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When a Child Shows Signs of Autism

by Amy Fenton Lee

It is not uncommon to have a child participating in the typical the children’s ministry environment that exhibits behaviors associated with autism.  Oftentimes the child’s parents have not alerted the kidmin team of any diagnosed difference or disability.  Inevitably, the child’s teachers and ministry leaders deliberate whether or not they should share their observations with the child’s family.  Every situation is different and requires earnest prayer for discernment.  There is no perfect answer for how to handle any individual child, family or church.  However the children’s ministry team may want to consider the following questions and ideas when determining what to say (or not say) to the child’s parents regarding a suspected autism diagnosis.

Question #1:  Do the parents seem receptive to honest feedback on their child?  If a parent openly expresses concern about their child’s mannerisms, inviting dialogue from their child’s teachers, then the door may be open for honest yet delicate dialogue.  Nearly always an established and positive relationship is required before a parent can receive feedback from a church representative.   In cases where it is sensed that the parents are dismissive of their child’s nuances, it is safe to assume the family is not ready to address the issues.  There are a variety of reasons a family may not want to pursue testing or reveal an already diagnosed difference.  Regardless, it is rarely if ever productive for the church to “push” the idea of a potential disability with the parents.

Dr. Cynthia Zierhut, Clinical Psychologist specializing in the area of autism research and Founding Director of Capital Christian Center’s Champions Ministry (Sacramento, CA) explains, “When I led the Champions special needs ministry it was not uncommon for me to be pulled into a typical children’s ministry environment to quietly observe a particular student.  Indeed I may have seen signs of a problem that warranted a diagnostic evaluation.  But even with my credentials, I would never approach a parent to suggest the need for testing or treatment.  My purpose for observing the child in the church setting was to provide quiet guidance to the kidmin team.  Oftentimes I could offer a strategy that would ultimately help the student and/or the volunteers.”  Zierhut reminds children’s ministry leaders that the role of the church is to aid in the spiritual formation of the family.  Anytime a representative of the church expresses an opinion about a child’s educational development (or lack thereof), there is a risk of offending the parents and consequently losing influence.

Occasionally a children’s ministry teacher may approach the parent with a single observation.  Barb Newman, CLC Network Director of Church Services Division, suggests beginning a brief and light-hearted parent conversation by first noticing some delightful things about the child.  After sharing some affirming observations, the children’s ministry leader may inquire about the one biggest issue by asking a parent the question “Have you noticed…?”   Newman warns children’s ministry teams not to approach a family with too much information.  Parents nearly always need some time to process the feedback.  In the meantime, the parents may have useful information to offer the teachers once the question has been asked.  Newman points out that if a child has demonstrated a certain behavior more than once in the church setting, it is likely the families is familiar with behavior.  Parents may be able to explain the impetus behind the actions and offer advisement to help teachers respond in the most beneficial manner to the child.

Question #2: Do the concerning behaviors pose a safety risk?   If the child in question has demonstrated unsafe behavior(s) then a more serious conversation with parents is both wise and warranted.  If the safety of any participant is threatened, then action is required on the part of the church.  It is both the legal and the moral responsibility of the children’s ministry team to provide a safe environment for every participant, including caregivers and volunteers. If a child is repeatedly communicating in an unsafe manner (e.g. hitting, biting, kicking, throwing objects towards others, running off), the church is obligated to address the concerns.

It is important for the church representative(s) to initiate the parent-meeting with the following in mind:

If a behavior is inappropriate or unacceptable for a child without special needs, then it is unacceptable for a child with special needs.   This guideline does require judgment.  For the child who lacks verbal communication skills and body control, she may spit in excitement.  While her actions are technically inappropriate and arguably unhygienic, if no one’s physical safety is threatened there is little harm in overlooking the behavior.  On the other hand, if the child is acting in a way that justifiably creates fear or the real potential for harm to anyone, then the conduct cannot be tolerated and must be addressed.  Very often behaviors can be avoided and managed after understanding what a child is trying to communicate.  For more ideas related to this topic, see the following post on the Inclusive Church Blog:  Addressing Aggressive or Unsafe Behavior.

Providing written behavior management policies may help to avoid hurt feelings while also setting up-front expectations for all participants and their parents. To prevent the perception or practice of discrimination, it is imperative that identical written behavior management guidelines are adhered to in both the typical children’s ministry and the special needs ministry environments. Enforcement of the behavior management guidelines should be uniform and irrelevant of a child’s ability or disability.

Keep the conversation centered on the behaviors and not the potential diagnosis.  By avoiding discussion of any potential special needs or disability, the church is protecting itself from accusations of disability discrimination.  The conversation will be more productive if the focus remains on the solution.  Without a disclosed diagnosis, hypothesizing around any potential disability is likely to create unnecessary tension and offend the family.  The dialogue should remain centered around preventing, managing, and extinguishing the problematic behavior.

Go into the parent meeting with possible solutions already in mind.  Parents are much less likely to be offended if they don’t feel the church is searching for an excuse to “expel” their child.  If the parents hear the team talking about a future that involves an ongoing relationship between the church and the child, the parents are more likely to respond favorably and with a spirit of partnership.    Some parents may resist the church’s initial recommendation.  But oftentimes a family will warm to the idea of a one-on-one buddy, chill-out time, or an alternative activity when they recognize the lengths the church is going to in order to help their child be successful.

Seek the guidance of the church’s insurance company and become familiar with behavior management practices in the local public schools.   It is unwise if not illegal to respond physically to unsafe behaviors.  Understanding how your local schools prevent and respond to undesirable behavior may help a church develop an appropriate policy.  In addition, it is imperative that a church consult their insurance carrier when crafting an accommodation plan for high risk situations.

For more ideas and sample forms, see the following post on The Inclusive Church Blog:  Addressing Unsafe or Aggressive Behavior

For an excellent resource, check out Barb Newman’s book Autism and Your Church:  Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism (Friendship, 2011)

Amy Fenton Lee is the Special Needs Columnist for Children’s Ministry Magazine and Special Needs Consultant to the ReThink Group. Amy administers The Inclusive Church Blog to help churches successfully include children with special needs.  For more on Amy and her writing see www.theinclusivechurch.com or www.amyfentonlee.com

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