Asperger's Disorder (Autism Level 1) and Spiritual Development

This blog series was on Asperger's Disorder and Spiritual Development was originally presented from March 25th-April 29th 2012. Special thanks to Mike Woods from the Special Friends Ministry at First Baptist Orlando for his invaluable contributions to the series...Thanks as well to Jeremy Collins and the Children's Ministry Websummit for the video of the presentation I presented on the topic at the 2012 Websummit.

Square Pegs and Round Holes…Helping Kids With Asperger’s Disorder and Social Disabilities Grow Spiritually

Today we’re launching a series to help support churches seeking to minister more effectively to families of kids with Asperger’s Disorder and other social disabilities. The blog series will kick off five weeks of special content in honor of Autism Awareness Month. This series will also accompany a video presentation I’ll be offering on the topic as part of the 2012 Children’s Ministry Websummit, available online, everywhere, free of charge (registration required), from April 2-6.

In today’s opening installment of the series, I’ll share some observations about challenges facing families and churches who desire to effectively include and disciple children and teens with social disabilities.

Churches are social institutions. That’s not at all surprising in light of the traditional view that Christianity differs from other faiths in focusing upon a relationship with Jesus as opposed to religious rituals or practices. In his best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren identifies fellowship as one of the five purposes for which man was created. Two of the other purposes (ministry and mission) Warren describes are largely carried out in the presence of others. Worship is viewed as a communal activity. The REVEAL survey found that the fifth purpose (discipleship) is catalyzed by organized church activities and spiritual activities engaged in with others, in addition to spiritual beliefs and attitudes and personal spiritual practices. When it comes to kids, our teammate, Libby Peterson teaches four “fantastic faith forming family functions” – Talk, Pray, Read, Serve…encouraging parents to talk with their kids about the Lord, pray together as a family, read the Bible together and serve together.

So…where does this leave kids and teens who are “hard-wired” in such a way that they struggle to engage in and comprehend relationships?

God created all of us as unique human beings. His purpose is revealed through all of his creation, especially through those of us created in His image. Is it an accident that more kids in this generation are being identified with Asperger’s Disorder and other autism spectrum disorders than in previous generations? I can’t imagine that we’d see so many kids with these conditions unless God has some larger purpose in mind. And I can’t imagine he doesn’t have a plan for the kids and their families to come to know him.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll try to ascertain how we can help to make our churches more inviting and inclusive for kids who struggle to relate to other people and their families. We’ll look at specific challenges kids with Asperger’s Disorder and other social disabilities face in doing weekend worship, participating in church activities, practicing spiritual disciplines and growing in faith at home. We’ll look at how family-based ministry approaches might be utilized, tips for church staff and volunteers and ideas for promoting spiritual development. Because Jesus loved the lost sheep that drifted away from the rest of the herd.

Understanding Kids With Asperger's Disorder:

As we begin our discussion of how churches can more effectively connect with, welcome and support kids with Asperger's Disorder as they mature spiritually, a good place to begin is to establish a common understanding of the condition.

Listed below are the diagnostic criteria for Asperger's Disorder from DSM-IV.

A. Qualitative impairment in social interaction, as manifested by at least two of the following:

  • marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction
  • failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level
  • lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people (e.g., by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)
  • lack of social or emotional reciprocity

B. Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, as manifested by at least one of the following:

  • encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity of focus
  • apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals
  • stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g., hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements)
  • persistent preoccupation with parts of objects

C. The disturbance causes clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

D. There is no clinically significant general delay in language e.g., single words used by age two years, communicative phrases used by age three years).

E. There is no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or in the development of age-appropriate self-help skills, adaptive behavior (other than in social interaction), and curiosity about the environment in childhood.

F. Criteria are not met for another specific pervasive developmental disorder or schizophrenia.

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s disorder. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Fourth edition---text revision (DSM-IV-TR). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 84.

Let's examine the criteria more closely...

Qualitative impairment in social interaction: Compared to what one would expect based upon age and intelligence, kids with Asperger's Disorder struggle because of a relative inability to intuitively know how to act in social situations. They may not  process social cues (body language, facial expressions, voice tone, inflection, context) in a manner one would expect for their age and intelligence. They may have difficulty grasping when adults are becoming frustrated by their behavior or peers find them off-putting.

They also tend to struggle with empathy...the ability to identify with and understand another person's situation, feelings and motivation. As a result, many of my patients with Asperger's struggle greatly to make and keep friends. When younger, many of them are content and comfortable to play by themselves and dwell on the games and activities they find most interesting. As they become teenagers, many (but not all) express feelings of loneliness. Some are desperate for friends...they struggle because they don't know how to pursue friendships or fear trying to connect with peers because of lingering hurt from teasing or bullying.

Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. The feature most frequently associated with Asperger's Disorder is intense interest in a subject or topic that seems odd or unusual for one's age. The first child I met with Asperger's walked in the room carrying a foot-high pile of books and pictures of buoys. I have a patient who taught himself Japanese when he was in kindergarten. A patient from a Christian home became preoccupied with (and memorized) the Book of Judges. Not every child with Asperger's has these intense preoccupations or interests, but all kids I've met with the condition seem to experience difficulty with cognitive rigidity or inflexibility. Parents struggle when the child needs to transition from an enjoyable to a necessary activity. Changes in routine or unfamiliar situations often evoke great distress for the child and their family.

Clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. Asperger's Disorder represents a significant disability. Typically, kids with Asperger's will struggle to function at a level commensurate with their intelligence in school and experience difficulty making and keeping friends. They are far less likely to be involved in extracurricular activities (especially sports) common for kids of their age and intelligence in their communities. They also tend to struggle with fulfilling age-appropriate roles as a member of their families.

No clinically significant general delay in language. Kids with Asperger's tend to acquire speech and develop receptive and expressive language in accordance with developmental milestones. Their speech may be different than their peers...marked by a lack of rhythm, an odd inflection, or a monotone pitch.  They often lack the ability to modulate the volume of their voice to match their surroundings.  They may need reminders to speak more softly every time they go to the movies or attend adult worship services with their families.

There is no clinically significant delay in cognitive development. By definition, kids with Asperger's Disorder have (at least) average intelligence. In my practice, the average IQ of our patients with Asperger's is significantly above average. This raises a very interesting challenge for churches...

When we think of the term "Special Needs," what comes to mind? My guess is that most of us think of kids with intellectual disabilities. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the majority (59%) of kids diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders are of normal to above-average intelligence! I've seen kids with Asperger's stop attending church after (presumably) well-intentioned efforts to serve them by including them in "Special Needs Ministry" programming. They see themselves as having little in common with kids identified as having "special needs" and in many instances, kids with Asperger's and high-functioning autism are very sensitive to any public identification of being different. We'll talk more about strategies for inclusion in later posts, but kids with Asperger's will confound programmatic solutions.

The bottom line...If you've met one kid with Asperger's, you've met one kid with Asperger's.

More stuff you should know about kids with Asperger's Disorder:

We reviewed the diagnostic criteria for Asperger's Disorder and emphasized the notion that the unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses seen in kids with the disorder complicates efforts to serve them programmatically. We'll continue our discussion today by examining three additional characteristics of many kids with Asperger's that often complicate their ability to participate in activities at church.

Kids with Asperger's Disorder are more likely than their peers to struggle with motor skills and coordination. As a result, common activities that occur in children's ministry settings (arts and crafts, hand gestures during praise and worship songs, games played in children's church or during VBS) may be more challenging for kids with Asperger's and evoke more frustration. They may be sensitive to teasing that results from peers observing their lack of competence during such activities.

Kids with Asperger's Disorder are more likely to experience difficulty with attention, concentration, organization and/or obsessive, inflexible thinking relative to their peers. By some estimates, 60-70% of kids diagnosed with Asperger's Disorder will also meet symptom criteria for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). As a result, they are more likely to have difficulty inhibiting behavior, self-regulating emotions, maintaining focus and staying on task compared to kids without Asperger's. Here's a post from that may explain the link between ADHD and autism spectrum disorders, as well as a resource page on ADHD and spiritual development.

Kids with Asperger's Disorder are more likely than their peers to experience issues with sensory processing. When kids struggle with sensory overload, likened to a neurological "traffic jam" that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly, they experience difficulty processing  and acting upon information received through the senses. Here's an excellent handout on the condition from the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation. Kids who struggle with sensory processing issues experience challenges in performing countless everyday tasks.

Translate this to a typical children's ministry environment...lots of noise, too many kids talking, bright lights, vivid color. Kids with conditions associated with sensory processing disorder (common in kids with Asperger's Disorder) may find church environments experienced by "neurotypical" kids as vibrant and engaging as unpleasant or aversive.

Spiritual Growth Challenges for Kids With Asperger's Disorder:

We spent time reviewing the criteria used to diagnose Asperger's Disorder, and looked at some of the  challenges kids with Asperger's experience as a result of other conditions frequently associated with the disorder. Today, we'll use this information to anticipate the obstacles to spiritual growth kids with the condition are likely to encounter.

Let's start with weekend worship experiences. As we discussed on Thursday, kids with Asperger's are significantly more likely to experience crowded worship areas with bright lights and loud music with discomfort compared to their same-age peers. If the child and their family aren't regular attenders, doing church represents a change in the typical routine...a situation that is more likely to evoke anger, tears and frustration than in kids without Asperger's. Maintaining appropriate prosocial behavior may be more challenging for the child with Asperger's in less familiar environments. The teen with Asperger's may have more difficulty navigating the social aspects of church. In the churches my family has attended, more teaching and discipleship takes place in small groups as kids transition into middle school and high school. Teens with Asperger's may be more comfortable in large group teaching than in small group settings. Picking up on social cues in small groups presents a greater challenge. It's all too common for my teen patients with Asperger's to tell me they encounter kids at church on the weekend who have been cruel to them during the week.

Kids with Asperger's may have more difficulty responding appropriately during transitions from one church activity to another. Kids who respond well to the weekly Christian education programming may find special events (Vacation Bible School) too overstimulating, or experience difficulty adjusting to a different type of church activity. Similar to kids with anxiety, those with Asperger's may be more uncomfortable with overnight activities or retreats in unfamiliar places. Lots of pictures, video, and for younger kids, social stories may make it easier for parents of kids with Asperger's for unique, one-time or annual activities. Teens with Asperger's are especially sensitive to rejection by peers and have more difficulty overcoming negative experiences of church, compared to same-age peers. Teens with Asperger's are less likely to have friends to invite them to church, youth group, special activities or mission projects. As a clinician, it would be very helpful to have churches in my area that are deliberately inclusive in engaging kids with Asperger's...we're always looking for supportive environments where kids who struggle socially can meet peers who are likely to be encouraging and supportive.

In learning and practicing spiritual disciplineskids with Asperger's may have a harder time demonstrating sensitivity to the needs of others. They may be less introspective than their peers. They have more difficulty grasping abstract concepts. The classic example...The child with Asperger's who hears the term "Ask Jesus into your heart" may become preoccupied with the mechanics of how Jesus is going to get inside their body and not grasp the concept being taught.

Some kids with Asperger's may perseverate on negative thoughts and their own guilt when considering the concept of sin. I have one patient from a Catholic family who would perseverate and become so upset when she realized she had done something wrong that a major meltdown usually followed. In second grade she was expected to make her first confession to a priest-her parents were worried about she would handle the situation. Katie Wetherbee had been working with the family around educational issues. Together with the Christian education staff from her church, a plan was worked out for our girl to go to the priest with a list of character traits and behaviors she wanted to ideal solution for her.

Teens with Asperger's may be more reluctant to try new spiritual disciplines and are vulnerable to developing a spirituality than can become mechanical and ritualistic over time. They may become excessively legalistic in their faith. Corporate disciplines will likely create more discomfort than solitary disciplines.

Parents may struggle significantly to engage a child with Asperger's in learning about the family's faith if the child doesn't find the subject interesting. Managing the transitions involved in getting the child ready for church is likely to present more of a challenge for parents of kids with Asperger's compared to parents of kids with anxiety or ADHD, because kids with Asperger's will often demonstrate more rigidity or inflexibility when asked to stop a pleasurable activity to move on to a necessary activity. Aggressive behavior is more likely to occur around transitions. For all too many parents, the time and effort required to get the family to church becomes too overwhelming. Teens with Asperger's may be less likely to engage in family service activities shown to be effective in promoting spiritual development. Negative experiences with peers can produce conflicts between the teen with Asperger's and their parents around church attendance of a greater intensity than seen in neurotypical peers.

Here's a slide from my Children's Ministry Websummit presentation summarizing some of the common obstacles to spiritual growth experienced by kids and teens with Asperger's Disorder:

Barriers to Inclusion at Church:

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.

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?

Mike Woods ... Comfort, Confirm, Challenge:

One of the primary outcomes for each team member in our Special Friends Ministry is to develop relationships with each and every child and adult with special needs that we minister to.  The process that we use to develop a relationship is called C3 (Comfort, Confirm, Challenge) and is derived from the many interactions between Jesus and people with disabilties in the Gospels.

Strengthening the relationship is important because it lays the foundation to helping children develop their faith based on the developmental age as I have previously blogged.

It’s been my experience with my son who is on the severe end of the autism spectrum, and other children with special needs, that developing a relationship with a child on the spectrum can be challenging (but worth it!).

The most striking feature of autism is social disconnection.  Children with autism appear neither to be interested in nor able to “read” the social world.  It is as though they are “blind” to the sometimes complicated, emotionally loaded give-and-take of human interaction. Writing of one of the boys in his study, Leo Kanner (known for his work related to autism) stated:

“He paid no attention to the persons around him. When taken into a room, he completely disregarded the people and instantly went for objects, preferably those that could be spun. Commands or actions that could not possibly be disregarded were resented as unwelcome intrusions. But he was never angry at the interfering person. He simply pushed away the hand that was in his way or the foot that stepped on one of his blocks…” 

The boy in Kanner’s study pushed away interfering body parts without seeming to understand that they were attached to a whole person – a person with his own intentions and desires. They were just objects that happened to be in the way. This is very typical of some children on the autism spectrum.

However, our Special Friends Ministry team is determined to create and maintain relationships with our children on the autism spectrum.  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 the Master of developing relationships interacted with people.  That’s why we use what I call the C3 model:  Comfort, Confirm, Challengethat’s 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 (or adult) 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 a child with autism.  The acceptance of human presence and engagement with others are the cornerstones of relationship.  Learning the meaning of human presence, engagment, and unconditional love leads to mutual and potentially reciprocal feelings and interactions that signal respect, worth, and sharing.

One of the primary outcomes for each team member in our Special Friends Ministry is to develop relationships with each and every child and adult with special needs that we minister to.  The process that we use to develop a relationship is called C3 (Comfort, Confirm, Challenge) and is derived from the many interactions between Jesus and people with disabilties in the Gospels.

It’s been my experience with my son who is on the severe end of the autism spectrum, and other children with special needs, that developing a relationship with a child on the spectrum can be challenging (but worth it!).

Christianity is about entering into relationships with people…to include children with autism and other special needs.  And in order to be able to do that, it’s important to be familiar with how Jesus, the Master of developing relationships, interacted with people.  That’s why we use what I call the C3 model:  Comfort, Confirm, Challenge that’s based on His interactions with people with disabilities.

The first “C” in the C3 model is “Comfort” and I discussed this first step in the relational building process in a previous blog post.  The second “C” in the C3 model stands for ”Confirm.”   This second step in the process focuses on establishing and sustaining for children/adults the truth that their worth and value isn’t based on what they can or can’t do…it’s grounded in God’s love for them and the fact that they are created in His image!

There are over 20 references in the Gospels that teach us something about how Jesus confirmed someone with a disability.  If you look at these interactions I believe that there are 4 important “ingredients” that Christ modeled for us.  As we facilitate confirming a person’s worth and value we need to identify what these ingredients were so that as “imitators of Christ” we can be more nurturing towards the individuals we serve.

Tips for Church Staff and Volunteers:

In our current blog series we've looked at some of the common characteristics of kids with Asperger's Disorder, outlined impediments they face to spiritual growth and obstacles families of kids with Asperger's face when attempting to "do church." Today, we'll get very practical and examine some helpful hints for church staff and volunteers involved in serving kids with Asperger's.

1. Consider the impact of sensory stimulation in your ministry environments. We've discussed some of the challenges faced by kids with Asperger's resulting from differences in how they process sensory information. They're more likely to have a successful church experience in sensory-friendly ministry environments. Using lower-watt light bulbs in your children's areas, lowering the volume of music during large group worship, utilizing slightly less vibrant color schemes and establishing a special entrance and/or drop-off point for kids with Asperger's or other sensory issues are all potentially helpful strategies. Here's a post on ministry environments Harmony Hensley shared as part of our ADHD series in 2010 that's also applicable to kids with Asperger's

2. Inclusion is not an "all-or nothing" proposition. Partial inclusion may be an option. Some kids with Asperger's might do fine with every aspect of your children's programming except for large group worship. There's nothing wrong with them attending the beginning of the adult worship service, watching a video, serving in some other place in the church or practicing other spiritual disciplines during that time. Teens might come to large-group adult worship but feel uncomfortable doing a house group. That's OK. What's important is that your church establishes a relationship with the child with Asperger's and their parents that can be used to cast influence in the months and years ahead.

3. Consider creating service opportunities for kids with Asperger's alongside adults in your church. Parents of many of my kids with Asperger's have observed that their children relate better to adults than with their peers, because adults tend to be more tolerant of personality quirks or subtle differences in social development. Providing kids with Asperger's opportunities to serve with adults helps them grow in confidence by tapping into their gifts and abilities, promotes the development of spiritual friendships and helps them to internalize an understanding that they have a valuable role to play in the body of Christ.

4. Offer kids with Asperger's the opportunity to rehearse new experiences and activities. Kids with Asperger's are more likely to be successful in a new situation when they have a clear understanding of what will be expected of them and the opportunity to practice/rehearse the social skills they'll need to be successful. This principle would apply to small groups or house groups, retreats and mission trips. Sharing lots of video or pictures of where they will be, the activities they'll participate in and providing opportunities to role-play interactions they'll have to navigate with trusted adults can help to ease feelings of anxiety in kids with Asperger's prior to a new experience and enhance the likelihood of a successful outcome.

5. Promote disability awareness among kids served in your children's/student ministry. I understand that children's and youth ministry leaders have a tremendous amount of content to cover and relatively little time with their students to cast influence, but the treatment kids with Asperger's experience from their peers at church has a HUGE  impact upon the likelihood that they'll continue to attend church as teens or adults. Kids with Asperger's are generally more sensitive to teasing/bullying from peers...they tend to perseverate on negative experiences and have a very difficult time letting go of past hurts. Creating ministry environments in which all kids feel valued and welcome is not only's a whole lot easier than trying to undo the damage that can follow a hurtful experience at church.

Mike Woods: Human Engagement and Children on the Autism Spectrum:

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 readthrough 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.

Mike Woods: Giving Unconditional Worth to Children on the Autism Spectrum:

In my previous post I discussed the important of human engagement with children and adults with autism in an effort to develop relationships.  Our goal is to bring a nurturing spirit into the special needs volunteer/child relationship…one that is characterized by genuine warmth, mutual respect, and unconditional worth.  In order to facilitate these relational characteristics it is essential to maximize the use of giving unconditional worth.

Unconditional worth refers to any action on the part of the special needs staff/volunteer that recognizes and expresses the dignity, worth, and value of the child.

Whether verbal or nonverbal, unconditional worth can be given any time, not just contingently.  In other words, unconditional worth is given regardless of any particular behavior because it is given for who the child is, not for what s/he has done.  We should avoid the tendency to value a child only after he has done something well, accomplished a task, or complied with a direction.

Giving unconditional worth conveys sincerity and genuineness.  It is communicated through words, physical touch, gestures, or any other form of nonverbal or verbal expression.  The three most common methods of giving unconditional worth are:

Verbal :  any interactions involving words or vocalizations that express authentic and joyful vocal expressions.  These range from the specific words that you use (i.e., “God has a great plan for you Bobbie, and I look forward to discovering what it is!”) to your tone of voice.

Physical:  any interactions involving appropriate physical contact that express worth, value, and respect.  Hugs, handshakes, and patting are a few examples.

Gestural:  any interactions involving smiles, nods of approval, and/or positive facial expressions that express the child’s worth as an equal being.

Giving unconditional worth shows children with autism that we welcome them…just as they are…for who they are.  Unconditional worth is more than a type of reward, because rewards are typically given for compliance.  Unconditional worth is given rather than earned.  It is expressed even in difficult moments.  Giving unconditional worth should be a regular part of our engagement with a child with autism and demonstrate through words, gestures, and appropriate touch, our acceptance of the child.  These types of interactions are central to what we do as special needs ministry staff and volunteers.

Special needs ministry can sometimes feel like a challenging road to journey.  Ministering to children and/or adults on the autism spectrum, especially those whose behaviors can be difficult, requires us to remember what we are doing and why we are doing it.  It asks us to be people who embrace showing others their value as human beings through unconditional worth.

Being His presence, His words, and His hands to children with autism asks us to be empathic with those who are unable to reach out toward others until others reach out toward them.  It involves a commitment to give value even when being rejected; it asks us to be tolerant, respectful, and persevering.  The desire to engage even the most “distant” child on the autism spectrum with unconditional worth is based on the belief that all of us long to develop friendships in this life and that this feeling for being with others and a sense of belonging resides in all of us.

Strategies for promoting spiritual growth in kids with Asperger's:

If a parent of one of my patients with Asperger's were to ask me about what they could do to promote their child's faith development, aside from the activities that influence spiritual growth among kids in general, some of the ideas I'd share would include:

Helping your child to identify spiritual pathways that fit with their gifts, passions and the way in which their brain has been wired. There are multiple spiritual pathways in addition to the relational path...intellectual, activist, servant, contemplative, worship and creation pathways all help people to grow closer to God. When kids with Asperger's find their "sweet spot"...the place or activity in which they're most aware of God's presence and experience spiritual growth...they may pursue God with a single-minded intensity that's more difficult for persons without Asperger's to achieve.

Cultivating personal spiritual disciplines. Kids with Asperger's are often creatures of habit...they do well with, and benefit from routines. They may be more likely to stick to a regular schedule of Bible study or family devotions. In fact, their need for routine may help their entire family to do a better job of sticking to a routine around family prayer and/or devotional times.

Find them a job in the church. As we've discussed earlier, many kids with Asperger's will have an easier time relating to adults as opposed to their peers. Consistent with their age and maturity, providing kids with an opportunity to serve alongside adults helps reinforce the idea that they have gifts and talents of value in God's kingdom, and encourages the development of Christian role models outside of the family capable of reinforcing and supporting parental influence as they advance through the teen years.

Using electronic media to promote spiritual growth. Many of my patients with Asperger's seem to have a unique fascination with screens. There's nothing wrong with using videos, games or apps to teach kids about Jesus if they're most easily engaged through their electronic toys.

I'm convinced there's an important role for online tools in reaching teens with Asperger's and helping them to overcome their reticence to participate in youth ministry. In my experience, many kids with Asperger's and other social disabilities are far more comfortable with electronic modes of communication. I'm hoping Key Ministry will identify churches to partner with for pilot projects during the coming 12-24 months to explore uses of online ministry for teens with Asperger's. We'd be looking for churches with the capacity to stream their youth worship that would be interested in launching online small groups for kids with Asperger's in their cities led by an experienced youth pastor or small group leader. An additional purpose of the online small groups (beyond their role in promoting spiritual growth) would be the promotion of a sense of trust enabling group participants to work toward the goals of meeting in person at a local church, joining in large group worship, and becoming involved in the full range of ministries offered by the local church.

Tying it all together:

What are the most important things for a pastor, children's/youth ministry director or volunteer to remember when helping a kid with Asperger's Disorder to come to faith or grow in faith?

Kids who are less neurotypical are likely to require more individualized approaches to spiritual growth. They're too different to fit neatly and cleanly into "one size fits all" programming. When I think of my own caseload of kids with Asperger's, the differences are astounding. I saw a kid this week fortunate enough to attend a great church that appears willing to offer him a summer job...his family is concerned that his lack of attention to personal hygiene could become a problem and we strategized how they might work through this issue. I have another kid with Asperger's who sent me a Power Point presentation detailing the strategies he uses to better manage his obsessive thinking. Good luck trying to implement the same strategies in serving the two of them, although they share the same diagnosis.

Allow parents to take the lead in guiding the spiritual development of their children... come alongside them to lend resources, encouragement and support. To borrow from a famous figure in the family ministry movement, parents get 3,000 hours a year with their staff and volunteers (if fortunate) get 40-100 hours. Who stands the better chance of understanding the best way to teach kids about Jesus who process relationships and the world around them differently than everyone else? The person who goes to their kid's therapy appointments or the person who has spent the most time that week in church staff meetings?

Identify their gifts, strengths and talents and offer them opportunities to use them serving in the church. After all, church is the place where a kid's value isn't based upon their popularity, their athletic ability or their overall capacity for achievement but in the regard Christ has for them as a child in His Kingdom. And the Bible is very clear that all of Christ's followers have gifts and talents to contribute as the church seeks to reestablish  the presence of the Kingdom here on Earth.

Many of the kids I encounter with Asperger's Disorder and other social disabilities are desperate for friends and acceptance. What better place for them to find true friends than through His church?

Check out this disability ministry round table discussion with Carlyle on "Loving Out Loud: What Autistics Need to Connect."