One of the conversation points we have often heard regarding our son Noah in worship is, “will he make too much noise.” In other words, will he distract others from being able to worship?
It is a conversation point that has come to me in various ways, which is always disheartening as both Noah’s father and the pastor of a church. You also know what the conversation means. Your child is not welcome in the church unless they “act right.”
The language surrounding the noise an autistic child may make or fears that a child may be disruptive in worship are some of the biggest impediments to inclusion in worship. Even in my current appointment, we have found comfort in my family worshiping online. When my wife and kids worship online, we do not have to worry about the fears of our child being too disruptive to someone else. But, it is also a recognition that we do not always feel encouraged to bring our children into the sacred space of community worship.
So, how do we move from condemning a child for a meltdown, which often they cannot control because of sensory overload, to having compassion and understanding for the situation?
First, try to tune out the distraction. It is vital to remain focused on the purpose of worship and not something taking place a few pews over. An individual often expresses their feeling of distraction by shifting in their seat, turning their head, or whispering in the pews. I have seen all of these in worship. When a meltdown happens, we need to remember why we came to worship. We are here to give focus and glory to God. When a child has a tough time processing worship, perhaps utter a prayer of “turn out the distractions, so that I may focus entirely upon you and your presence.” This is similar to a prayer I say each week before the sermon. The prayer seeks guidance from God, so that we may hear what God desires for us in the day. Saying this prayer, or something similar will help focus our attention on worship and not on other noise.
Second, if a parent or guardian is present, let them handle the situation in the way they deem necessary for that child. It is tempting to want to step in and help, and often we do this so the situation will end quicker. Often our efforts in wanting to help only add to the overwhelmed sensation and can bring more chaos to an already chaotic moment. The parent or guardian will know the calming techniques that are best for that child, and they need to be the one in control of that moment.
Third, after worship, especially if the parent or child is present, offer a word of encouragement. Approach the parent or child with words of love and encouragement. A good word to say would be, “I am so glad you were here” or “I am always so thankful to see you.” Refrain from expressing words of condemnation or questioning, such as “what happened” or “Is everything ok.” Those questions only add to the distance between a family and the church and create additional anxieties and feelings of judgment.
These three simple steps can make a difference in how we respond to meltdowns and creates a safe and welcoming environment for all to experience the love of God in worship.