:

  • Your friend might act in a way that seems strange to you. It’s her way of coping–it has nothing to do with you.
  • He might need to watch you for a while before he joins in your game.
  • Keep your hands to yourself.
  • Don’t be afraid to keep reaching out to him if he walks away. He might have forgotten what he was doing.
  • Come get me or her mother/father if your feelings are hurt, if she’s crying, or if she takes off running. We will help you fix it.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell him no if he’s doing something that makes you uncomfortable, or if you don’t want to talk about bug antennae anymore. Be polite, but make sure you’re clear and that he hears you.

I hope these are helpful to you in your community. I’d love to hear from you–what do you do to interact with an autistic child that has worked for you?

Sammy's baptism
At Sammy’s baptism with our priest and S’s godparents.

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