5 Steps to Serving Children with Autism, ADHD, and Attachment Disorders
One of Job’s friends rightly observed that “man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). Difficulty in life is a fact for all people, but is perhaps felt more acutely by those with disabilities and those who care for them. Activities most people take for granted qualify for these folks as “trouble.” Going out may require special respite care. “A quick run to the store” buys them a meltdown. A trip to the park is no picnic.
Although school systems are required to accommodate children with disabilities, churches—as volunteer organizations with limited resources and training—are not. But what if your church wishes to serve children with disabilities as a way to push back against the devaluation of human life (cf. Ps. 139:13), to affirm the worth of the weaker parts of the body (1 Cor. 12:22), and to present to God many sons and daughters who may be far off (cf. Isa. 43:6–7)?
Recently, our church launched a program dedicated to serving children with behavioral diagnoses such as autism, ADHD, and attachment disorders (common with adoption). Your mileage will most certainly vary, but I wanted to share some possible steps toward serving what seems to be an under-served community in our churches.
1. Pray and pencil in a deadline.
When the apostle Paul saw the word go forth effectively or wished to see it do so, he employed the metaphor of a “door” (cf. Acts 14:27; Col 4:3). Perhaps we could follow his example and pray, “Lord, if you would open a door, I would like to minister to this community, though I feel powerless to do so at this moment.” Share this prayer with your children’s ministry leaders and volunteers as a humble, self-imposed deadline.
In our case, I shared with our children’s ministry volunteers that in six months I hoped to present a tentative plan for how we might minister to children with behavioral diagnoses such as autism (if the Lord wills). I was nervous to put that out there because it meant I had to do something! As it turned out, God did will it, and he accelerated things with an influx of needs and the formation of a team. In only five months, our first “one-to-one” helpers joined our Sunday Bible Study and Kids Church.
2. Open your eyes and look around.
Ask, “Whom might such a program serve?”
The presence of a child with a behavioral diagnosis (diagnosed or not) immediately impacts a children’s ministry. Generally, parents are accustomed to advocating for their child by providing plenty of communication on the front-end. Occasionally, however, a parent or guardian may without notice drop off a child who needs support.
In these moments, you know who does notice? The volunteers! Their cry for help may sound innocuous: “We had a bit of trouble with ______ this morning.” But soon, it will amplify: “We need to do something about ______!” Left unaddressed, there will be fallout: the child will not be engaged, classmates will be unsettled, and volunteers will quit. Again, you need to be clear on who will be served by this program.
Ask, “Who might serve these kids?”
We have a high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15) and who showed compassion for the helpless in his earthly ministry (e.g., Matt. 8:3; 9:36; 11:28–30). Should we be surprised, then, when God’s people who have been filled by his Spirit are called to respond in the same way?
Personally, I feared opening the door to special needs ministry would overtax our volunteers. (It would have.) But clearly, I wasn’t ready for the enthusiasm with which people responded. Educators, therapists, students in special education, and parents of older children who had aged out of the children’s ministry came forward. Several shared with me that they had been unsure of what “embracing a calling” might look like at our church . . . until they heard that particular request.
Maybe someday I’ll stop being surprised when God provides and his people do hard things with joy.
3. Picture a program within your program.
A program for children with disabilities might take two forms. It could be substantially separated such that it runs parallel to your existing programs and rarely intersects with general settings. This approach would require specialists who are familiar with special education contexts, not to mention enough children to populate a separate program. This is likely impractical for a small-to-medium-sized church.
Such a church might opt instead for an integrated model. An integrated program can be fairly simple: a child goes to class or worship based on their learning level and is assigned a one-to-one helper to help them engage and/or cope. One-to-one helpers are scheduled and trained by a coordinator, who works to form their identity as a team. We’ve found that the one-to-one helper team naturally communicates to each other what works for each child, so a working profile of each child is in the collective memory. One of our helpers recently wrote this update:
[Child] is showing growth in her social skills. She is enjoying swinging, especially spinning. When in service, she benefits from the use of putty and a cushion. She enjoys dancing in the back while worshipping.
As a pastor, this update brought tears to my eyes as I pictured this daughter coming out of the shadows to worship her King.
4. Designate a room and assemble a “break box.”
Children with behavioral diagnoses can behave in ways that seem bizarre, like they’re “acting out.” Some children are sensory-seeking. The classic autistic behavior of spinning the wheel of a toy car while looking at it sideways means the child is seeking some kind of stimulus.
Other children are sensory-fleeing—they retreat from too much stimulation (like loud music or a noisy room). We can help both sensory-fleeing and sensory-seeking kids by (1) designating a room where over-stimulated children can pull away; and (2) by providing items that help provide sensory input in less distracting ways.
The Sensory Room
For a child who is either sensory-fleeing or sensory-seeking, a low-lit, neutral-colored room that’s near the children’s area can be a great help. It serves as a place to pull away and regroup when necessary. It’s even better if this room can be a sensory space for what’s known as gross-motor activities: jumping, spinning, swinging, hiding. The room can be quite simple—furnished with a beanbag chair, a yoga ball, and a jog trampoline. Or it might be more elaborate: a climbing wall, a ceiling-mounted swing, even visual effects via fiber optics. Costs might range from under $1000 to $5000.
This type of room has been very useful to us. Sometimes, just five minutes of swinging or being squeezed in a beanbag is all it takes for a child to regulate himself before re-joining class or worship time. Other times, a child may stay in the sensory room through the entire class, in which case the worker interacts and attempts to teach portions of the lesson.
The Break Box
A “break box” is also a great tool for one-to-one helpers to have on hand. It’s filled with items (“fidgets”) that sensory-seeking children can use without having to leave the main area. Some examples are coil keychains, sand or liquid timers, squeezy-balls, beanbags, Velcro, and putty. More expensive items such as weighted blankets and balance cushions can be purchased or made as the budget allows. Any special education teacher or aide can recommend other items and where to get them.
As in all things, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9). As you pray and plan, God may withhold the people and resources, or he might—as he did with us—push you into the deep end! Pray, make your plans, keep your eyes open, and finally behold what God does.
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 Some companies provide free consultation when orders are made through them.
You can find items at special education stores, Amazon, or even at your local dollar store.
A specialty store such as Fun and Function (funandfunction.com) has boxes already assembled.