My son in on the Autism Spectrum (ASD). He is high functioning, but from the minute he turned 3 he has really struggled with Primary. Here are a few things I wish every Primary teacher and leader knew because it would make it much easier for him to function and enjoy church.
1- He won’t look you in the eye when he talks to you.
It is a normal Autism quirk. It’s because he can’t filter the information, or he absorbs more information than most kids. (ie: buzzing of the lights, smell of your soap, sound of your voice, etc.) And looking you in the eye will overwhelm him.
He is listening. Just because he isn’t looking at you doesn’t mean he is being rude. He is trying his best.
2- He is going to be overwhelmed if your classroom or Primary room is noisy.
A lot of kids on the Spectrum are super sensors. They hear things and smell things stronger than other people. My son also tastes things nobody else can taste. He can tell the difference between brands of Mac and Cheese or brands of bacon. So if you can create a smaller class size, and give him a quieter environment, everyone will be happier.
3- My son will get fixated on something he loves. If you want the lesson to really hit home, use that in your favor.
For example, he really loves vacuums. This semester he took a programming class in Scratch. And when his teacher found out, he told me that there is an Irobot Create 2. I found a used one on eBay, and my son has loved every moment making that thing do tricks with Scratch. He has really learned the program now. So if you can take a moment to learn what my kiddo loves (ask me, I’ll tell you) you will be able to connect with him.
4- Be patient and keep trying.
My son has good days and bad days. Please keep trying, and be patient with him. Talking loudly about him in the hallway will hurt his feelings.
He has a different way of seeing the world. He isn’t deaf. And excluding him, speaking loudly at him because you think he isn’t listening, or venting your frustrations on him will only guarantee he will never come back to your class.
5- Be careful where you put the piano in the Primary room.
When we first started primary, the room was set up long ways, with the piano an arm’s length from the first row of kids chairs. That was TOO CLOSE. The piano was so loud that my son had meltdowns every week. Once they moved things around, it got a lot easier for him.
6- Take the time to explain things to him.
There is a boy in Primary who is lower functioning on the Autism Spectrum. He often screeches in the middle of the program. And that startles and upsets my son. He kept telling me how he didn’t want to go to church because that boy was there and he didn’t like him. But after I explained that the boy couldn’t help it, and wasn’t trying to be upsetting, my son showed a tremendous amount of compassion. Soon he wanted to visit this boy and show him his vacuum. (High compliment indeed.)
7- Spectrum kids often hate to be touched.
We didn’t know why our son was avoiding class —until I realized the classroom was crowded. All the chairs were in a row each touching the other. So when the kids sat down they would bump each other. It made my son uncomfortable. But with a little breathing room, he was willing to sit in class again.
Discussing the touching issue with the class is a great idea too. One little boy likes my son a lot, but his brothers and he like rough play. And he was confused by my son’s avoidance and meltdowns when he got hit. It will take time, but when the other kids understand, things will go smoother.
8- Discuss how to help in an age-appropriate way.
Like the ‘no hitting’ rule, we had to implement, there will be other things that come up too. Often Spectrum kids repeat themselves. It can annoy other children, and helping them understand they aren’t trying to be difficult will help. And if your spectrum child needs to sit on the floor, don’t let the other kids shame them. My son is still smarting from the firm shunning the other little 9-year-old girls gave him two years ago when he was struggling to sit in the hard, cold chairs in class. For him and his sensitive skin, that was a huge barrier. And the carpet felt much more safe to him.
9- Sometimes three hours of church is just too much.
A lot of people on the spectrum have social anxiety. It is hard to go to church, and overwhelming to be there all three hours. Currently, we bring my son to Sacrament meeting and then go home. There are weeks we will come only for Primary, or only for class.
When we were forcing him to be there all three hours we had serious fights to get him to church, and meltdowns immediately after we got home. But letting him have a more relaxed church schedule has been a blessing for our whole family.
10- Spectrum kids NEED toys at church.
We always have fidget toys with us. Some teachers complain or have a “policy” about no toys in class. But if you want my child to behave, keep his hands busy, and respect his need to fidget and wiggle. If you have an active lesson you will have an easier time with reverence. You can even let the other kids bring a small fidget toy too. You never know. It may make your whole classroom a more enjoyable place.
11- Let Mom or Dad be close by if they choose.
A lot of teachers are intimidated by a parent in the classroom. But for my child, I am his security blanket. Just sitting next to me will make a hard situation easier for him. Let me come to Scouts, and to Primary, and don’t push so hard to get him to be “independent.” He makes changes very slowly, in very small steps. And often he won’t make these changes till he is ready for them, no matter how much you push. So please, let us do what works for us, even if it doesn’t fit your box.
12- Every change takes three times as long as an ASD kid.
Start with baby steps, and stay on each step for a long time. When you move too quickly you overwhelm him, and then you will see all your progress go out the window. If you are going too slow he will let you know. It’s OK if he lays on the floor in class (or Sacrament meeting, or Primary) when you are working on just being in the room. Work on sitting in the chair later. And don’t stress if it never comes.
I’m sure that as time passes, and my son becomes a young man, these tips will change. But for now, these are what I wish every Primary Teacher, leader, and parent knew. It’s hard being different. And when the things we all grew up with are too much, we need to adapt to make church work for those with their own set of struggles.
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.