Barbara Newman has published an updated version of Autism and Your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Barbara has long been recognized as a thought leader on inclusion of persons with autism in the church. She is affiliated with Friendship Ministries from Grand Rapids, Michigan, an outstanding organization that supports churches with inclusion of persons with intellectual disabilities. The folks at Friendship graciously provided me with an advance copy of the updated version of the book that has been available here since Thursday. I was honored to have been invited to provide an endorsement.
Autism and Your Church is an excellent resource for church staff and volunteers seeking to more effectively minister to children and adults with autism spectrum disorders and their families, offering strategies for creating welcoming environments and practical solutions for churches seeking to be more inclusive of persons with special needs. There are lots of reasons why I think this book will become an indispensable resource for church staff and volunteers serving in children’s ministry, youth ministry or disability ministry.
A section of the book was written to help church staff and volunteers understand what autism spectrum disorders are and how persons with autism are different because of their condition. That section constitutes the best description of autism in layperson’s terms that I’ve ever come across, and I’m likely to use it with families coming through my practice when I need a resource to educate them about the diagnosis of autism and the differences in how the condition presents among people on the spectrum.
Another section includes ten practical strategies for including persons with autism in activities at church, including strategies for information gathering and sharing, monitoring sensory input, establishing routines, helping persons with autism prepare for changes in routine and new situations, and tips on teaching and communicating with persons on the spectrum with more severe language impairment. The book also provides a template for staff and volunteers needing to address problematic behaviors at church, along with steps for organizing a special needs ministry and lots of reproducible forms and questionnaires for ministry intake and planning purposes.
There is one section in the book that I think will generate some degree of controversy in the disability ministry field…describing an “Individual Spiritual Formation Plan” (ISFP) along with a sample copy of an ISFP for use with children and adults within the church with disabilities. Barbara appears to draw a parallel between an ISFP at church and the IEP plans that guide service provision and educational intervention for kids when they attend school. My concern about such plans is that they can communicate the wrong message to family members about where the responsibility lies for spiritual development of kids with disabilities. The primary responsibility for training kids with or without disabilities in the Christian faith lies with parents…it’s the role of the church to resource and support parents in that role. While it’s a great exercise for churches to be thoughtful about how to support inclusion of kids with disabilities through provision of physical accommodations, as well as accommodations in staffing, communications, curriculum and worship, referring to such accommodations as an ISFP could lead to parents developing unrealistic expectations that the church can and should provide the same intensity and sophistication of support found in the child’s school. Such plans may also result in parents of kids with disabilities attributing the responsibility for their child’s faith development to the church, as they attribute responsibility for their child’s education to the school.
Overall, I’d strongly encourage ministry leaders positioned to serve children and adults with autism spectrum disorders to buy this book, and suggest that family members of kids with autism consider purchasing a copy as a gift to their church. Autism and Your Church is not a book that’s going to collect dust on a shelf in the children’s ministry office. I strongly suspect it will become a well-worn resource on the desk of leaders in children’s youth, family and special needs ministry because the book offers many clear and practical suggestions to ministry staff and volunteers who seek to serve, welcome and include families of kids with autism in their local church.
The revised addition of Autism and Your Church is available for purchase now through Faith Alive Resources.