How can a congregation minister to families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)?
By some counts 1 in 100 live births result in a child with an ASD. It is likely that some family or several have an ASD in their lives who are part of your congregation. I am not a social worker or an educator. I am a parent of a child with an ASD. We found a congregation that was gracious and helpful and willing to help us out. Each family with ASD will have different needs and experiences, but this story is shared so that your congregation my reflect on its current practices and see opportunities for sharing grace.
Last summer, my wife and I were in a precarious position. We had recently moved to the Seattle metro, and neither of us were serving in a congregation, yet we each had Sunday responsibilities. I had been preaching through pulpit supply, and my wife was preaching in the Southwestern Washington Synod in her new role, sometimes as far as 3 hours away. This was not an ideal situation for our daughter with an ASD. First sessions in any new program are challenging, but she integrates fairly quickly. We needed a place for her to go and continue in her Christian education outside the home in a community of faith, but our work was not conducive to her faith growth.
Our best prospect was a congregation near my parents' home, Messiah Lutheran Church in Auburn, WA. My parents care for our children on the weekends, and our daughter could attend Sunday School at Messiah. We met with the Christian Education Director (CED) on staff and told her about our daughter's needs and what could be helpful. The CED described the flow of Sunday School and matched our daughter with a leader who was comfortable working with special needs children. She wasn't sequestered in a class with all special needs children. At first, my father stayed close by during the Sunday school sessions. As our daughter became more comfortable with the surroundings and routine, she came to enjoy her time and Sunday School and was able to talk with us at home more each week about what she learned. Occasionally the leaders had concerns about behaviors, and we renegotiated a plan for her time at church.
During the Sunday School year, the CED facilitated a workshop for parents and her Sunday School teachers with a specialist in the field of working with ASD children. Unfortunately, my wife and I were not able to attend, but I heard that the mini-workshop was helpful--and it reflected Messiah Lutheran Church's desire to minister to ASD families and offer these children an opportunity to thrive in their faith growth through the intentional love and care of knowledgeable adults in the congregation.
Messiah Lutheran Church is one of the largest congregations in the SW Washington Synod and has many resources. Even though Messiah has a paid staff person to deal with different cases as with our family, any congregation can show love and care to families with ASD children. This kind of ministry doesn't have to be a big programmatic effort. Any size or resource congregation can do this ministry. It takes caring adults willing to learn about or share techniques, and parents who can be assertive about their child's needs. Our daughter had challenges at Sunday School last year, but with the ministry a shared responsibility, she was able to connect with God and others. That congregation was willing to meet us in our particular circumstance and give us some needed grace.