Engaging Autistic Church Members

Sometimes it can be difficult to help autistic kids be active in the Church. What can parents, ward members, and Church leaders do?

My thirteen-year-old brother screamed his displeasure at my mom, his words laced with obscenities too awful and shocking to write here or anywhere else. But they weren’t shocking for us. When you live with a kid who has autism, it’s not unusual to become accustomed to violent, curse-filled outbursts.

While my brother is on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum, he suffers from pretty serious social anxiety, an elevated need for alone time to recharge after public outings, and a tendency to explode when he’s upset or uncomfortable. So it should come as no surprise that a three-hour LDS church service is nearly impossible for my brother to participate in successfully. I’ve often wondered what my brother or parents are supposed to do. It’s apparent to me that his absence from church has hindered his spiritual progression. Yet, for my brother, attending church and really engaging with the gospel in any meaningful way require more than simply trying harder; they require more than just willpower.

With autism, there is not one-size-fits-all solution. But the Shepherd knows his sheep.

Photo by Senjuti Kundu

I was reminded of my brother when I read the story of Ethan in “Embracing Ethan, Accepting Autism,” by Jeff Kornegay. Ethan is an autistic kid with many of the same challenges as my brother. Brother Kornegay explains that at one point, he and his wife were trying to decide, with the counsel of their bishop, whether Ethan should be ordained as a deacon. After studying Church materials and sincerely praying, the couple and their bishop decided that the answer was yes. In fact, the bishop even expressed, “I hope Ethan does have a meltdown while passing the sacrament” because it would help the members to understand Ethan’s needs and to develop a stronger bond with him.

Unlike Ethan, my brother hasn’t been given the priesthood. He hasn’t attended church in some time. However, recently my parents, after praying about how to help my brother engage with the gospel in a meaningful way, felt inspired to use pictures in the Gospel Art Book to share a short gospel message with him each evening. This activity is “small and simple” (Alma 37:6), but it’s become something that my brother looks forward to and asks about on his own.

With autism, and other similar disabilities, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But the Shepherd knows his sheep. Through prayer, parents and Church leaders can find ways to minister to all of God’s children.

To learn more about Ethan’s story, read “Embracing Ethan, Accepting Autism,” by Jeff Kornegay.

Source: Ensign

—Kevin Zalewski, Mormon Insights

feature image by cody davis

Find more insights:

For more ideas on assisting autistic members, read “How Primary Leaders Can Help Children with Developmental Disabilities,” by Julie Christensen.

For another perspective on having an autistic family member, check out the article “My Brother and Autism,” by Catherine Aviles.

Read the LDS church’s information about autism and how to teach autistic Church members.

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