5 Secrets for Unlocking an autistic student in Sunday School

5 secrets for sunday school

I’ve seen this topic covered in a few places (here’s a post by one of my favorite podcasters and bloggers, Elissa Bjeletich, that does a very good job of it), but I’ve been asked a bunch of times to cover it as well, and of course, I’m happy to do it! 🙂

So here we are: from an autism parent’s perspective, the top five things we can do to improve an autistic student’s experience in the Sunday School classroom and get them to participate:

1. Give her a job.

What this accomplishes for her is it gives her a place. Whatever is confusing to her during Sunday School, at least *this* is hers and she knows what to expect from it. Interestingly, this is also a technique that works for introverts (although, for them, they might not enjoy some of the more visible tasks). Here are some jobs she can do:

  • Hold the door
  • Pass out papers, craft supplies, or snacks
  • Use a finger or a pointer to follow the words to read-aloud prayers or stories
  • Place characters on a felt board
  • Read excerpts during a lesson (depending on class structure and student’s abilities)
  • Draw a picture about today’s lesson, perhaps collect them in a visible place for students to see visual progression of lessons
  • Help lead songs with arm motions
  • Bring objects along to church that visually reinforce the teacher’s central point

2. Consider sensory issues.

Many students with autism are challenged by sensory input that the rest of us can easily tune out–such as the flickering of fluorescent lights or the buzz of a fish tank. If you notice your student covering his ears or flapping an item in front of his eyes, you may be dealing with an auditory or visual overload. 

Things that can help:

  • Turn off the overhead light and use sunlight or a lamp
  • Drown out outside noise with a fan or noise machine
  • Give him something to fidget with: stress balls, prayer ropes, even rubber bands or scrap pieces of paper can work nicely for this. Fidgets have been known to relax someone in sensory overload and increase focus.
  • Lap weights can be helpful for a kid whose skin is always crawling. You can buy something online or try it out by using a makeshift version, like using bags of rice or large bean bags.
  • Let him flap and cover his ears. He’s developed these techniques to calm himself, so you might find it most effective not to interfere in these behaviors.

3. Be dispassionate when students ask questions

Kids’ questions can be pretty cringe-worthy. What’s important to keep in mind is that they want to be educated. They want to understand their peer. And so, the best approach is to avoid the gasp-and-cringe reaction. 

If, as a parent or an educator, we flinch or scold when kids ask questions about why their peers are different, we communicate to them that this is an untouchable subject. We show them that they should *not* seek to understand. And in fact, we mean the opposite.

Try starting with, “Oh, I’m glad you asked that!” From there, try to emphasize that the child in question is a child just like the questioner, and encourage a “how would you feel?” perspective from them. Other than that, don’t seek to answer a bunch of unasked questions. Stick to the subject at hand, and if you don’t know the answer, tell the child you’ll ask the parents, and seek their guidance.

4. If possible and/or necessary, have a teacher or parent working one-on-one with him.

It can be a real challenge for a person with autism to stay focused on the task or lesson at hand, and sometimes it takes near-constant reminders to get the job done. Obviously, if there’s one teacher in the room, this creates a problem. Asking another adult or a parent to attend only to the student with autism can improve the situation tremendously.

I don’t really subscribe to the whole “this is the parent’s vacation hour” thing when it comes to church, so if it were me, I certainly wouldn’t shy away from asking the parents if their child would benefit from having one of them in Sunday School, and assuring them that they’re welcomed in the room. A lot of parents would be relieved to know this.

However, please try not to communicate to the parent that you are not interested in engaging the child, and if the parent wants his or her child to be involved in Sunday School, it will be the parent’s job to get it done. If I felt an educator was saying this to me, I would be unspeakably hurt. You don’t want the parent to walk away from that conversation thinking that you don’t want to be bothered with their child’s challenges.

5. If you’re a parent, offer as much information to the teacher as possible.

Let’s face it: it’s awkward. Sunday school teachers will probably find it difficult to ask you certain questions, and frankly, it’s not their job to diagnose developmental problems and solve them. Try to beat the teacher to the punch and offer as much as you can regarding what works for your child, what helps her focus, what might create problems for her.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What works in your Sunday School?


8 Comments Add yours

  1. I’ve found, after working one-on-one with a child in a Sunday school class for the past year or so that the one-on-one approach is basically a must if they are going to be actually engaged rather than just “managed-until-it’s-over”. One key thing that I’ve noticed with this specific child is that it seems that they are much less likely to see anything other than a personal address as being applicable to them. Some key strategies I’ve found helpful for mitigation are:

    1) Personal Invitations. Whereas many children (although certainly not all) will do fine with “let’s all go over to the table” or “let’s say our opening prayer” etc, in my experience a child with autism may do leaps better with a personal invitation: “let’s all go over to the table. Christian, will you please come to the table with us?”. It’s almost as if they don’t associate a group invitation as being applicable to themselves, or, they just don’t “hear” it. Get their attention and invite them specifically to join. You know you’ve been heard when you make meaningful eye contact. It may involve something more like kneeling down, repeating their name and gently touching their shoulder until they look at you and then inviting them.

    2) Whispering. Again, it’s the personal touch. The teacher is speaking to the whole class, but, this group address doesn’t always work well as the child may not associate the speaking as being applicable or addressed to them. Repeating the story in a whisper specifically into their ear as the other children are listening can somehow be like a lens for their ear gathering the light and focusing it right down into their brain.

    3) Be the rail. Often it is like the child is a train that is just loaded to the max with coal, chugging along. Except that, like a train, they need a rail to guide them. You may need to be that rail. This is where Maura’s “near constant-reminders” come in handy.

    4) Pick your battles. Many times for an activity, I will specifically get the child’s attention and ask point-blank if he wants to do it. Sometimes the answer is “no”. You’ll need to weigh, in the moment, if it is worth making her do it anyways. It almost never is. He doesn’t want to color your paper? OK. She doesn’t want to glue the cotton to the popsicle stick? Fine. I think this respect for their personhood will probably earn you points. I think the child appreciates knowing that they are free. Then, when you put your foot down on being non-disruptive during prayers, and other things, you haven’t spent all your points making them do some task they didn’t want to do that was basically just for fun (why force someone to have your idea of fun?).

    5) Have appropriate alternatives in hand. When you are picking your battles, and the child says “no”, what next? If possible, don’t just “do nothing”. Try and find some alternative. “Do you want to look at the icons?”, “Do you want to hear the story whispered to you again?”, “Do you want to watch Martha glue?”

    6) Listen. Sometimes times they will be trying to tell you something and will be super distracted with this information they need to give you until you have actually heard it. Just like all other children and all other people. Make sure you aren’t so busy being the rail that you ignore the fact that there’s a train refusing to go until you acknowledge it.

    7) Know when enough is enough. Sometimes the child will get to the point where they are just _done_. You have no idea how “hard” their day has been up to this point. Every now and then, you’ll be able to tell that today is just not their day. If they want to leave, consider letting them. Just, don’t make it a habit.

    Disclaimer: All of these strategies are merely based on my own trial and error, not on any scientific research or studies. I’m very open to the thought that I may be handling some of this stuff all wrong.


    1. mauraoprisko says:

      Chris! These are amazing. Thank you so, so much for these thoughts. You are *exactly* right on all counts. 😀


    2. elissa bjeletich says:

      Chris, I especially love 4 and 5 — so much of Sunday School can be craft-oriented, and that’s really great for kids who love crafts, but for those who don’t it’s really not worth forcing them. The craft is almost always tangential to the lesson, and it is ridiculous to fight about having ‘fun’. The ‘points’ you earn by respecting the child’s preference not to do the craft are totally worth it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. elissa bjeletich says:

    Thank you for this excellent post, Maura! I am passing it along to my Sunday School teachers and to any blog readers… We really need more information specific to the Sunday School, as our teachers aren’t trained like those in ‘real’ schools! Thanks so much.


    1. mauraoprisko says:

      Of course! I hope you’ll see Chris’s comments below–his thoughts are really, really helpful. 😀 Thanks so much for the comment!


  3. Elissa Bjeletich says:

    This is wonderful, Maura! What a valuable resource, with real concrete actions we can take. Thank you so much! I’m sending it to all of our teachers ASAP.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Elissa Bjeletich says:

      I’m so redundant with my comments. 🙂 I have re-sent this out to our teachers now that school is underway, now that they know their new students. Thanks so much for providing great resources.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. mauraoprisko says:

        Hahaha…thank you so much Elissa. I’m super happy to hear that you find this information helpful; it brings meaning to this experience! 🙂


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