Create a welcoming and safe environment.
Do you know what it’s like to go to church when Autism is part of your story?
George has autism and Down syndrome.
Every Sunday, George is welcomed with his whole family by their local church. He isn’t just “welcomed” as in, they-let-him-come. He is welcomed, as in, they actively seek ways to make it comfortable and safe for him to come.
This is the essence of inclusion and it impacts George’s whole family.
A church for George and his whole family.
When I scrolled through my Facebook and encountered an update my friend Yvonne made, it warmed my heart and intrigued me.
In her post, she expressed her appreciation and thankfulness to her church family for welcoming George so well. George has Autism and Down Syndrome. She gave thanks for the love and welcome which the church extends to George and flows out to George’s family.
I knew in that moment, that I wanted Yvonne to help me discuss the ways in which their church made a home for their family for this blog post.
April is Autism Awareness Month.
Natural Play Therapy encourages parents and caregivers to bridge the gap by moving into the world of the person they love through play. I also described how isolated caregivers themselves can feel in the midst of the care they give.
It’s so easy for the rest of the world to carry on with their busy lives. Families dealing with autism can feel that they don’t have a place to belong in the outer world as they deal with the unique challenges that have entered their lives through Autism’s portal. I want you to hear from Yvonne’s own words, what it has meant to them to have the members of their church reach out to their family over the past year:
What I appreciated most about the church we decided to go with, is that several people approached us and let us know that they were glad we were there. And you could tell they meant it. They also had a pretty good special needs population and were fine with ‘noises’ in the sanctuary. They also had a special needs class on Sundays and when approached about it I voiced my concern that George can’t do ‘a class’. They said no problem that they would accommodate his needs and just love on him. They said there would be no harm in giving it a try. They were willing to work with his special needs, some of which required securing the door shut so he couldn’t run off, making sensory items available to him such as tactile items and auditory items. They were very willing to learn how his communication device worked and how they could help him to communicate with it. This class was only on Sundays but I was also wanting to come on Wednesdays so my older boys could participate in the youth group and I could do a bible study. They had no place for George so they created a place for him and provided a one on one helper so I could go to a bible study! It has been such a blessing to be able to participate in a women’s bible study again. I have not been able to do that for 9 years!
Let’s discuss some specifics George and Yvonne’s church did to open make a space where the whole Marshall family could come and feel welcome.
Six tips for churches and other groups to create a good experience for families dealing with Autism.
- Provide locking doors for kids who run [Windows should be provided, or half-doors, so the classroom can be observed while the door is locked for accountability where there is a locked door.] How to make a DIY interior Dutch Door
- Educate adults and children about autism and the variations on the spectrum to prevent unhelpful critical attitudes. The director of our music arts co-op did this, as some of the children (mine included) needed some understanding about why some of their classmates were overwhelmed by the distraction that their talking out of turn during class was causing. They needed to understand that they were making it doubly hard for their classmate to concentrate.
- Create environments which don’t overstimulate. Bright lights, flashing lights, and lowlights can cause problems for some people who are on the autism spectrum. The key here is keeping the lights natural and non-stimulating. If you’re unsure about whether the lights are a problem in the environment, you can ask the person or the parent for their insight.
- Consider whether to have a special needs class or integrated class. At Yvonne’s church, they have a special needs class on Sunday morning. If you choose to have an integrated class, make sure that everyone understands each other’s needs and that appropriate expectations are in place for behavior. Make sure there isn’t any bad attitude toward behavior that is natural. Assume the best about each other and be patient (Definitely, some training should be taught for teachers and a trained assistant should be present to help the child if needed).
- Bring an attitude of flexibility. For example on Wednesday night, the elderly women meet in the room that is especially fitted out for George’s need. The women invited George to be in there with them, accompanied by a helper so that Yvonne could attend a study with another group of ladies. One of the elderly ladies told Yvonne that her brother had special needs and it warmed her heart to see George being made welcome in the church.
- Ask, “What can I do for you?” If you can’t figure out what to do. Ask.
Five tips from Yvonne, for parents seeking an inclusive environment for their family.
- In regards to worship services at church: You might have better experiences in one with a simple worship service where the volume is tolerable for your child and there are no moving spotlights or strobe lights (Yes, some churches use strobe lights…). If the church has a pipe organ it might not work for you as well because of the fullness of sound.
- Lay the groundwork by visiting with the person in charge before going to a new church, playgroup or other organization. See whether it will be a good fit for your family. Don’t get discouraged if the person seems overwhelmed at first. What is a part of your daily life may be very new to them. On the other-hand, by being proactive, you might be able to head off some misunderstandings.
- Even if you decide that group isn’t for you, by coming and talking with the pastor, or person in charge of the group, you are planting a seed. Another family in the future, who is dealing with autism, may reap the fruit of your inquiry. Don’t feel like your efforts are wasted.
- Let the person who has autism have input on what will help them if he or she is able to express that. Otherwise, as the parents, have confidence in your judgment.
- Be flexible. Yvonne said, even as she advises that churches and other groups be flexible when reaching out to families, she advises families that are dealing with autism to also be flexible as well. What may just barely work out now can be improved upon with time and understanding.
Creating better spaces for George at home.
Even as things are getting better for George and his family in terms of church support. There is room for improvement his home environment. Not in the home as much as right outside of his home, in the backyard!
George loves to be outside. Everyone who knows him knows that. Sunshine and fresh air are great environments for every child.
However, George also likes to start going and keep going once he gets outside. This is called “running” [Running away common with autism.] It is a challenge for parents caring for children with autism.
Yvonne can’t just send George to play outside with his brothers and say, “Stay in the backyard.” That ain’t happening! When George goes outside, he has to be accompanied by someone who can ensure that he won’t run off. As much fun as that would be for him, it could have dangerous results by they time he was found. I don’t need to elaborate.
As long as I’ve known Yvonne she has desired to have a safety fence for George so that he would be free to go outside and explore and enjoy the outdoors. I have been in charge of George in the past when he has climbed and re-climbed the outdoor play equipment outside and seen the utter joy on his face.
Wouldn’t it be great if Yvonne could have a safe climbing space and other things for George to explore and do in their backyard, without having to worry about him running off if she goes inside to put the laundry in the dryer or answer the phone?
Yvonne’s family recently moved and spent a good bit of money on special locks throughout their house (expensive) in a desire to keep George safe. I was really disappointed to hear that she still hadn’t been able to afford a fence (it has to be really tall and strong).
Right now Yvonne’s working on applying, again, for a grant to help with the expenses. She has done this several times and been turned down. I’m praying that she won’t be turned down again.
Taking good care of a child who has autism can be very expensive and that’s why I’m glad to announce that, once again, Bear Paw Creek is donating to Hope4George again for Autism Awareness Month this April. Let’s come alongside Yvonne as her family seeks to do the very best she can for George!
Yes, awareness does help. There is still so much that many people don’t understand about autism. But also, doing something helps. This month, when you buy from Bear Paw Creek you will be doing something to help the Marshall family. Additionally, you can donate directly to their family by contacting Yvonne using the link for George’s Natural Play Therapy below. For regular updates on how George is doing, you can like his page Hope4George linked to below.
- http://georgesnaturalplaytherapy.blogspot.com/ – Yvonne’s Website for George.
I am praying for this to be the year that George gets a great fence in his backyard to help him enjoy it safely!
Do you have suggestions for creating an environment that is welcoming to those with autism? I would love to hear them in the comments below. If this post was encouraging or helpful to you, please share it so that we can keep this message going. We need more churches and groups like Yvonnes church!