Asperger’s Disorder…Barriers to Inclusion at Church

Last Sunday, we examined some of the challenges to spiritual growth kids with Asperger’s Disorder are likely to encounter. Today, we’ll focus our attention more specifically on barriers to inclusion of kids with Asperger’s at church.

In order to include kids with Asperger’s Disorder at church, we first have to get the parents to bring them to church. There’s not a lot of data at this point on the heritability of Asperger’s, but in my practice, a not insignificant percentage of my patients with Asperger’s have parents who appear to share some of the same characteristics, and as a result, parents most likely to have a child with Asperger’s may be underrepresented compared to other young adults in churches. We’ve discussed that kids with Asperger’s may have more difficulty managing transitions…parents of kids with any special need are more likely to be exhausted by the end of the week after dealing with daily struggles to get their child ready and out the door for school. Church can become one more task for parents who are already overwhelmed. Because of the social isolation that results from having a child with Asperger’s, parents are less likely to come in contact with other families who’ll invite them to church through sports and other types of extracurricular activities.

Church environments don’t necessarily play to the strengths of kids with Asperger’s Disorder. We’ve already discussed this point at some length with respect to sensory processing. Bright lights, loud noise, bustling environments with unfamiliar people…all present challenges for the child with Asperger’s that are greater than those faced by same-age peers.

The reality that kids with Asperger’s may be very precocious in some areas of development but significantly delayed in others complicates program placement at church. Many will be extremely resistant to placement in a “special needs ministry” or to interventions (such as having an assigned buddy) that result in the appearance that they’re somehow different from their peers. We have a saying…If you’ve seen one kid with Asperger’s, you’ve seen one kid with Asperger’s. I have a patient of elementary-school age right now with an IQ that’s probably in the 160-170 range (four or more standard deviations above normal…high end of genius range) who at the same time can be extremely immature socially. We’re starting to broach the subject of church with the family and thinking about the types of church activities in which he might be successful and specific churches willing to do a highly individualized program working with the family is challenging.

Their experience with “Christian” kids at school. There was an interesting study that came out last week showing that the majority of kids with Asperger’s are bullied at school, and that kids with Asperger’s are more than twice as likely to be bullied compared to kids with other autism spectrum diagnoses! If our churches are going to be successful at welcoming and including kids with Asperger’s, our kids have to behave differently than other kids at school and out in the “real world” than their peers who don’t attend church.

Next: Applying a family-based ministry model when kids have Asperger’s

Reminder…The Children’s Ministry Websummit continues through Friday, April 6. Click here for downloads of my lecture handout and FREE registration! My presentation is on the topic Square Pegs and Round Holes…Helping Kids With Asperger’s Disorder and Social Disabilities Grow Spiritually.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
This entry was posted in Autism, Inclusion, Resources and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Asperger’s Disorder…Barriers to Inclusion at Church

  1. Kim Gabriel says:

    Dr. G:
    You are so right on target here with what we see in our ministry here in Charleston. We have a 15 year old with Asperger’s who is, of course, brilliant. I call him our poster child for our ministry. When our ministry was only a couple children, I would walk a couple kids around the church and just came across him (I’ll call him Kyle) sitting on the floor outside the middle school ministry. Of course, he didn’t look like he had special needs. The two kids I was walking were both physically challenged. Kyle did not want to speak to me. He had a chair toppled over on the floor and was ready a book about the ocean. I decided to sit on the floor with him. He started talking to me about the book. It soon became apparent this was a brilliant child, then about 8 years old and absolutely no one (not even the kids middle school pastor) paid any attention to him. So, I repeated this pattern every week. He told me he knew everything he needed to know about religion. I believed him. But what he didn’t have was a relationship. I asked the middle school pastor what was the story. Apparently, he had been coming for quite some time. Didn’t fit in. His dad said he had to come. So, he sat outside until his dad picked him up. And, by the way, he also has a special needs sister!
    AHHHHH! This family was a ministry all to themselves! Eventually, I talked to the dad. At this point in the church ministry, we only had space in a little room off the nursery (of all places). He really didn’t fit in there. I told the dad, it really wasn’t about where we met, it was about a relationship. I wanted to find what K was good at. In the meantime, we continued to meet on the floor in the hallway along with any other special needs child as our ministry grew. I guess looking back that was a good thing. He helped us get exposure.
    One day, completely unexpected he showed up in our little room! Completely confident because we had a relationship. He started contributing by walking our little girl who is profoundly disabled in her wheelchair. He walked her all over the church. They got noticed.
    Today, you should see this kid. He is 15. Strong and confident in our relationship. Yes, there are days he is a struggle to reach. But his gifts are amazing. There are amazing buddies with him. The buddies of a child with Asperger’s, I’ve found, have to be older than the child. You really have to match their interests. We rotate buddies every other week. He has buddies that are 30 somethings. Each week he has either Leonard and Jenn or Arlen and Kelly. Interesting that both of them happen to be couples. Kyle trusts them so much. He talks to them about relationships – he went on his first dance as a CITADEL cadet two weeks ago! They coached him. They also are helping him understand that a person like him, with his passion for all things DOLPHIN, has the ability to change the world around him. They are helping him create a website and a video. When he walks into the room and they aren’t there yet, he say’s “Where’s my people?” It’s so amazing.

    Another thing we are thinking about doing. We also want to help families with the transition of getting into church. Just getting kids into the car is one thing, getting them out of the car and into the church could take another 1/2 hour. Add this strain on the the siblings. I can’t say I blame for deciding to just forget it. We’d like to start the “Curb Service” for our ministry. Parents would text us or their buddies when they are about the arrive and we meet them in the front of the church for drop off. We take the special needs child, check them in, etc. They park and handle the other kids. Stress free.

    I’m trying to bring awareness to the church there’s more to doing 1 1/2 hours of Sunday church for families with special needs children. We need to do life together. Simple things like asking if we can take the sibling along when we go get ice cream. Or if we see them at our kids soccer game, don’t just say hi and walk away. Say something like, “you know, I’d be happy to bring your child to the game or drop them off”. Just open the door. Little things. Just do life together. One moment at a time.

    Thank you for your posts Dr. G. They are so, so helpful.

    There is a topic I’d like you to talk about later. We tend to focus on children’s ministry and the large population of children with autism. I have a huge passion and concern for the church making sure these children do NOT age out of church. They age out of school and the vast majority are lost in the obess. This is why the disabled is the highest percentage of homeless. Where are the adults with Autism in this country? We need to be concern about and equip the churches and these families for the future. It cannot be one dependant on the govenment because they are not capable of that kind of love and sustainability. I can only come from the Body of Christ understanding we are all in this together. And, at the right this is growing (at an epidemic rate) the future is NOW!

    Would love to explore this with you.

    Like

    • drgrcevich says:

      Hi Kim,

      This was great…would you mind if I took your comments and turned them into a guest post?

      Some of the comments I wanted to make in response to your post I included in today’s post on family ministry approaches. In response to a couple of your other comments…

      Harmony would be a great resource to you around the issue of transitioning kids in and out of church. They had established a separate entrance for kids with sensory issues when she was at Cincinnati Vineyard. Our Board VP (Libby Peterson) has been working on the adult issue as the original Bay Pres kids served by the ministry in the late ’90s are reaching adulthood.

      E-mail me (steve@keyministry.org) if you’re cool with the guest blog thing. Would you be interested in doing a call-in to our ministry team meeting some Wednesday morning?

      Like

  2. Kim Gabriel says:

    Dr. G,
    My passion gets ahead of me….. sometimes the words are out of order…..
    Last sentence should say
    And, at the rate this is growing not at the right this is growing

    Like

  3. Ryan Edlind says:

    Hey Steve,

    I have been tracking with your blog posts- and it has been great to read them! Also, thanks for including me in the Inclusion Fusion webinar. That was fun!

    Regarding aspergers- it has been a huge challenge to identify and communicate with my church people and local mental health providers. Aspergers seems to be elusive- even for highly trained mental health professionals. Many seem to struggle with this disorder in particular with diagnosis, clinical indicators, intervention strategies, affordable treatment options, and lack of real life “success” examples- are a few particular issues that seem to compound this problem.

    Practical questions- can you post (for public reading) or email if you have some answers?

    1) Adult ADHD programs seem to be growing in our town (Cleveland). Do you forsee the same happening for adults dealing with Autism? (Esp. for the kids who age out of programs).

    2) Are you aware of any local or national resources to adress adult Aspergers and Autism? I have several high functioning adults in our congregation (lawyer/ accountant types) who suffer privately. Most therapists don’t have a deep pool of resources from which to draw.

    3) Also, what are some of the psych-metric tests you might perform to validate or rule out aspergers? What weight to you give to these available tests in your assessment/ treatment?

    Blessings to you and your ministry!
    Ryan Edlind
    Pastor of Care Ministries
    Cuyahoga Valley Church
    redlind@cvconline.org

    Like

  4. Thanks for this series on Aspergers – I have a grandson turning 12 who lives this struggle. His parents have done some amazing things with him and they know the biggest struggles lie ahead. These posts have given me some ah-ha’s and encouragement.

    He has an amazing understanding of the Bible. I look forward to seeing God’s plan for him. As a grandmother I want to protect him from the hurt of rejection he experiences – but maybe God is doing that. My daughter told me last week, “Mom he isn’t even aware he is being rejected. He just keeps reaching out.”

    Again thanks.

    Like

  5. drgrcevich says:

    Hi Ryan,

    In response to your questions…

    I doubt that we’ll see any identifiable programming for adults with Asperger’s…programming for adults with intellectual disabilities (such as offered through Friendship Ministries) will continue to grow. My impression is that most folks with Asperger’s can use their intelligence as a compensatory mechanism in learning enough social skills to get by. I’ll often tell parents that their child with Asperger’s will probably go to the prom, but they probably won’t be prom king or queen. I may be doing something later in the year related to the book “Introverts and the Church.” That’s the context in which I think they’ll be served.

    In terms of national resources, I’d check out what the Autism Society of America has available. Lynne Soraya is a writer with Asperger’s who writes a blog and facilitates discussion boards for Psychology Today. I’ve asked her to do a guest blog.

    In our practice, we use the GARS (Gillian Autism Rating Scale) as a screener.

    Thanks again for helping with Inclusion Fusion…you did a great talk!

    Like

  6. drgrcevich says:

    Hi Wanda,

    Very cool about your grandson. I wonder if a church could successfully offer an after-school program incorporating a social skills component as a missional outreach? The key would be having enough trained people to do the social skills component.

    Like

    • Steve,

      Your comment about after-school in connection with kids with disabilities made me think – in my 20 years of training churches to implement after-school ministries I have no memory of a child with autism. These were mostly, if not all, churches in inner cities of America.

      We had kids with ADHD etc. but much less than I see in suburban areas. My son is Children’s Pastor in a church in silicon Valley – his church has more kids with learning disabilities, allergies, etc. than I’ve seen anywhere. When I served in churches 30 years ago in Orange Cty. CA (wealthy area) I had kids with autism.

      Do you find there are more disabilities, especially autism, amongst the wealthy, better educated?

      I’d be interested in your thoughts on after-school social skills. I think it is possible.

      KidTrek’s training of churches was to work with the whole child. So they covered Life Skills as well as all else. I’m sure the Life Skills we did is different from what you are thinking of. We emphasized a ratio of 1 adult to 5 children – the adults did intentional, walk through life ministry with the whole family.

      Like

  7. drgrcevich says:

    Hi Wanda,

    There have been some studies suggesting a higher prevalence of autism among children with parents pursuing technical careers (engineering, science, computer technology), but overall, families of kids with autism tend to have somewhat lower incomes than what would otherwise be predicted.

    The problem I see with the social skills groups that are available privately in our area is that I’m not sure the frequency of the groups (weekly or every other week) is adequate in most instances to significantly impact the child’s functioning. I think this is an outreach that a church could potentially offer after school, assuming there were enough volunteers with the appropriate training, supervision and experience to implement the protocols that are out there.

    Like

  8. Dear All,
    I am always interested in reading C4EC and associated comments and find them informative and key to my work and continuing research. It is such a blessing for those able to attend a church equipped to welcome and spiritually feed ‘special needs’ individuals, their families and caregivers.

    Personally, I grew up with parents who presented with both savant abilities as well as displayed social skills associated within the Autism Spectrum and PTSD. God, horses and nature were the three saving graces of our family life and where we drew our strength from. Church per se was a haven, and a place to grow in community as well as in faith. Horses and nature provided a living way to practice being servant leaders and became living outdoor churches. Differences to our family were merely differences not labels of pervasive problems. It was how you did function that was empowered. In addition to growing up to accept and respect communication differences, I feel blessed to have been gifted by God the natural ability to interpret non-verbal or non-traditional human languages, as well as easily read the micro expressions and silent languages of animal species, most especially horses.

    Lucky for me, God was never someone you had to go to church to get to know. And humans who were ‘different’ weren’t any less loved by God.

    Since 1969, I have worked as a professional equestrian, instructor, trainer, competitor and judge. In 1970, I founded one of the first Equine Assisted Therapy Centers in the U.S. and the following year, became one of the first Americans to be certified as an Equine Assisted Therapy Instructor.

    Over the years, my focus has been primarily individuals with ‘special needs’ most especially, but not limited to, Autism. It is a language pattern and social presentation I understand, and have practiced de-coding and translating for many years. Facilitating therapy sessions between a horse and a human is, for me, a blessing and a spiritual event.

    In 1982, I became the first woman invested in the Diocese of Nashville, Tennessee as an Extraordinary Eucharistic Minister. Since then, I have incorporated that into my role as a mother, equine therapy professional and coaching practice.

    1n 1999, I combined my professional riding instructor skills with equine therapy practices and founded a faith-based Communication Coaching and Consulting business, LIFEHORSEQUINE. (www.lifehorsequine.org) The LIFEHORSE PROJECT is an ongoing research initiative, based on the scientific and spiritual aspects of horse/human interactions with a focus on Autism, PTSD, and Alzheimers. The initiative specifically discusses para-language systems, communication coding patterns, genetics, generational aspects, epi-genetic(environmental) effects, and nutrition.

    With all that said, It is my feeling that we are given an opportunity to practice Gods love in our daily lives….that there is a difference between being spiritually informed and spiritually sustained. What impacts an individuals functioning and capabilities is the experience they have communicating with themselves and with those around them, no matter their social presentation. In our quest to be spiritually fed and lead, God is here for us every day of the week.

    Yours in Christ,
    Suzanne Johnson Dortch
    http://www.lifehorsequine.org
    A Horse does not awaken every morning, find a mirror, measure itself and then believe it would look and feel better as a different horse.

    Like

  9. drgrcevich says:

    Suzanne,

    Thanks for joining us! Is there a link to a specific page or article on your site that readers can check out to learn more about how you integrate horses, ministry and kids with autism?

    Like

  10. Concerned says:

    Thank you so much for posting an Asperger’s awareness article! I have a 14 year old son with Asperger’s and he refuses to go to church. He was raised in church, and when he was young, he went without problem. About 2 years ago, it became too loud during worship, not structured enough, and now he refuses to get up in the mornings to even go. He hates the chit chat before and after service, and it makes him want to flee for the doors. It is SO hard for me right now. The transitions from the bed to the car is exhausting if I can even get him to do it at all. I have stopped going, because I just feel defeated! He prefers a highly structured church with some short hymnals, and lots of routines. I am a member of an evangelical branch and it really is more spontaneous and different from week to week than other churches might be. We went to one church for about a year that was more his style. It was very routine, very structured, but he had to meet one on one to discuss scripture with a church elder and he hated that. He also felt judgement from others who he felt wondered if he was saved or if he was really a Christian because he lacked social skills in the church setting. Once he felt that judgement, he was out for the long term and I can’t get him to want to go back. He thinks all Christians will judge him by his personality, and it makes him feel bad and not want to go at all. People at our new church tell me to make him come because he will thank me for it later: but he can’t handle the loud worship service. I love our church, but I don’t know what to do…It is too overwhelming for my son. We are not the kind of family that goes to church on Sundays to do our job. We are Christians everyday of the week…I want to teach him to carry this into adulthood and that’s what I strive to do. I feel that going to church causes him too much stress which has caused him to resent Christians (not Christ) as well as feel uncomfortable in the environment because of the stimulus that he can’t seem to handle. What would you do? I would love some advice from an expert who understands Asperger’s (because most people/Christians that I talk to don’t) 🙂 Thanks!

    Like

    • Hi Concerned!

      My name is Harmony Hensley and I serve as the Director of Ministry Advancement at Key Ministry. I have had some experience with kids who have a hard time connecting at church due to some sensory integration concerns. Here are a few thoughts that may help.

      If you really want to try to make it work at this church (sounds like you love it ), you could try to get him connected with a very structured/ regimented serving team? Perhaps this will help him be more comfortable and will help to make some relational connections. As Steve mentioned before, you may want to consider connecting him in a serving role such as the parking team (very systematic, and little interpersonal interaction), or a video production team? Many of those team members wear headphones that force them to focus on only one camera angel and the sound of the director’s voice. Do they have a facilities team that does regular checks of the building throughout the service? Just thinking out loud (or online) on this one. They likely have some great “behind the scenes” serving opportunities. If he could at least engage for the hour in a way that suits his sensory needs and creates a bit of a regimented schedule perhaps that could help? Further, having an assigned task could help him to feel valued or respected by “Christians”.

      Another thought may be – Have you considered finding a Catholic Parish in the area? Their services tend to be VERY predictable and less sensory engaging which could be a great fit for your son. Maybe he could connect there for a while to see if that works?

      Another idea might be this – do they record their services? Is there a room at the church that they could live feed the service onto a television and he can watch quietly in a smaller, more intimate environment? We’ve done that before for some of our kids that hated the large group experience on Sunday Mornings.

      I hope this is helpful for you. We are passionate about finding a church for every child; just like your son! Prayers for a meaningful connection at a great church for your whole family!

      Like

  11. drgrcevich says:

    Hi Concerned,

    It sounds like this church might be a fit for your family if not for the loud music. I’d wonder if there’s someplace in the church your son could serve during the time in the service the loud music is playing? At a church we used to attend, one kid who was sensitive to the loud music was given a regular spot on the church’s parking crew. He’d finish up his job around the time the loud worship music was finished. If a spot were found where your son could serve, it might reinforce to him the notion that everyone has gifts and talents to contribute to the Kingdom.

    Feel free to contact Katie (katie@keyministry.org) Rebecca (rebecca@keyministry.org) or Harmony (harmony@keyministry.org) for more specific advice. They would be happy to speak with your youth pastor if he was interested…It might be worth speaking with him (and offering our Key Ministry team as a resource) to discuss how your son might be fully included and experience a sense of welcome when participating in worship experiences and other activities through your church.

    Like

  12. Rebecca Hamilton says:

    Hi Concerned. This situation must break your heart and I’m so sorry it’s happening. All we want for our children as mothers is for them to find meaningful ways to worship, serve and be built up in their faith while at church. If we can help you talk through some other possibilities, please feel free to e-mail any of us at any time. We’ll be praying for you!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s