A friend of mine recently asked how to help autistic Orthodox children become autistic Orthodox adults. Simple question, really. But no one had ever asked me that before.
My children are grown now, of course. That gives me the emotional space to think about what could have made a difference for them when they were younger. And not just my children. One of my kids attended a special needs school for a year. All of the children there had autism or other neurological or developmental disorders. There were maybe two or three families at the school that attended church regularly. There were lots of families that used to attend church.
Why Do They Leave the Church?
The reason the families were no longer attending church was that they were tired of being judged and found wanting. With all the other pain and stress and judgment the family deals with (and trust me, families with autistic children deal with an abundance of pain and stress and judgment), getting that at church was just too much to bear.
If you want the autistic child at church to stay in the Church as he grows up (and the child is probably a he, although there are autistic girls, too), you have to start by loving and accepting his parents. Once you can do that, you can move on to loving and accepting the child. That’s what will keep the child in the Church.
Love Means Knowing Their Names
Loving and accepting them means knowing their names. Calling them by name. Saying to the parents, “I’m glad you’re here.” Saying to the child, “I’m glad you’re here” — and meaning it.
You can’t really love them if you don’t know them, so get to know them. After you get to know them, offer to help. Can you take the autistic child for a walk outside when he needs a sensory break? Can you look after the autistic child’s siblings for a bit while the parents take the autistic child out?
Dealing with Behavior
The autistic child at church may sit when other people stand, may not look you in the eye, may cover his ears when certain sounds bother him, may correct adults if he thinks the adult has said or done something wrong, may speak in long monologues about his favorite subject. Don’t correct the child for misbehaving — assume that he’s doing the best he can. And whatever you do, don’t tell the parents how to manage their child’s behavior. Unless, you know, you happen to be an autism specialist. They’re working with specialists already, and, like their child, they’re doing the best they can.
If other adults are upset with the child’s behavior, or if they criticize the parents, run interference for them. Tell the other adults, “It’s a tremendous blessing to our parish that this family is here. They need our love and our acceptance.” Because it is and they do.
Coffee Hour and Sunday School
If you can, make sure that coffee hour includes food the child can eat. Many autistic kids react badly to wheat, milk, artificial colors. Are there plain fruits and veggies on the table at coffee hour? Of course their parents will bring something for a child with food sensitivities, but the child and the parents will feel more welcome if there’s food available.
As the child gets older, make sure that the people who train the acolytes or teach Sunday school or lead the youth group understand the child’s needs and are willing to accept the child and include the child in appropriate ways. What that looks like will vary, depending on the child’s needs. Perhaps the child can serve as an acolyte if he can have the same job every single week, rather than being on a rotation. Perhaps the adults in charge of the youth group could plan activities occasionally that involve the child’s special interests.
The Bottom Line
If the adults believe that accommodating the autistic child at church is too much trouble or too disruptive, or that his needs are too different or too difficult to bother with, the child will know that. And so will everyone else.
Love the child. Love his parents. Not just in what you say, but in what you do. And show others how to do the same.
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Catherine doesn’t like vegetables. She doesn’t like naps. She doesn’t like it when her mom combs her hair. She loves hot dogs, chocolate cake, and her best friend, Elizabeth. Most of all, she loves Pascha! Pascha, the Orthodox Christian Easter, is celebrated in the middle of the night, with processions and candles and bells and singing. And Catherine insists that she’s not a bit sleepy.
The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
Shoes or stockings? Horse or sleigh? Does St. Nicholas visit on December 6 or on Christmas Eve? Will a little girl’s prayer be answered? When Elizabeth has to stay at Catherine’s house, she’s worried about her grandmother, and worried that St. Nicholas won’t find her. The grownups, though, are worried about snow.