When I first started asking around in the Asperger’s and Autism community about the whole church issue, the stories I heard made me mad. By the time I’d gotten a few more responses, I was sad. Overwhelmingly sad. The stories did not stop coming.
It breaks my heart when people say they regret staying at their church and wished they had left sooner.
The responses I gathered were from Christian people desiring fellowship. Many of these believers are actively seeking a church or Bible study in spite of bad experiences.
Why is church so hard for people on the autism spectrum?
Getting to the Church on Time, Late, or At All
Every mom knows this is a battle, but with Autism Spectrum Disorder it is multiplied. Most people on the spectrum have terrible issues with insomnia, getting restorative sleep, and waking. When I say trouble waking, I am not kidding. A regular topic is how to wake up. I read somewhere in an autism advocate’s writings about the need for an alarm clock that shakes and shrieks.
Trouble organizing, estimating and managing time, the other hundred hurdles every day brings with sensory, eating difficulties, motor skills issues, and so on make getting out challenging on any day. Sunday is no exception.
Sensory Overloads and Processing Problems
Sensory overload is another big issue. Loud music, flashing lights, over powering perfume add up to an sensory cocktail that can quickly overload. While these things may be a minor irritation to some, for others the input is akin to a sensory onslaught.
The format and language of today’s church can be difficult for a literal-minded person to understand. An emphasis on emotion rather than thought and logic make it hard to grasp the message.
It is a social setting. This is a minefield for someone who can’t read body language, has difficulty recognizing faces, or any of the myriad of other cognitive or social skills typically lacking in a person with ASD. Often, children and young adults are expected to be “friends” at church to the same people who bullied the child at school. People who greet with a hug then ignore the minute they step out of the church door, or even before, will probably be interpreted as hypocritical.
Rejection at Church
Rejection and bullying is something I heard about over and over when I brought up the issue of church. Family members of all ages were bullied. Adults bullied children. Being rejected by people at church is an issue I heard about over and over. You can read about an instance that happened to my kids at church here.
And, no, this one situation did not cause us to leave that church. Often we have to weigh the cruelty of ignorant people against the benefit for our children of continuing to attend.
One of my kids visited a local church a while back. An adult in the youth group began making derogatory statements about persons with disabilities. The fact that this man felt comfortable saying these things in front of leadership and the students made it clear this was not a place we cared to be. Talk about how to keep visitors from coming back!
While the majority of people are kind and caring, I’m sad to say I wasn’t particularly surprised by this encounter.
People assume that since this person is not connecting socially they are not aware of these slights, but sometimes appearances are deceiving. Some autistics are exceptionally intuitive. The inability to express oneself does not necessarily mean a person has no thoughts or feelings on a matter.
Leadership that avoids their students with more needs, or even become hostile to students who ask too many questions is a frequent problem parents cited. Aspies tend to have no qualms responding to the challenge to “prove me wrong”. A lack of social skills coupled with honest answers from a young person who may have an above average IQ can be misinterpreted by youth workers and lead to exclusion.
Do You Want to Be the Church?
I was heartened to find some excellent resources for churches and ministries interested in reaching the “one out of the ninety-nine” as Dr. Stephen Grcevich from Key Ministry put it.
This YouTube video is a good condensation explaining a complicated topic. I think it is an excellent start.
Why Church Should Be Accessible
I talked to many parents. Most have tried church after church. Many gave up on ever finding a church home. Some of the children, scarred and confused by their church experiences, have given up on God. Not all have not turned away. There are those who continue to search for a place to belong, a safe haven to worship and fellowship with other believers. People they can call “brother”.
Some church leaders think church is for the majority, and they can’t afford to spend time making church available to everyone.
God has designed every person with a purpose. There is room in the body for every believer.
[tweet_this] God has designed every person with a purpose. There is room in the body for every believer.[/tweet_this]
Dr. Grcevich stated in the video that he believes God has a reason for the influx of students and people with Asperger’s and similar conditions.
Qualities common to people with Asperger’s are the tendency to be truth and knowledge seekers, be persistent in faith, have a strong sense of morality, be deep thinking, justice minded, and analytical, to have zero tolerance for hypocrites, and pay no heed to church politics.
Is there room at your church for these kind of people?
I found this article, Asperger’s Disorder and Spiritual Development, to be informative for those who want more information on how to make their church or ministry more ASD accessible.
I felt the need to add to this post for clarity after some feedback from readers.
People with Asperger’s don’t need a special program. Dr. Grcevich explains in the video above that being funneled into the typical special needs ministry would not serve well and be completely inappropriate. What do they need? Respect, understanding, and a helping hand every now and then.
If this post resonated with you, please share it. Have something to add? Join the conversation by commenting below. I want to hear from you!
Side Note: I have focused my energy on writing a YA series that has a character with high functioning autism. Currently, all three novels are in the editing stage. One of them features an aspie romance. If you’d like to stay informed about my novels, you can sign up for my newsletter. It’s the second sign up box.
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Donna, thank you for this important post. You speak truth that we need to hear, to become sensitive to, to respond to with compassion and grace.
I’m grateful God’s connected us in recent weeks. This post is one reason why.
Blessings as we launch into yet another week …
Thanks, Linda, for your kind and encouraging words!
I’ve wondered how church is for my daughter many times. Though I don’t take her and I don’t consider myself a Christian, she has gone many times with friends who also have a daughter on the spectrum.
Just yesterday my girl expressed a distaste for church and that she was tired of hearing how bad everyone is.
That’s often how I hear preachers also, almost no matter what sermon I come upon.
However, last week I caught a local televised church on tv and was impressed with the message – it was that even though God has a plan, humans are ultimately responsible for their actions and how they handle tragedy. Specifically, it was about the phrase we hear all the time ” it must have been God’s plan (will)” which is always one that hits a nerve with me.
I’m glad you stopped by, Jenn. Yes, God has a plan, but people have the choice about what they do and whether or not to seek out and follow that plan. God is always wise and good, but people are not always wise and good.
Thanks for commenting!
I am so sorry for what you have experienced in the church atmosphere. Thank you for bringing awareness to others about autism and Aspergers. Jen from UNITE the Bloggerphere.
Thanks for stopping by, Jen. Appreciate your positive comment!
Oh, I’m so glad you’ve heard of https://drgrcevich.wordpress.com (Church4EveryChild) because when I saw your topic, I had this link ready to go. I am currently working on a a focus group for our church for parents of children with special needs, disabilities, and mental health issues to network, pray, pool resources, and improve how the church reaches and extends itself to these families and students (and the great community). The Key Ministry articles have been such good resources for me. Great blog topic! Going to pin, share, and tweet!
Thanks, Bonnie. It is good to know there are people in ministry working on making church more accessible for all. Glad you stopped by and commented!
Thank you for sharing this! I’ve been a Christian for a few years and 2.5 years ago, we split from our church. A group of us started a home church and my few attempts to bring my kids with disabilities (one with autism) were a disaster. No one got anything out of it. So I stopped, but as the spiritual leader of my home (hubby is not a Christian), God started pushing on my heart about training my kids recently. After I started doing that, He started pushing me on the Sunday issue. My church is not geared for my kids, but I’m blessed that there is a nearby church with a Sunday autism ministry. I will be trying it in the next week or two. But this is a REALLY important issue for families of faith everywhere!
I hope it works out for your, Gina. Keep seeking and following Him. Blessings to you.
Church is hard for kids in general, but when you add in any special needs, it is even more difficult. We don’t go for many reasons. My oldest can’t deal with large amounts of people. My youngest was preemie and has a few small developmental delays. Well meaning people sometimes ask questions like what I did to cause him to be early or delayed. I just don’t want to deal with it.
People can be a bit insensitive, but most are not trying to be unkind. It’s the mean ones that get to me the most. I hope you can find a place to fellowship and worship. Blessings to you.
Although my child doesn’t have autism or Aspergers I find your assessment to be try regarding children living with disabilities in general; especially, “invisible” disabilities. I recently stopped going to my local church after leading a ministry. The experience was especially taxing on me and my family, so I wanted to be in an environment that supported families, and church doesn’t appear to be that type of organization. It seems that ministries are designed to over work you and family time and understanding is not respected.
Praying you find peace and comfort in Him. It is hard those people we trust in fail us. When we are given burdens instead of the comfort we seek. Asking God to minister to you today.
Oh, this is hard stuff. I wouldn’t want to go either if I had to face all those obstacles. 🙁 I pray that your family will find a different kind of spiritual community that will meet your needs better. Church can look many ways and be found in many places; it doesn’t have to be Sunday morning in a sanctuary. May God guide you to a better fit!
This is true, Church isn’t a building, it’s the people. There are Bible studies and at home instruction.
I pray that leadership steps up and make a way for those who want to participate. I was happy to find the Church4EveryChild website and see the work that is being done to encourage the church to be the church.
Thanks for the prayers, Lisa! It is a struggle.
It’s heartbreaking to hear that you found rejection at church. Because Jesus is not about rejection. He would welcome your family in.
I hope that you find a church home that will welcome you in and show the love of Christ.
I am forever grateful that Jesus is not about rejection! He is ever present and welcomes all who choose Him, yes?
What a heart-felt message and an important one too. Everyone needs the opportunity to fellowship and the church needs to work at making it more accessible to everyone.
Wonderful, thought-provoking post.
Thanks for sharing (and for linking up to the #SHINEbloghop).
Wishing you a lovely day.
Thanks for stopping by, Jennifer!
Thank you for sharing your heart at Thought-Provoking Thursday today. Our church has a wonderful ministry for special needs families that has provided a safe place for so many in our community. Want to move to Fort Lauderdale? 🙂 — You’ve given the Body of Christ much to think about and pray about here.
Thanks for stopping by, Lyli! Glad you visited. 🙂
Hi Donna! Wow, this is such a great post. My nephew has autism, and I can totally relate to the difficulty you write about in attending church. Especially the sensory overload. Too much going on sometimes to even hope to concentrate. And reading body language or emotions? Forget that.
We have to be more responsive to people with disabilities. What a huge sadness that your child had to hear a church leader be so ignorant and insensitive. Thank God you are the parent and can reinforce the fact that he was WRONG.
I’ve never read a post like this. It’s important stuff. Good job!
Thanks for reading, Ceil. I hope the post helps people. This topic is talked about constantly in the Asperger’s community, esp among the parents of tweens, teens, and young adults, but I haven’t seen much written about it.
I read this earlier in the week and it’s stuck with me. I shared with my life group how utterly sad it is that families and children aren’t welcomed in so many churches. I have a son with Aspergers and know the feelings well, but am fortunate to be in a church that welcomes all with open arms. We have a thriving special needs ministry (he’s not in b/c so far he’s been able to function in regular children’s club). I love to see the parents of special needs kids coming to church and having even that one hour to sit in church and rest in God. Those quiet, restful moments are few (at least they are for me), so the love and support I’ve found at church is vital. Living this first hand has surely opened my eyes and increased my compassion – and I just pray we could bring the rest of world along to see how incredibly wonderful these children can be, even through the difficult moments. Thank you for this post and bringing this into the open.
Thanks for commenting, Kathryn. I hope that education can foster understanding. It’s so sad that many people give up. The church should be a place were all are welcome.
One or two caring adults in the church can go a long way toward mentoring a young person, be they on the spectrum or not.
Glad you stopped by!
Thanks for sharing with your group. 🙂
My son has behavioral problems, the doctor has suggested he may have ODD, though we never had a confirmed diagnosis. At my home church, I’m afraid to say that I encountered a lot of what you mentioned here. But I’m so thankful for the church we attend now. Everyone is just glad that we are there.
So glad you have a church home that accepts your family, Trena. The support and care of fellow believers is such a blessing.
My heart breaks for all of the parents that go through this sort of thing. Church with a child is hard enough, adding all of the other stresses on it; especially people in the church who aren’t welcoming, and it can make the whole thing discouraging and not worth the effort. I do not personally know anyone with autism so I can’t attest to seeing that issue in church but I do remember being a teenager and seeing people in the church basically shun a friend because she had tried to kill herself. She had bipolar disorder and her parents brought her to church and had the pastor try to bless demons out of her and several other prayer meetings to “cure” her of her issues instead of taking her and getting psychiatric help. After her attempt she was put on meds and was a lot better but people in the church stayed away from her and her parents instead of trying to build this girl up. My parents and I left that church shortly after because my parents did not want to be a part of a church that treated parents and children like that. Sometimes people walk in those church doors and forget that they have issues in their personal lives, too.
It’s terrible that anyone should experience rejection from the very place they have been led to expect help. I hope she is doing well and found peace in Christ, understanding that rejection is not from Jesus.
Thank you so much Donna for sharing about this issue at Good Morning Mondays. We need to be so aware of the people in our church and be there for them and not turn them away needlessly. Thank you for opening our eyes to this issue. Blessings
Glad you stopped by, Terri. Thanks for reading and commenting!
I just found your post today and it seemed God himself steered me to it. My 11-year-old has Asperger’s and, until about a year ago, we had a lovely time at church. However, my grandmother, who is 92 and attends church with us, began scolding my daughter because she wouldn’t stand with the congregation to sing. I was in the choir loft and saw my daughter quietly leave the sanctuary. I excused myself and went to her. I discovered that my grandmother had taken away my daughter’s notebook and pen. These were items we used to draw her focus away from the noise and people and quite stifling environment that a crowded church can be. She would listen to the sermon or songs and write down observations she had to talk with me about after we were back home. I also never asked her to stand during music because, if she remains seated, she is (quite literally) below the level of the voices. This provided some relief from the sensory onslaught of being in the midst of all those voices. I was so proud of her for doing this as, when she was a few years younger, she’d crawl under the pews and cover her ears. It became so hard on her that I eventually decided that it was not worth the trauma it was causing her.
Explaining this to others is not as easy. My mother (who, BTW, NEVER attends church) is almost constantly saying that we need to be in church. When I try to explain that we have to let her do what she can to relieve the anxieties she feels, I get lectures stating that I’m spoiling her and that she needs to “act like a proper young lady”. This is added to the lectures about me not feeding her healthy foods (because I know aspie kids are very picky about their food and I’m in a constant struggle to just get my daughter to eat anything with calories), for allowing her to pick out her own outfits (I think her kinda punky mismatched style is adorably quirky.)
Anyway, just before I stumbled upon your post, I got a call from my mother who said that she had spoken with my cousin who told her that she would be happy to pick up my daughter if she’d be ready on time. I asked my mother if they understood that we weren’t going to church because I did not want to go and that this was something my daughter didn’t want to do. I was then asked if I realized that I was the mother and she was the child. Didn’t even respond to THAT one!
I’m sorry this is so long, but this issue has been weighing heavily on me lately. Reading this, I took a deep sigh and felt so good knowing that my daughter and I were not the only people dealing with these issues.
Thank you for this….
Angela, You are definitely not alone. I pray you find the support you need and a place of acceptance. Rejection from those we love is always heartbreaking. Know that you are not alone and God cares for you. He understands.
I want you to know there are many support groups online. If you are on facebook you can search there for asperger or autism support groups, or do a yahoogroups search.
Praying for you.
Thank you so much for sharing this at Waiting on…Wednesday. You brought up many issues that I had not thought about – the perfume, the flashing lights, being unable to read body language, etc. You’ve got me thinking about our church and how we might can help everyone grow in Christ without it being as you described above.
Thanks, Holly. I think the most important thing we can do for people is to refrain from judging a behavior we don’t fully understand and listening to people. There are so many assumptions made when the simple act of respectfully listening would clear the way.
Glad you stopped by.
I have Asperger’s and many gripes about church. In 2006 my family moved from western New York (state) to southern Minnesota, where my dad had gotten a job to pastor a church. We lived there for seven years while the people of that church harassed us over things like preaching about Jesus and preaching to Hispanics, and we eventually got kicked out of the parsonage. Since then every church we’ve gone to has gotten mad at us for one thing or another (and another one also kicked us out of our house, except that time it only took eight months), and I’ve had enough experiences not to trust church people anymore. I honestly wonder how many of them go to church to look good and cover things up, or to feel holy. The people in MN pretended to be our friends until we started disagreeing with them and bringing in people who weren’t white.
Right now I live in a place where church people are extremely touchy-feely. I’ve had complete strangers come up to me FROM BEHIND and start touching me. I don’t care what their intentions are; their behavior is creepy and inappropriate. I’ve started carrying a spray bottle because if I “politely ask them to stop,” as so many people advise me to do, they don’t listen. They completely ignore me. In fact, one woman appeared to be listening to someone else as she rubbed my arm for no reason.
Other issues: People tease me. People stare at me. People call me out and put me in the spotlight. People cut me off mid-sentence to laugh about something I said and start a tangentially related conversation among themselves.
What can people do to make it better for autistics? Don’t put us in the spotlight. Don’t tease us. Don’t touch us without our permission. Listen to us just as you listen to your NT friends. Be honest and genuine. Don’t pretend to be what you’re not. If you can’t handle being disagreed with, don’t talk to me. It’s not as hard as people seem to think it is.
I think you are right Anne, when you say it’s not as hard to accommodate as people make it out to be. I have no idea why people continue to touch others when they are told not to! I am a hugger myself, but if a person did not want a hug I would not insist! I do not like it when someone comes up behind me and grabs me, either.
How sad! Everyone should be made to feel welcome, even if they need accommodations.
Donna, as a mother currently looking into possible issues with her youngest son and as a pastor’s wife, this article grieves me. I may just be one of these mothers one day. But even if I’m not, I hope our church will be a safe haven for families struggling through such issues! I thank you for linking with us at Grace and Truth last week and sharing about such an important yet often ignored topic within the church.
Hey, Donna! I can’t tell you how much I was blessed by your post. I have 3 boys on the spectrum and one with adhd. We have been blessed by supportive, understanding teachers, but I realize how hard it can be without that!
I have featured you as my post for Grace&Truth this week. I’m having image issues, so your image will not upload to my post. When I can get it figured out, I’ll add it. 😉
Thanks so much, and God bless!
Thanks, Jenn! So glad you were blessed!
i have a few observations to mention here both from the perspective of a pastor’s wife and as a nurse…and as someone who realizes we all need to grow in grace.
for families of autistic children it is most likely that a large church won’t be the best way to go for you. a smaller, more traditional church with a quieter worship style will work best. that is reality. in the church we served for nearly 20 years, one of the children was born who had brain defects that…as we discovered with age, left him partially blind, unable to talk and sensitive to too much stimulation. he loved music (like his parents) and eventually had a total of 3 brothers. (he is now 16)
as his parents gradually learned of his limitations over a few years, we were able to support them, not always well. when we didn’t, they let us know.
one key to helping us minister well to them was not their expectation that we know what to do…we didn’t know best how to minister to their family. what helped was to have them let us know when we weren’t ministering to them well.
when J was 5 and almost able to sit up…still in the nursery. his mom wanted him to be able to benefit from some teaching in sunday school. i partnered with him in the 3 year old class to help him be able to benefit from it. we had no idea how it would work out. sometimes i had to take him out, but rarely. he seemed to enjoy relating to the other children as he sat in his wheelchair around the table. i helped him clap with songs and participate to the degree he could.
a side benefit of the 2 years he was with that group was that they were a very sensitive group to him specifically and to children with weakness in general. their moms would now say that they benefitted so much from that class with J in it!
if you are certain you can’t give up a contemporary worship service, we are in one in our present church that isn’t nearly as loud as many. (some have incredibly loud drums that are very irritating for my husband’s hearing aids.) we have drums here but they aren’t blasting us out.
the thing about a smaller church (ours was about 200 ish) is that you are able to know everyone. your child is able to know everyone that is regular and isn’t so thrown by lots of strangers. i think J had some aspects of autism as well but he did well in a familiar church and knew familiar people. as he aged, he started having seizures. but he still worships with his family. he now walks and does more than they tho’t he might do…but still no ability to talk. he is #2 of 4 boys.
once you find a church/pastor you love. my advice is to be forgiving of them when they don’t always say things the right way. all of us are broken. GOD may have put you in their church to help them be more understanding of broken people. if you have a pastor and some church leaders you can talk to who are helpful in a 2 way relationship, that will help.
change isn’t easy. grace is needed for all involved. you are feeling the pain and can’t understand why they don’t change. often they are clueless to understand what needs to happen and how individualized it needs to be. it can’t be organized into a ministry to autistic people b/c they are all so different. going to a traditional church with some godly older people might just work for you…with some families too for your other kids.
another book you might find helpful? SAME LAKE DIFFERENT BOAT by stephanie (i think it is huber but not certain:( she is a mom of a disabled son but the book covers a range of ways the church can help along with community resources. i have heard her speak.
blessings girl. challenging path for you and your family but one that can be a growing one for all of you and the church you are involved with as well!
Thanks for commenting, Martha.
Yes, grace and communication is vital.
I would caution against painting all autistics with the same brush. While some people like smaller churches, others don’t. Interestingly, as I asked questions in the asperger’s community, megachurches were offered as a solution by several people on the spectrum.
It seems the key is understanding, communication, and, as you point out, generous measures of grace.
ps. and then there was the church we served that had a teenager that b/c a paraplegic in a car accident. hard way to become aware of needs for making the church more handicap friendly! oh my!
My son is 12. We left church several years ago. An attempt at healing, prayer and laying on of hands turned into something wrong that looked like an exorcism. Another incident involved an adult telling my son to get over it, it’s just a game… Most people are nice but I really don’t care to feel as if I need to “explain him” to everyone. Does the son of an crotchety old lady explain to the congregation why she is the way she is? Does the parent of the snobbish child explain their behavior? I am the son of a retired priest and was raised going to church and participating on a regular basis. I hope to return one day, I don’t think it will be this Sunday though:). I do know of a church here in my community that is made up of families with children who, as my wife would say, “have something going on.” Maybe we’ll check it out sometime.
My guys have been in church since they were born. We are Catholic. They both have autism and are twins, now 17. They’ve been baptized, made their first confession and communion and are now going through the process of confirmation. It has taken some work on all our parts. I taught CCD when they were making communion and am a member of the Core team that works with them now. The priest knows them as do everyone and are very accepting of them. It hasn’t always been easy though. There have been times in their development when being in the nursery or not going with them has been better. But over time they have grown. Also because our church follows pretty much the same format, they know what to expect. They even go sometimes with my mom instead of me (on Saturdays.)
We are a family and one of us is an Aspie. Please don’t give up. The church in a neighborhood with a school where the kids/teens are overpriveleged and clique-y made our child very uncomfortable, and a place that is supposed to be a safe sanctuary became frought with fear, sadness, and discomfort. I am grateful that we realized that no place, even a church, is worth that pain . THAT BEING SAID, SOOO IMPORTANT TO KEEP ON SEARCHING as you can find the RIGHT church for YOUR family, your Aspie. Please don’t give up! You need God and to know that there ARE GOOD PEOPLE that care about everyone.
We are in need of more youth groups for our, God’s, kids.