This article was previously published on Abby’s blog on Patheos.com Church can be stressful for everyone. But when you have a special needs child, the stress levels go up. One of the most beautiful things I’ve learned recently, as a special needs mom, is the power of letting your child be himself. My son has High Functioning Autism. But I’ve been trying to fit my son into a box, figuratively, for a long time. And I’ve been so frustrated as he has popped out of that box time and again. I’m learning to be more flexible in my expectations of what the “right way” to do things is. It has been especially helpful at church. Let me illustrate.
It’s the age-old battle that every church-going family faces. That dreaded time when the whole congregation is quiet, and you are expected to be too, but your child has other ideas. Before my son could talk it was cute, and I would just take him out in the hall and let him run around and play.
What was I going to do? He was just too little to understand. These days he is a big and strong seven-year-old. And in my perfect world, he would be willingly wearing the cute little mini suit and tie, sitting in the chair beside me, holding perfectly still and listening to the speaker. (Pardon me while I laugh my head off!) But that is NOT what happens.
Changing my approach
Like many autistic spectrum kids, my son HATES scratchy, restrictive clothing. He hates ties, he hates shoes, and really would rather just be in his pajamas all the time. But he has learned that we do have to wear clothes in public (and Church is public) so he puts up with it. I have had to give a little too. I probably will never get him into a suit and tie. But cute elastic waist cargo pants, a comfy shirt with a collar, and shoes that don’t light up, make an outfit we can both be happy with. Crocs are his current favorite type of shoe. And I’m learning to love them. (Did you know they can go into the clothes washer? Happy dance!)
Next, we address my image of him sitting in the chair quietly next to me. My son does NOT like to sit still. Even when he is sitting still he is moving. The foot is tapping, the leg is swinging, the bum is shifting, and whoever is sitting right next to him gets bumped repeatedly. And that’s when he is in the chair. He also loves to lay flat on the floor. (That gets us lots of looks.) So I’ve been working on keeping him in his seat. One way I’ve found to help him hold still and stay seated is to let him lean on me. He likes the warmth and the touch. So I will put my arm around him, and that stills the constant bumping.
Another tip I’ve tried is to move where we sit at church. We used to sit on the cold metal folding chairs in the back of the chapel because it was easy to make a hasty exit if he acted up. But I am finding that if we sit on the padded, upholstered pews he sits much better.
The pews also provide a degree of cover if he decides he needs to sit on the floor, or hide in the corner, or play with toys. We are all a little more relaxed with this situation, so we have given up being ‘back of the room’ people.
The Bag of Fun
The next issue we needed to address at church was how fidgety he can be. Following the suggestion of his occupational therapist, I’ve gotten various “fidgets,” toys he can manipulate that make little or no noise, but are interesting. That one step has helped us a LOT. I have a special bag I reserve for Sundays. We call it “The Bag of Fun.” And I keep those special toys in there. He can only play with them at church, and only if he is behaving himself.
If he gets up and runs around, then the toys get put away till he is ready to have his butt in the seat. If you are looking for some ideas I found mine on Amazon and searched for Autism toys and Occupational Therapy toys. There are literally hundreds of options. I just looked for what would interest my son, and what was most affordable and practical.
I’ve recently discovered, through the occupational therapist, that snacks and sensations will help to calm or wake up a child. When my son needs to wake up a bit, a crunchy snack will make him more alert. So I have pretzels and crackers in the “Bag of Fun” now. It’s also a great trick when it’s time to do homework and he is dragging. Heck, it even helps me when I am writing and feeling droopy to get something crunchy to snack on.
I’ve learned that sucking things through a straw will calm him down. So I’ve found some coffee straws and we sip water through them. Pudding or applesauce through a regular straw works well too. And when I pick him up from school and know he will be a little wired, I keep some applesauce and a straw handy. It’s all about creating pressure around the lips with the sucking motion and making the muscles work. That is why a tiny straw with regular water or a regular straw with thick things is the trick.
Pay attention to Senses
It’s amazing how interconnected our senses are with our emotional well-being. I may have mentioned the super soft fabric that I’m in love with called “Minky” fabric. I found mine at fabric.com here. The “rose cuddle” style is the softest. I made a blanket with it for my son. He loves to pet it, and wrap up in it when he is trying to unwind.
Putting him in the hammock with the Minky blanket also does wonders to relax him. And I have a small handkerchief sized section of the soft cloth in the “Bag of Fun” to take to church with us.
It’s getting better
Things are getting better. I can’t say that we are the model family in our congregation. There are likely those who try not to sit by us. But I am not having emotional breakdowns any longer. I can sit with my family at church and not feel like I’ve fought some kind of battle by the end of the service. My son is less disruptive, and one day may even like church. Right now I am just working on loving him, being patient with his needs, and addressing what I can.
This is not the image I always had of my family. But it’s a lot more interesting than I expected. And as I’m making these adjustments for my son, and I’m helping him to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation, things are getting easier. I still can’t cram him into my imaginary box. But I can sit and listen to the service without my child feeling like I’m torturing him.
Our family harmony is improving as things aren’t a fight any longer. And I can see more of my son’s gifts. It’s about letting him be himself, adjusting what is uncomfortable for him, and going on with life. I love helping him succeed.
Abby is a one of those women who accidentally finds herself on the PTA board. She loves to be involved, and nothing matters more to her than her family and her faith. She comes from a family with many autistic members. And now she gets to see how her mother felt raising an autistic son. As she wades into this new world, she invites us to join her. Hopefully, we will all learn something new along the way. If you or a family member have autism yourself, Abby wants you to know that this isn't a bad thing. It's just an adjustment, and you or your loved one are not sick or broken. Together we will learn this new language.