Crisis Management for Church School and Worship Leaders when an Autistic Child has a Difficult Time Adjusting to the Class or Worship Setting
By Jen Jones
Member, Committee on Disability Concerns
Imagine this: It is a perfect Sunday morning. The sky is a beautiful blue, the usual rush to church went smoothly, the pastor’s sermon is speaking directly to you. Then you hear it – a scream from somewhere in the sanctuary. You know who it is – what you don’t know is what to do about it.
When behaviors occur because of a person’s disability, it is a hard question for most people to answer. Will the parent’s be upset if you offer to help? Is it better to ignore them? Maybe they should be told not to come back to church until their child can behave properly? Maybe it is the usher’s job to deal with misbehaving children? Would someone do something, please?
As a parent who has two children on the autism spectrum, I have been on both sides of those questions. There were times with my own children that I truly did not need any help and any interaction with a stranger would have really sent my daughter over the edge with her tantrum. On the other hand, a simple smile and a “can I help?” can do wonders. The most important thing to remember is the parents are doing their best. Do not take it personally if they become upset. Dealing with a special needs child is stressful and your offer to help could be perceived as you trying to tell them how to parent their child. When a child is upset in a public place, the parent may be embarrassed and could lash out at any comment. Be friendly, but not pushy or judgmental. If a parent does become upset with you for your offer, I am sure when they have calmed down, they will appreciate it. So, get up, go to the family and smile. Ask if there is anything you can do to help. Maybe you could help with the child’s siblings. Maybe you could just stand with the family to show your support of them. Each situation is different and if you don’t know the family well, the best you may be able to do is to let them know you care. Trust me – everyone needs to know that.
If you are the pastor, ignore the situation. There is nothing you can do and if you keep going with the service, others in the service will turn their attention to you. The only time you should stop your sermon is if you know the family well and they indicate they need you. Most families will not do this – they are stressed enough trying to calm their child.
If you are an usher, ask the family if there is anything you can do. If they decline, smile and say ok. Hovering over them will not help and it could possibly escalate the child’s behavior.
If you are a teacher and you know the child well, go to the family. With their permission, try to calm the child. Sometimes a different face is enough to break the tantrum and help the child calm down. Again, only do this if you know the family well! If you can, ask the child if he/she wants to come and play with you or bring a stuffed toy to distract the child.
Try to imagine what the child is feeling. A person with autism often has sensory issues. A noise that you may not even hear could be the only thing they can focus on. You know how irritating a mosquito buzzing around your ear is – imagine that you cannot get away from that noise. How long would you listen to it before becoming angry and doing whatever you could to get away? What if the child’s sense of touch was too sensitive? His/her shirt might be a material that is actually hurting them. Imagine a rock in your shoe that you cannot remove. Would you get irritable? My son has trouble with vision and perception. Our sanctuary has a vaulted ceiling and he does not like it at all. He says it is falling on him. Could you sit quietly while you thought the ceiling was falling on you? Or what about smell? That amazing perfume you love so much could be overwhelming to a child with a disability. Again, how long would you sit and be quiet while small things were irritating you? It is the same for a person with a disability. They try to keep control, but sometimes, they just can’t do it. If they are non-verbal, they have no way of saying they need to leave the sanctuary. A scream or a tantrum is a guaranteed way to be removed from a desperate situation.
I have heard of churches who ask families with special needs members to not come back. What kind of Christian would ask a creation of God to leave? Luke 6:31 says “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Do you want someone to ask you to leave because you were not like them? Ephesians 4:32 – “Be kind to one another.” 1 John 3:23 – “Love one another.” Knowing what to do when a special needs child is upset is hard. Follow the Bible and God’s word. He has never failed me and I am sure He will guide you to do as He wants. Remember – Psalm 150:6 “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” I am sure this includes a child having a tantrum. What about you?
Rev. Dr. Beverly Hall
Chair, Committee on Disability Concerns
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