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When Jeanie’s son was 7, he bit a peer nearby during Children’s Ministry. Many members were horrified and Jeanie felt ashamed and totally incapable of helping Jason. He had never been fully accepted anyway, she explained to the youth pastor as they discussed the painful events of the last service. “He’s very loud and moves around during the service, flapping his arms and bothering people. Although I know it’s related to his autism, I DON’T know how to explain that to others, and I’m not sure where to begin even if they want to help. Most places we’ve been, we stay a few months until an incident happens, and we’re too embarrassed to go back. What is he getting out of this anyway?”

Jeanie and Jason are a combination of many families, and many children.

Many members or former members of faith based communities have shared their experiences with us, and often those experiences were challenging and devastating. This secret of families often comes to light during a family behavior assessment, when we ask about activities they used to enjoy, but no longer get a chance to participate in. One mother started to cry, and shook her head in embarrassment as she described the reactions of others who had seen her child’s repeated, seemingly uncontrollable, tantrums. These events and others had really “turned her off” from trying church with her family again. At the same time, she felt sad, ashamed of stopping taking her family to church, and totally alone.

This challenge may result from the difficulty managing a child’s behavior in the community. But in a church or faith based environment, it is not all up to one parent. This is because the reactions of community members, the organization of the physical environment, and the schedule of church routines, can all contribute to how challenging a child finds it to participate in a service or other church activities.

Do your church members know how to support children with special needs? If you’re not sure, it could help to consider these questions with a core group of parents and leaders, or ask the members of the community.

Do families with special needs come a few times, and seem to drift away?

Do members of the faith community understand that occasionally challenging or loud behaviors may occur unintentionally? Do they understand supportive or non-harmful ways to respond if this happens?

Do adults and helpers understand how to help children feel comfortable who can’t use words to talk?

Do adults and helpers understand how to help students learn the “organization” of church or faith-based routines? Are adults patient? (Can adults understand it’s important to help students build attending skills gradually, instead of expecting someone to be well behaved during an entire service without practice or foundational skills?)

Can adults be flexible? If a new Sunday school student can only sit for 5 minutes without using disruptive behavior, are helpers able to design a more variable schedule and make a safe space for the student to learn the routine?

Is there a quiet safe space students could go to “take a break”?

Are other children supported to learn helpful ways to be a friend to someone with different needs at church?

Do churches provide connections to resources for those who need help navigating large crowds, or who need an alternative to loud music, long periods of sitting still, and potential sensory challenges?

When children come to mother’s day out, day care, preschool, Sunday school, or children’s ministry, those with autism or other challenges occasionally try using unsafe behavior to get what they need or want. Do adults and helpers understand how to keep children safe while building alternative skills?

These questions, and more, can be answered by consulting with a person skilled in both community interactions and behavior based supports of learners with autism, or individuals with other special needs. Some churches find it makes sense to build a volunteer or paid position in which a member acts as special ministry liason. That person, or a core group supporting families in their church, may receive consultation from a behavioral provider or special needs educator with experience in this area. Consultation from a behavioral provider can insure your staff contributes to preventative schedules for individuals affected by special needs. We can assist staff to arrange a supportive environment in which behavior that is perceived as “challenging”, can be minimized while communicative, safe interaction is supported. We can help by paying attention to growing skills of the individual with particular needs. By valuing and growing ONE individual within the faith based community, it can create a safer more harmonious environment for ALL members of that community, and attract more families to a space they can be welcome and minister to others.

This article is part of our “Special Faith” series in which we’ll be exploring topics related to helping family members with special needs, to participate more fully and joyfully within their faith based communities.

In case you don’t have a consulting behavior analyst who does community support in this way, many organizations are currently working in this area of ministry. Check out the links to read about some of those ministries, as well as stories from individuals (including mothers of children with intellectual disabilities, autism, and other challenges) sharing their experience of the church.