As an autistic adult who wasn’t diagnosed with autism until recently, there are plenty of things I wish I could change about my childhood. My parents raised me with love, and most teachers and other adults in my life tried to work with me as best they could, yet I often felt like no one knew what I needed, and, although I am and always have been very verbal, I struggled to communicate effectively with those around me. I didn’t understand jokes or sarcasm; I took rules and directions literally even when that wasn’t how they were intended; I craved different sensory input than the input I was getting; I had habits that others found odd; and I was honest even in circumstances where that was absolutely not the best policy. All of this translated into difficulty making friends and a tenuous status as a teacher’s pet, right up until I’d correct the teacher in front of the class and lose the teacher’s favor. Unsurprisingly, these problems followed me to church, where I had very few friends and only sometimes found my way into grownups’ good books. This blog post is about ways to make Sunday school easier for kids like my younger self.
There are some good blog posts out there already about making Sunday school autism-friendly. This post by Katie Wetherbee emphasizes that we’re all children of God, that people on the autism spectrum differ from each other, and that autistic kids might benefit from a preview of the church and Sunday school space and from visual supports. She also points out that autistic kids often do better when the volume and lights are lower, and when they’re provided with a quiet space, positive feedback, and extra staff. This post by Barbara Newman makes several of the same suggestions, as well as pointing out that autistic kids often take things literally, which can make certain religious metaphors (for instance, those about Jesus’ blood) frightening. Newman also emphasizes the importance of making, explaining, and sticking to a schedule.
There’s good advice in these posts, to be sure. But what is missing is the perspective of people on the autism spectrum. As an autistic adult, I know all too well how rare it is that those of us on the spectrum are asked for our advice when it comes to educating or interacting with us. While I endorse the advice above, there are other points that I consider equally important when it comes to making church and Sunday school more autism-friendly. Here are ten tips that come to mind:
- Making church autism-friendly goes beyond children, because people of any age may be autistic. Autistic adults in the congregation can be a great resource when figuring out how best to work with autistic kids!
- Touch should always be optional, for a myriad of reasons. The biggest autism-related reason is that touch may be an area of sensory sensitivity for people on the spectrum, and even light touches may be painful. Making touch optional may seem obvious if you’ve been paying attention to recent rhetoric around consent, but really think about physical contact at your church. Do any of your games involve holding hands or tagging each other? Do you have choreographed songs for kids that involve high-fives or shoulder taps? Does everyone have to shake hands during passing of the peace? Scrap these practices, or else make it very clear that the touch is optional and must be consensual and that pressuring people to participate will not be tolerated.
- The autism community tends to prefer identity-first language (“autistic people”) rather than person-first language (“people with autism”). This should be respected—though I understand the need to tread carefully when parents of autistic kids often prefer person-first language. Remember that treating people with disabilities in a dignified manner looks different depending on the person and the disability.
- Single kids out only when absolutely necessary. Plenty of adaptations can be good for lots of kids, not just kids with diagnosed disabilities. If you’re offering yoga balls to sit on for kids with ADHD or making a visual schedule because you have an autistic student, you don’t need to point out why you’ve introduced these adaptations. The reason can be “these are helpful for lots of kids.”
- Remember the sundae bar model of autism—it’s not a linear spectrum. Whether someone is verbal is not the be-all, end-all of their intelligence, skills, or behaviors, for instance. Someone’s symptoms may be (or appear) mild in certain areas but severe in other areas. A very verbal person may have lots of trouble with loud noises and bright lights, or someone who’s fine in crowds might not be able to handle changes in routine. That’s one of the characteristics of autism—people’s symptoms vary based on the area and differ from each other.
- Not all neurodiverse kids are diagnosed! This goes especially for girls, who often go undiagnosed until adulthood or forever. A lack of a formal diagnosis does not mean the kid is neurotypical, and behaviors that seem challenging may come from a place of neurological difference, even in kids without diagnoses.
- It’s important to trust the kid, not just the parents. While many parents have their kids’ best interests at heart, that’s not universally true, and even well-meaning parents don’t know their kids’ experience as well as the kid themselves. If a kid communicates (via words or behaviors) that something is difficult or painful, believe them, even if this isn’t something the parents have communicated or noticed.
- Paying attention looks different for everyone. Being able to doodle or use a fidget toy may give an autistic kid the sensory stimulation they need to remain calm and pay attention in class. Taking away fidget spinners, crayons, or other fidgets or stims (short for self-stimulation) will likely make it a lot harder for those kids to remain calm and in control of themselves, let alone pay attention. Likewise, noise-canceling headphones might make a Sunday School environment bearable for someone with noise sensitivity.
- It’s likely that autistic kids will sometimes want to be included and sometimes want to be alone. If you’re starting a partner or group activity, or if you notice that a kid is outside the group, start by asking, “Do you want to join?” Sometimes, alone time is better than participating because it gives the kids a chance to calm down or process. Other times, kids might be outside the group because they’ve made social missteps that have caused other kids to reject them. Remember that these social missteps are a symptom of autism—kids on the spectrum don’t pick up on social cues and norms automatically like neurotypical kids do. In this case, your best course of action may be to help reintegrate the kid into the group.
- While literalism can make communication frustrating on both ends, it can also be a gift. It’s often tempting to make Jesus’s edicts into metaphors to avoid having to actually live a Christlike life. People who take things literally can point out hypocrisy and help guide people in the way of actually following Jesus. Welcome this, even when it challenges you to think about things you’d rather not think about.
Remember, it’s helpful to view autism as a neutral difference rather than as something bad or good. Bright lights aren’t inherently better than dim lights; games that involve physical contact aren’t inherently better than games that don’t; metaphors aren’t inherently better than direct speech. If you can keep in mind that different does not mean worse, and pass this attitude along to all of your students, you’ll go a long way toward making Sunday school autism-friendly. You’ll go even further if you heed the above advice and work to understand the experience of your autistic students.