Children with Autism
By Kristi Sakai
Christian parents pray for the safety and health of their
children, but for many parents of children with autism, it may
seem as their prayer was unanswered. They may often feel
overwhelmed by the spiritual, emotional, physical, and financial,
needs of their child and family. Church families frequently want
to help, but they do not know how.
Autism is not caused by faulty parenting!
The odds of a child being diagnosed with autism are 1 in
166. Autism is a neurological disorder that ranges on a continuum
of "classic autism," in which children may even be non-verbal and
more severely affected, to Asperger Syndrome, or "high
functioning autism." The latter is misleading as even "high
functioning" children are also significantly impaired. Autism is
called the invisible disability because although no one doubts
that a child in a wheelchair has a "real" disability, at first
glance most children who have autism may not appear different
from the outside. What you may only "see" is the unusual
behavior, which frequently is misunderstood as being naughty,
willful, or the result of bad parenting.
These kids usually have hypersensitive sensory systems and
are easily overstimulated in crowded and loud settings, particu-
larly in public places like church. They may need to wear certain
kinds of clothing or eat a limited diet. They also struggle with
issues surrounding unexpected changes, such as adjusting to a
different Sabbath school teacher or an unexpected change in their
daily schedule. The reaction may be total overload. They may
appear to be spoiled children throwing a tantrum to get their way
but is, in fact, experiencing a sort of neurological firestorm,
which they are unable to regulate. This, along with being
impaired in the ability to read facial expression, body language,
or understand not only others' emotions but their own, has a huge
impact on their social development. Church may be the one place
where they can feel accepted and understood.
What can the church do for the families of these children?
Be an example of Christ-like compassion and accept them as
they are. Autism is not caused by faulty parenting. God created
these children, just as He created yours. Parents are doing the
best they can under extremely difficult circumstances.
Provide a structured Sabbath school and nursery with
knowledgeable adults. Allow for flexibility and awareness that
parents may either be reluctant to leave their child for fear
they will have a behavior problem or, conversely, are desperate
to get a rare break. Negotiate ahead of time if and when the
parent will be called if there is a problem.
God created these children, just as He created yours.
In general, most of these kids respond best to:
Small groups with extra adult support.
A consistent routine with a picture schedule to tell them what
will happen next.
As much notice as possible when there is going to be an
Transition time: I refer to this in my book as "countdown":
"Class will be over in ten minutes" and so on. This allows the
child to prepare himself for the change.
Create a plan for meltdowns.
It is in almost every case best to remove the audience
(class) rather than the child because of safety concerns for all
involved. Less is more. Stay back and wait it out, and limit
verbal engagement if it is escalating the behavior. If you
must speak, be calm and use few words. This is one of the most
painful things for both parents and teachers because we want to
either comfort or chastise the child, but this is not a
teachable/reachable moment. On the other hand, if the child asks
you to hold him, he knows what he needs to calm and you can help
him in this way. I recommend the DVD "Difficult Moments" by Dr.
Brenda Myles, which thoroughly, but concisely, explains how to
help prevent meltdowns and what to do when they occur.
Education is key!
Many parents are just as puzzled by their child's behavior
as the rest of the world, but you can help them find resources.
Provide funding if they cannot afford to attend a local autism
conference, invite someone to speak to your church, or purchase
books about autism and other disabilities for your church
May God bless you, and thank you for caring about families such
Kristi Sakai lives on a farm in Oregon with her three children
and husband, all of whom have Asperger Syndrome. After her oldest
child was diagnosed, she embarked on an intense journey of
seeking out interventions only to discover they mostly applied to
clinical and school settings. She set about to "translate" these
research-based strategies for home and family, which eventually
led to her writing "Finding Our Way: Creating a Supportive Home
and Community for the Asperger Syndrome Family," which received
the Autism Society of America's 2006 Literary Work of the Year in
the Family Social category. Kristi is a national presenter, as
well as Editor of the Autism Asperger Publishing Company's online
newsletter: "AAPC Community of Support for Parents. Professionals
and People on the Spectrum." But the greatest passion of her life
is being Mom to Tom, Kito, and Kaede, and wife to
May 2007 ACTS Magazine, a publication of the General Council of
the Churches of God, 7th Day, Meridian, ID, USA