Applying a Family-Based Ministry Model When Kids Have Asperger’s Disorder

Many parents are quite surprised upon the completion of an initial evaluation in my office. At that point, I’ve met with the parents alone, met with the child alone, reviewed rating scales completed by parents, teachers (sometimes), their child (sometimes), reviewed treatment and educational records, shared my diagnostic impressions and clinical formulation, and (in most cases) discussed the advantages and disadvantages of a range of treatment recommendations. The parents usually respond by asking something along the lines of “What should we do?” My response is usually…”You’re the experts…you’ve known your child for their entire life, I’m your consultant. I’ll share with you the full range of options that are safe and appropriate, but I’m counting on you to know what options will work best given your understanding of your child.”

I think this mental model fits very well with our discussion of promoting spiritual development in kids with Asperger’s Disorder and other social disabilities. I’m a subspecialist with 21 years of experience in treating kids with significant mental health conditions following four years of med school, three years of Psychiatry residency at Cleveland Clinic and two years of child psychiatry fellowship at University Hospitals of Cleveland. If I view the parents as the recognized experts at understanding the treatment approaches that will work best for their child and family, how is a children’s ministry or youth ministry director supposed to prescribe approaches more effectively than a parent can when the child has the complexities that characterize many kids with Asperger’s?

So…If the parent(s) are the “experts” when it comes to individualizing strategies to promote spiritual development in kids with Asperger’s, what’s the role for the church?

First, the church can come alongside the family. Notice that I didn’t say EQUIP. Instead, the focus can (and should) be building relationships with parents of kids with Asperger’s. Caring, sacrificial friendships. Here’s a quote from Libby Peterson, Family Life Director at Bay Presbyterian Church…

“We are coming to believe that every time we tell parents we are here to “equip” them in the faith training of their children we reinforce their belief that they are not adequate AND we feed the cultural lie that parents should contract out each aspect of their child’s growth and development.  Parents need discipleship – to fall in love again with Christ – and encouragement to share what they know and are consistently learning with their kids. The church is here to HELP. Too often churches talk about partnering with parents when the church is in fact taking the LEAD and expecting parents to get on board with their initiatives.”

Libby discussed the topic of partnering with parents at some length in this interview from March of last year.

Churches need to define their “win” when it comes to serving families of kids with any special need, including Asperger’s Disorder and social disabilities. Here’s one way I’d suggest for defining the “win” in serving the family of a child with Asperger’s:

A “win” occurs whenever a child/family with a disability connects in a meaningful way with their larger family in Christ through the ministries of a local church.

This definition helps us to keep in mind that by welcoming the child/teen with Asperger’s to church, we also obtain the privilege of ministering to that child’s parents and siblings.

Doing church as a shared family experience may be a preferred option for some kids with Asperger’s. Depending upon the nature of your church’s ministry environments, the “adult” worship service may be a better experience for kids with significant sensory processing issues and more advanced cognitive/language abilities. Kids may not experience the same pressures for social interaction in the worship service with “grown-ups.” Depending upon your church’s denomination, the nature of your church’s liturgy or worship may be better suited to kids who are more comfortable with consistency and routine. Roman Catholic churches may be at an advantage because of the uniformity of their liturgy, even between different churches. Assuming the child/teen with Asperger’s doesn’t also have issues with self-control that preclude regular attendance in adult worship, inclusion with parents during the church’s primary worship services is certainly an option.

The church can help families of kids with Asperger’s to develop routines around spiritual disciplines. Reggie Joiner discusses the importance of “establishing a rhythm” in his book, Think Orange. Routine is especially important for the majority of kids with Asperger’s Disorder and other autism spectrum disorders. We also know from research that regular times for family prayer, Bible study or devotions, and service opportunities as a family are three of the main drivers of spiritual growth in kids. Promoting spiritual growth through a strategy that’s likely to provide added benefits behaviorally to a child with Asperger seems like an obvious win-win.

Finally, the church can represent one place where the child/teen with Asperger’s can experience an intentionally safe and supportive community. In our previous post, we referenced a study demonstrating kids with Asperger’s are twice as likely to be bullied in comparison to kids with other autism spectrum disorders. Wouldn’t it be cool if church could be one place where kids with Asperger’s could experience encouragement and welcome, along with their families?

Next: Tips for church staff and volunteers serving kids with Asperger’s Disorder.

Anyone interested in reading more about family ministry strategies for kids with special needs can check out our blog series from Winter 2011: Thinking “Orange”…Family Ministry Strategies When Families Have Special Needs.

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.
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4 Responses to Applying a Family-Based Ministry Model When Kids Have Asperger’s Disorder

  1. Steve, great article. I especially liked your insight about the church coming alongside the family, not equipping them. It gives the church a chance to do what church does best…build relationships, create community, and offer love and encouragement.

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    • drgrcevich says:

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your comments! Looking forward to sharing your contributions for Autism Awareness Month. Happy Easter to the Woods family!

      Like

  2. Ann Holmes says:

    Steve, this is an amazing article related to the church and special needs families and particularly those dealing with an Asperger’s diagnosis! Your point about “equipping” vice relational focus from the church/pastor, staff and others in the local church is so reasonable and refreshing! Thank you so much for the Godly voice and advocate you are for these families and the churches who serve them!

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    • drgrcevich says:

      Thanks as well for all you guys do! Looking forward to a more extended discussion of how our crew can support your ministry adventures in Pittsburgh.

      Like

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