“Doing church” when kids struggle with social communication…

OstracizedIn our third segment of our Winter 2014 blog series Including Kids and Teens With Mental Illness at Church, we’ll take a closer look at challenges that arise to “doing church” when kids and teens experience difficulties with social communication.

Churches are intensely social places…and presumably, were intended to be social places by  God. Max Lucado was quoted as saying the following…

Christ distributes courage through community; he dissipates doubts through fellowship. He never deposits all knowledge in one person but distributes pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to many. When you interlock your understanding with mine, and we share our discoveries, when we mix, mingle, confess and pray, Christ speaks.

The emphasis upon Christian community permeates and shapes much of what the local church provides to promote discipleship. We gather together once or more each week for worship. In most Protestant churches, our kids gather together on Sundays in ministry environments with other kids of approximately the same age. In the Roman Catholic tradition, kids who don’t attend parochial schools typically gather during the week for religious instruction. In many churches, parents are expected to be active participants in a small group. While school-age children may experience some group breakout sessions in their Sunday school classes, by middle school most of the churches with which I’m familiar expect kids to belong to a small group. In high school, many of the small groups meet in someone’s house as opposed to the church. Teens are often encouraged to go on domestic or international mission trips

Smart kid with iPadWith that said, let’s consider the challenges a kid would experience who has difficulty picking up on body language or the meaning behind the tone and inflection of speech if their parents decided to start attending your church. What if they didn’t intuitively grasp common rules of social behavior (such as knowing when to speak, or how to take turns while speaking) or struggle to find the right words to effectively communicate their thoughts or feelings in unfamiliar or stressful situations?

If this kid’s family wanted to attend church…

  • How might the kid experience their first encounter with greeters at your front door, or in their age-appropriate worship environment? What about their first encounters with your ministry leaders?
  • How would they respond to the the expectation to interact with other kids…kids likely to be less familiar to them than the kids they struggle to interact with during the week at school?
  • How would you feel attending a worship service in a church in a different culture or denomination if you struggled to pick up on what to do by watching what the folks around you were doing? How might a child or teen feel in that situation?
  • What might a kid with social communication difficulties think if they walk into a large group situation in which the majority of kids may be older? What might they experience if they’re in middle school or high school and see the majority of kids clustered in comfortable peer groups?
  • How will the kid feel when they encounter kids at church who made fun of them at school during the week?
  • What resistance might this kid demonstrate if encouraged to attend Bible study or small group in an unfamiliar home?
  • Will the family be able to attempt church if the child struggling with social communication becomes defiant about leaving the house and isn’t yet of an age when parents might consider allowing them to stay home alone?

From a diagnostic standpoint, the kids we’re discussing here would previously have been described with Asperger’s Disorder, or might currently be diagnosed with Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder under the DSM-5 if they struggle with language pragmatics but lack the restricted, repetitive pattern of interests and behaviors that characterizes kids with autism spectrum disorders. Kids with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorders generally have very substantial difficulties with social communication and are well-served in the context of our existing special needs ministries, either through inclusion or self-contained ministry environments.

Kids of normal to above average intelligence with social communication difficulties don’t have lots of great alternatives for engaging in church in ways that aren’t threatening or overwhelming. Because kids with these challenges are most often the kids who are bullied or picked on at school, all too frequently they’ve already internalized a very negative self-image (as we discussed in our last post) and will be absolutely horrified if someone suggests they participate in a “special needs ministry.” We need an alternative strategy for welcoming kids with these conditions and their families into the ministry environments of the local church.


Square Peg Round HoleKey Ministry has assembled a helpful resource on the topic of Asperger’s Disorder and Spiritual Development. This page includes the blog series Dr. Grcevich and Mike Woods developed for Key Ministry, links to lots of helpful resources from other like-minded organizations, and Dr. Grcevich’s presentation on the topic from the 2012 Children’s Ministry Web Summit. Click here to access the page!

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, Families, Hidden Disabilities, Inclusion, Key Ministry, Ministry Environments, Spiritual Development and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Doing church” when kids struggle with social communication…

  1. Jeannette says:

    This is an excellent article about the challenges we face, but I would love to hear your ideas on solutions to these challenges. What are some practical ways we can make our youth environments more welcoming to socially challenged teens?


  2. drgrcevich says:

    Hi Jeanette,

    Thanks for your comments. I’m definitely planning to address the “What do we do about it?” question as the blog series progresses, because a number of ideas I’m going to suggest will cut across multiple barriers to church participation. In the meantime, here are a couple of posts from a series on kids with Asperger’s Disorder from two years ago that include some practical suggestions…




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