Autism awareness is very important for our faith based communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that autism affects 1 out of every 68 children. With a rate that high, many churches are sure to encounter a family affected by autism and churches must be prepared.
I didn’t understand how difficult church could be for persons with autism until my son was diagnosed. I watched him struggle with social interactions and with abrupt changes in sound and lighting. Just walking into the sanctuary sent him into sensory overload. I haven’t even mentioned all of the unwritten church rules that he was expected to navigate through!
We moved around quite a bit as a military family. Each move required us to find a new church home. Finding a church home when you have a child with autism is no easy feat. I always informed the children’s church staff about my son’s needs whenever we visited a new church. The staff reaction varied from church to church. My family once visited the church of a very prominent minister. When it was time for children’s church, I told the staff member that my son has autism. He immediately said, “We’re not equipped to handle that.”
Unfortunately, my personal experience is not an isolated story. A 2001 research study by Tarakeshwar and Pargament found that among parents that have a child with autism, 30% felt discontent with their church clergy and fellow church members. A 2013 study by Ault et al found that 32% of parents changed their place of worship because their child was not welcomed or included. In addition, the study also found that almost 47% of parents did not participate in religious activities. Sadly, nearly 56% kept their child home due to a lack of support (Ault et al, 2013).
My family dealt with these same issues until a church stepped up and created a special needs ministry for my son. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, here’s a link to catch you up! Once that happened, I realized how important it was for other special needs parents to have the same opportunities that I have to regularly attend church!
I started blogging about autism awareness in 2014. The series that I wrote about special needs ministry remains to be my most popular blog series to date! The Autism Awareness Month Faith Based Initiative was born in 2016 as a result of the positive responses from those posts. Here’s how it works:
- I recruit churches to do at least one activity for autism awareness month in April.
- Churches choose an activity that meets the needs of their congregation.
- I provide consultation for each church that participates.
- Each church holds their activity and takes pictures during the event.
- Churches fill out an evaluation form giving feedback on the initiative.
Our 2016 event was a great success, so I decided to push forward with the initiative in 2017. The energy and excitement from the 2017 event was amazing! I’m looking forward to making this initiative an annual event!
It was wonderful working with such a committed group of ministries for our 2017 Autism Awareness Month Faith Based Initiative! The following churches participated:
- Bethesda Church of God in Sumter, SC
- Calvary Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, NC
- Christian Fellowship Church in Warner Robins, GA
- El Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Columbus, MS
- First Christian Church in Richlands, NC
- Greater First Baptist Church of Cedar Creek in Fayetteville, NC
- Harvest Builders Worship Center in Warner Robins, GA
- High Praise Orlando in Casselberry, FL
- High Praise Panama City in Panama City, FL
- Living Word Community of Faith in Hitchcock, TX
- Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, NC
- Real Faith Church in Leesburg, GA
- Smith Chapel Freewill Baptist Church in Fayetteville, NC
- South End Missionary Baptist Church in Fayetteville, NC
- South Metro Ministries in Sharpsburg, GA
- Willow Grove AME Church in Horatio, SC
- Word and Worship Christian Center in Sumter, SC
AUTISM AWARENESS ACTIVITIES
Participating churches chose activities to promote autism awareness, acceptance and inclusion. I provided consultation for the churches and access to resources. Here are a few of the church activities.
- Church members wore blue.
- The Pastor or designated speaker discussed autism facts with the congregation.
- Members set up display tables with information about autism and available resources.
- Volunteers in the special needs ministry were recognized.
- Parents of children with autism shared their personal testimonies.
- Autism facts were shared in church bulletins, display boards, videos and newsletters.
- Volunteers built a sensory wall for a child with autism.
- A youth pastor taught a special lesson about autism.
- Special prayer was offered up for families affected by autism.
- Handouts and promotional items were given to persons stopping by display tables.
- Children’s church taught a lesson to the congregation about autism and respecting differences.
The Autism Awareness Month Faith Based Initiative started in 2016. That year, we had 16 churches and 3090 persons that learned about autism at church! In 2017, we had 17 churches and 2485 persons that learned about autism during our initiative! Since 2017, we’ve had 23 different churches participating, with a few that are on their second year of participation. When adding up the number of persons for 2016 and 2017, we have a total of 5,575 persons! There may be duplication in the number of persons that learned about autism since we have some churches participating for the second year. However, it is likely that those persons learned even more about autism this year!
Many churches shared a desire to do even more to make their church special needs friendly, such as reaching out to more special needs families, creating sensory rooms and providing special needs services. Quite a few stated that their members didn’t even know about autism and the initiative made them more aware.
We were blessed to have Jocelyn Green donate three copies of her book: Refresh: Spiritual Nourishment for Parents of Children of Special Needs! Churches receiving these books will share them with parents of special needs children as a means of encouragement. We greatly appreciate Jocelyn’s contribution!
PICTURES FROM THE CHURCH ACTIVITIES
FEEDBACK FROM THE CHURCHES
Participating churches filled out an evaluation form that shares their thoughts about the initiative. Here are some of the comments:
“We are so glad to join in with other churches to bring awareness to autism and the need for special needs ministries!” – Gale from SC
“So proud of you for developing and growing this initiative to make churches more aware of how special needs families are impacted when they come to church.” – Jackie from NC
“We are thankful that we can be a part of this initiative!” – Anisha from MS
“Amazing! A perfect way to provide education and promote acceptance through education.” – Vicki from NC
“It’s eye opening because a lot of people weren’t aware about autism.” – Sylvia from NC
“It upsets me that families with special needs often stay at home on Sundays because there are no accommodations. We need to reach them. I hope to have our own service for special needs families.” – Yancey from GA
“Thankful for the opportunity to participate! It’s something we would not have thought of on our own.” – Chelsea from FL
“I love it! You just never have an interest/concern until it hits your house. Now we are all in! There is so much to learn and do.” – Debra from TX
“We are going to do a sensory room and next year, we want to include the children in our program!” – Inez from NC
“Many members had no idea what autism is. This activity provided tools, info and resources about autism.” – Stephanie from NC
“People began to ask how they can get involved in special needs ministry.” – Jennifer from GA
“We have 2 families directly affected by autism and are finding ways to incorporate each child every week. It is a wonderful initiative that is much needed. Jesus cares and loves all of his creation!” – Tawanda from SC
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
The future is bright for the Autism Awareness Month Faith Based Initiative! Please join us for our 2018 initiative and help make our churches more autism friendly! If you are up to the challenge, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email at: Tonya@tonyanash.com.
If you would like to read more on the studies mentioned above, see below:
- Ault, M. J., Collins, B. C., & Carter, E. W. (2013). Congregational participation and supports for children and adults with disabilities: Parent perceptions.Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 51(1), 48-61. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/docview/1348130922?accountid=14434
- Tarakeshwar, N., & Pargament, K. I. (2001). Religious coping in families of children with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 16(4), 247-260. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/doi/pdf/10.1177/108835760101600408
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism Spectrum Disorder: Data and Statistics. 2017. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html.