Sunday begins the most important week in the Christian calendar. Holy Week, or Passion Week, marks the events of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, his arrest, death, and resurrection.
Holy Week is also a week where the church puts out its best effort in worship and special events because of the importance of this week to our faith. Church will offer additional worship opportunities, special activities, and additional musical elements. Churches will also see some of the largest crowds of the year.
These changes can be an overwhelming experience for individuals on the autism spectrum and their families.
There are several reasons why this is the case.
For one, what we offer during Holy Week is a change in routine. Many individuals on the spectrum expect sameness each day. There is some comfort in knowing that activities will be the same. It helps to guide through the day and to process sensory inputs. When there is a change in the routine, it can be an overwhelming experience for someone on the spectrum. Even moving the order of worship due to the day’s needs can cause stress for the individual.
Another reason is the environmental changes that often come with Holy Week and the special aspects of worship. In terms of environment, I am referencing things within the individual’s surroundings that can provide additional sensory inputs. Someone on the spectrum receives several new aspects of inputs to process during Holy Week. Palm Sunday worship includes the processional of palms, which does not happen at other points in the year. Easter worship often includes additional musical elements or soloists. The larger crowds can push against an individual’s personal space. All of these can put pressure on the individual.
It is vital for churches that want to be more inclusive of the autism community to understand how these changes can affect individuals. How do we move forward?
First, communicate with the individual, a parent, or guardian about what the church is planning. Communication is important. Letting them know what to expect and how they can participate is important in building inclusion during special events. It allows that family to spend time processing with the person that there will be changes in the routine.
Second, have someone working specifically with that person, especially if it is an event outside of worship, to help guide them through the event. One-on-one support is essential for the church when engaging autistic individuals. This provides someone who can encourage the person, keep them safe, and also guide them through the event.
Third, recognize that a person on the spectrum will have their limits. Some will push through the noise and changes and do well. Others, like my son, will only be able to take so much before wanting to leave. Recognition comes in listening to the person and their clues that will inform you if they can keep going or need to stop. Volunteers should not force an individual to do more than they can handle. A conversation with a parent or guardian before the event will help you know what clues a person may have.
These are some ideas to help make special events in the church more inviting and inclusive of families on the spectrum. We cannot assume that every child will engage in activities at the same rate. The most effective engagement in the church comes in learning from the individual and adapting to meet that person’s needs.