Mike Woods: Human Engagement and Children on the Autism Spectrum

We’re pleased to share with you the third installment in Mike Woods series of guest posts in honor of Autism Awareness Month.  Mike currently serves as Special Needs Ministry Director at First Baptist Church of Orlando. For more info on Mike, click hereToday’s post addresses the importance of providing comfort to children and adults with autism spectrum disorders and the theologic foundation to his ministry’s approach to relationships with persons who have special needs.

The first chapter of John reveals a couple of important truths about why Jesus came to be with us:

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world…Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”

John 1:9,12

For me these passages share two important truths.  One, Jesus turned on a light for us spiritually.  Two,  He built a bridge for us relationally.  As you read  through the Gospels it becomes apparent that Jesus often established a pattern of establishing relationships and then sharing truth…building a bridge, then turning on a light.

Sounds easy enough and this pattern describes what many special needs ministries are striving to accomplish.  But how does one do this with children and/or adults on the autism spectrum?  Many consider social interaction deficits to be the core deficit of autism.  Many suggest that the presence of deficits in reciprocal social behavior is what distinguishes autism from other psychiatric disorders.  As listed in the diagnostic criteria, impairments in social interaction associated with autism include:

  • Deficits in nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, and gestures to regulate social interaction.
  • Failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level.
  • Lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment and interests (e.g., by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest), and
  • Lack of social or emotional reciprocity.

As people who are called to special needs ministry, I believe that we should strive to accomplish the same things with the children and adults we serve that we see Jesus do: Build a bridge, then turn on a light.  However, with kids and/or adults on the autism spectrum this can be a challenge…but not impossible!

In order to be able to do this with those on the autism spectrum, it’s important to be familiar with how Jesus, the Master of developing relationships, interacted with people.  Christianity is about entering into relationships with people…ALL people.  And in order to be able to do that, it’s important to be familiar with how our Lord developed relationships and interacted with people.   In our special needs ministry at First Baptist Orlando we use the C3 model (Comfort, Confirm, Challenge) as our approach to developing relationships and strengthening engagement with kids on the spectrum.  The C3 model is based on Jesus’ interactions with people with disabilities.

The first “C” in the C3 model is “Comfort.”  Creating a mutually valued relationship means that we need to help a child with autism feel safe and secure with us.  We have to be careful that our physical presence does not signal fear or create anxiety for the child.  The acceptance of human presence and engagement with others are the cornerstones of relationships.  Learning the meaning of human presence, engagement, and unconditional love leads to mutual and potentially reciprocal feelings and interactions that signal respect, worth, and sharing.

In a previous post I provided some ideas on how to establish engagement with children on the autism spectrum using the C3 model.  In this post, I want to focus a little bit more on why we should establish human engagement with children on the autism spectrum.  In ministry, as we draw near the child with autism, we need to enable the feeling that being with us and participating with us draws us closer together, opens up opportunities for sharing, and begins to establish a backdrop for friendship.

A core belief in Christianity is that the value of a human being isn’t based on what a child can do or can’t do, but it’s based on who they are.  Our belief is that people’s lives take on value and meaning because they are made in God’s image.  I would add that human beings made in God’s image are interdependent: dependent on God and dependent on one another.  This core truth serves as the foundation for our need for engagement with one another.

To be engaged is to feel that it is good to be with someone else, interact, share, and give and receive human valuing.  Being together and being engaged in the flow of ordinary life communicates feelings of union.  Engagement is not a relationship based on manipulation or control, but the affirmation of the other through mutual participation.

Therefore, a primary focus with kids in a special needs ministry should be to bring about engagement.  This is facilitated by doing activities with the child and using this structure to express acceptance and valuing.

The Sunday School teacher decides to establish engagement with a hesitant boy named Daniel.  Instead of focusing on gaining compliance and having Daniel try to independently complete a Bible story related craft, she sits beside him, reaches her hand out, and offers words of value while also completing the craft with him.  She does not mind that Daniel is not “complying,” but is focused on having him feel that it is good to be near her and know that she is there to help.  Daniel’s hesitancy begins to diminish as he learns that his teacher recognizes his value and is there to help.

In the beginning, we have to enable the elaboration of engagement.  Putting aside the desire to require compliance, we have to be present with the child and avoid dominating the interaction.  As in teaching the C3 step of “Comfort,” we need to concentrate our efforts on valuing, moving toward the child whether or not the child actively participates in our Sunday school activity or not.

As special needs ministry staff or volunteers, we have two basic choices when it comes to enabling human engagement.  One is to try to make the child comply with us by giving him rewards for compliance.  This method is often very prevalent in educational and service settings.  The by-product of this approach is that it often teaches kids on the autism spectrum that engagement with other people is always involves doing something for them.   They learn that it’s in the “doing” that affirmation is given.

The other choice is to create a newly emerging meaning of our engagement with the child.  This choice seeks to develop a relationship thru unconditional valuing.  Valuing that does not depend on contingencies but is given because he is a human being with a hunger and longing for affection and warmth.  To unconditionally value another is to uplift, respect, and honor someone whether with words or nonverbal expressions.  To do this unconditionally is to express it regardless of deeds done.

When Kimberly refuses to participate in the Sunday School lesson, the teacher does not attempt to gain compliance with a promised reward.  She approaches the little girl as a friend.  She sits down with Kimberly and does the task with her, even if she has to do everything.  All the while, the teacher dialogues with Kimberly, gives unconditional worth, and gradually creates feelings of safety and security.  Kimberly’s cries lesson; the teacher quietly picks up a book and helps her turn the pages.  Kimberly gazes up and smiles at the teacher.

The teacher chose not to center her interactions with Kimberly on “you need to do this” and the use of a reward to gain compliance.  Instead the teacher chose to establish a pattern of engagement based on unconditional worth.  This requires us to put aside the urge to focus our efforts on the completion of an activity or obedience.  Remember that the purposes of human engagement are to teach the child that it is good to be with us and it is good to do things with us.  The key word is with.

Children with autism are like flowers. They need to be nurtured with great care. They are delicate and need our full attention until their roots are deep and strong. The main nurturing that we do is to teach our little ones to feel safe with us and loved by us.  This is best accomplished through the process of establishing human engagement with them.

Thursday: Giving Unconditional Worth to Children on the Autism Spectrum

Our Key Ministry team has two exciting training opportunities in April for our friends from around the U.S. Harmony Hensley will be presenting on the topic: Under Construction: Building an Inclusion Ministry at the McLean Bible Church Accessibility Summit in McLean, VA on April 21-22. She’ll be joined there by guest bloggers Aaron Scheffler of Mark 2 Ministries, Jolene Philo of Different Dream Parenting and Shannon Dingle of Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.  Registration info is available here. Katie, Rebecca and Harmony will be offering a free, day-long JAM (Jumpstart All-Inclusive Ministry) Session at Two Rivers Church in Knoxville, TN on Saturday, April 28th. Click here for registration info.

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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2 Responses to Mike Woods: Human Engagement and Children on the Autism Spectrum

  1. Tarasview says:

    thank-you for writing this- I wish I could give this to every single person who comes in contact with my son at church (and in life really).


  2. Mike,

    Great info to pass along! Thank you for sharing. Church offers a holy place to be spiritually nurtured. Yet we know that not all who attend or need to be served, walk in or have the ability to participate or experience a service or bible study in a traditional way.

    Personally, I believe God is with us all on an every day basis. That He loves all His children and doesn’t want anyone to be left out of His flock no matter how they present or communicate. It can be a thoughtful and energy draining process to attend church as a family within a church community when there are social pressures to conform.

    Providing a Church for Every One, is a tall order. However, it seems you are providing such a grace filled opportunity for an inclusive experience.

    I believe God wants us to treasure each other. He doesn’t differentiate or label how we should look or talk in order to do that. It is we humans who label, and follow that with measurement.

    Because Autistics present with a social communication difference other than most ‘traditional’ verbiage based language speakers, just because they are labeled ‘disfunctional or disabled’ by humans who think they are normal, doesn’t mean they aren’t ‘available to us or God!’

    Since early childhood, I have worked with and for the most part, understood humans and animals who have experienced severe traumas, and present with ‘differences,’ always feeling this to be a gift. As God’s servant, using the gifts He gave me, my work with Autistic communicators, as well as others with ‘special needs’ is not about me. Yet, it brings me great joy every time I see a smile, hear a word or witness a moment of their joy!

    I must give God credit for what humans witness as breakthroughs in health, livelihood and communication. To me, they are nothing short of miracles, which keep me humble and eternally aware of Gods power and grace. And they happen over and over and over again, especially if you practice patience and allow, not force, as you write Kimberly practices so graciously in your church.

    So….What a gift it was to read about your faithful practice and experience of God’s holy grace in those who faithfully give up what we take for granted.

    I look forward to reading more.

    In Christs name.
    Suzanne Johnson Dortch

    (I have been working in the field of Equine Assisted Therapy specializing in PTSD and Autism since the late 1960’s. I co- founded one of the first riding therapy programs in the US and in 1971,became one of the first US citizens to be Certified as an Equine Therapy Instructor. I have been an advocate for the environment and para-equestrian activities and lobbied for both able bodied and special needs groups. In 1982, I became the first woman Extraordinary Eucharistic minister in the Catholic Church Diocese of Nashville, Tennessee. LIFEHORSEQUINE.ORG is a Faith based Communication Coaching practice using horses as Gods helpers in H.uman E.quine L.earning P.rograms such as PUSH TO GROW PARENTING, CIRCLES OF INFLUENCE LEADERSHIP, RIDE TO READ, LEARN TO LEARN.
    The LIFEHORSE PROJECT is an ongoing research initiative investigating the scientific and spiritual aspects of horse/human interactions focusing on humans who experience life para-abilities, mainly PTSD, Autism, Aspergers and Alzheimers. )


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