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?