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Autism at church: Part 1

Posted Jul 26 2009 11:30pm
I started to write a post about some of the challenges we've been having at church for the last few months when I realized I needed to share some background and it was taking a while to get to my story. So I decided to split it into separate posts.


Going out in public in general is challenging when you have kids on the spectrum. Going to church is all the more challenging. Why? Because at church, people (including children) are expected to be reverent. From an outward perspective, that is typically interpreted to mean sitting still and being quiet (although there's obviously more to it from a spiritual perspective). I know all kids have difficulty with that. No one is shocked to see kids fidgeting in their chairs or whispering to the person next to them, maybe even (gasp!) talking.

However, behaviors such as running up and down hallways or around the chapel or classrooms, screeching and laughing hysterically, flipping lights on and off repeatedly, opening and closing doors over and over, climbing on top of pews (you know, because you can make a cool tunnel with your hands on the one in front of you and your feet on the one behind you), hiding under tables, crawling in and out of the "holes" in folding chairs, removing clothing, and rolling around on the floor are generally frowned upon. And that's before we even get to meltdowns. Wrestling with your screaming child in the foyer to keep him from running out into the parking lot, or having him disturb Sunday School with screams that can be heard for blocks? Also frowned upon. Even more so as they get older.

It wasn't a big deal when our twins were babies / toddlers - lots of families with kids the same age joined us in the foyer. But over time, those families managed to stay in the chapel with their kids and new families with younger children joined us. More time passed, and those families went back into the chapel and new families with even younger children joined us. Instead of the "I feel your pain" smiles we started to get the "aren't your boys a little old to be out here?" looks. And rather than join us they started to keep their distance, perhaps not wanting their kids to be unduly subjected to the influence of kids who were so much older and still needed to be taken out to the foyer. No problem, because before long we couldn't stay in the foyer anyway. We had to go outside or find a room to hide out in to avoid causing too much of a disruption.

I should interject here, my kids are good kids. We get frequent compliments from people who know them (and have seen them in their comfort zone) about how polite, kind, and well-behaved they are. But putting a child who simultaneously avoids auditory and visual overstimulation while craving tactile and proprioceptive input (translation: does NOT like crowds, loud noise, bright lights, and LOVES movement, spinning, deep pressure) into an environment with crowds, organ music, microphone squeals, and singing, where one is expected to sit still is a recipe for major overstimulation and potential disaster. It's not an excuse, and knowing that certainly didn't mean we stopped trying (quite the opposite), but we found that in the interest of maintaining some shred of sanity (ha!) we had to adjust our expectations a bit and just accept that it was going to take longer for our kids to reach a point of being able to handle being in church and learn appropriate behavior than it would for their neurotypical peers.

It's been tough but we kept at it because it's important. It's important because we want our boys to come to know and love their Heavenly Father, and to feel His love for them. It's important because that is where God wants us to be - to gain knowledge, to develop our relationship with Him, and to be spiritually uplifted.

To be honest, more often than not over the last several years I have felt more exhausted than uplifted by the time we left church every Sunday. On those days, I am often reminded of Ecclesiastes 3:1, " To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven." I knew our persistence would eventually pay off, and until then we'd just have to do our best.

At this point Cuddlebug and Bearhug do really well at church for the most part. Every now and then they still need a "break" but those are few and far between now. I no longer have to keep an eye on the door of their classrooms for fear they'll go bolting out of the room (can't tell ya how many times they did that, and my biggest fear was they'd end up in the parking lot before anyone could catch them). They have come a long, looooong way.

Ever since Bitty was about 2 yrs old though, it's been "here we go again," even more so since January when he "graduated" from nursery and started going to Primary (Sunday school) with the "big kids." More on that in the next post...

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