Four *MORE* Ways to Reach out to a Parishioner with Autism


There’s more to the story. Last week, I posted a piece on reaching out to an autistic child at church, but I know some of you are still wondering how in the world to have a conversation with someone on the spectrum.

Four more ways

Today’s list doesn’t just apply to children, but I hope has a broader reach to include teens and adults with ASD as well.

Okay. With no further blah blah-ing (except to say some of these might not apply depending on the person and her specific challenges), here are some suggestions to help you start conversation with an autistic member of your church.

1. Get his attention.

So, if you sat next to me at coffee hour, it would go like this.

You: Hi!

Me: Hi! How was your week?

You: It was fine. (Or crappy. You know, depending on your week and how good of friends we are.)

How it might go if you sat next to William.

You: Hi!

William: …

You: *sip coffee*

If this happened, you might think he didn’t want to talk to you.

Nah, you just don’t have his attention. He probably wants to talk to you, but there’s a lot of noise in his head. He can hear the fluorescent lights overhead buzzing, he can hear every conversation within four tables, he can hear a car door slam outside, and chairs scraping the floor all over the room. He probably didn’t notice you sitting down. And if he did hear you say hello, he might not have known you were talking to him.

Now, it becomes a simple matter of getting his attention.

This becomes a good time, as I mentioned in my 5 ways article from last week, to talk to the family. Each person is going to have different things that grab his attention. William is pretty good at responding to his name, and once he knows you’re talking to him, he knows the rules. So, it could go like this instead:

You: Hey, William!

William: *looks at you*

You: Hi, buddy. How are you?

William: I’m terrific. How are you?

You: Fine, thank you!

Yeah. He actually says “I’m terrific.” It’s so cute.

2. Talk to her like you would any other person.

This is probably the hardest thing to do with a person who may or may not reciprocate conversation. But try to remember that the person you’re talking to is more like you than you think.

Can you imagine yourself for a minute…just you, being you…but without the ability to get the thoughts in your brain out into the open? And if people stopped talking to you because of it? Maybe they’ll talk about you like you’re not there, to your family members. Or maybe, while you’re considering something funny that they said, they walk away.

It’s a frustrating existence, with a lot of sadness, loneliness, and hurt feelings.

That’s why you’ll be one of her favorite people if you do something like this, regularly:

You: Hi, Julie. How are you?

Julie: *looks at the floor and flaps her hands*

You: Your nails look pretty today. Is that a new nail polish?

Julie: *smiles at the floor*

You: I love purple. Hey, I’m headed to the food table. Can I get you an apple?

I don’t know if Julie will respond to that. Look carefully for a change in her face, for a smile or a subtle nod at the floor. If you’re unsure, ask a family member if she’s trying to communicate a yes or a no.

3. Understand that conversation is work.

With a neurotypical acquaintance, you may notice that some conversations are a little painful getting started. But in many cases, those conversations just need the right starter, and it can take off. With a person who has autism, it might not just take the right starter. You’ll probably have to work for it, start to finish.

  • He may not answer you. Act like he did.
  • He may walk away. Follow him.
  • He might start talking to himself over you. Get his attention again.
  • He might flap his hands, cover his eyes, wave something in front of his eyes, or otherwise look like he’s ignoring you. Ignore it.

Because…he hears you. He wants friends, he wants conversation just like you do. It’s just hard for him to hear it and stay with it. If you stay with him, you have expressed in a huge and rare way that you care about him.

4. If all else fails, try a side-by-side project.

Of course, if you’ve chased her all around the church, and she keeps running away, you might want to back off. This is not the time to ask if she wants to make friendship bracelets with you.

But if you’ve tried things that haven’t seemed to work, try this one on another day. If you’re stuffing bulletins, ask her to help you. Show her what to do and where to put them when she’s done. You can try talking to her over this project, without the need for so much eye contact, and maybe you’ll discover one of the ways she does conversation.

Above all, I hope that you know that, as hard to figure out as it is, it is possible and worth it to have a conversation with a person who has autism.

Please, give it a try. And I’d love to hear from you–who are your child’s favorite people, and how do they talk to him/her?


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