Youth Ministry on the Spectrum: Including Students with Autism
By Charlie Baber
Making your youth ministry an inclusive and welcoming space for all requires more than just telling students, “You belong here.” Our interactions with individuals, even the way we plan our activities, can often communicate that a person must fit a certain mold to truly find a place. When planning games, small groups, and other activities, it can be easy to cater to broad appeal without paying attention to students with neurodivergence who experience the world differently.
Students on the autism spectrum have differences in the central nervous system that affect their communication style, focus, and interpersonal interactions. Often, the chaos, noise, and constant movement of youth ministry events can be too much for these neurodiverse students. How do you strike a balance that engages your neurotypical students without isolating your students on the spectrum?
Three Areas to Consider for Better Inclusion
Because autism is a spectrum, it is not suited for a one-size-fits-all approach to communication. Many students with autism are highly intelligent and verbally advanced. Take time to engage the parents of your students on the spectrum, and get notes on what works best for them at home and at school.
Talk directly to your students, not down to them. It may be helpful to provide two specific directions before the start of an activity. Examples: “During our worship time, please put away your devices and sing with us.” “During our small-group time, wait until you are called on and listen respectfully to others.” These reminders are essential for students on the spectrum to navigate new situations, and it never hurts for the rest of your group to remember the rules!
Adolescence is full of social awkwardness, and this is compounded for students on the spectrum. Students with autism are more likely to feel isolated and may find it difficult to relate to the struggles and interests of their neurotypical peers. Directly invite students by name to pair up and include each other in your activities.
Learn more about what interests your students on the spectrum and engage them on those topics. For example, we have had success incorporating fifteen minutes of video game time into our youth ministry because it helped our students on the spectrum feel a sense of belonging with the larger group.
Give courteous and direct feedback if your student on the spectrum needs redirection, addressing the behavior you want to see, rather than emphasizing what the student is doing “wrong” in a social setting. Example: “Sharon, keep your hands in your lap,” instead of “Don’t throw that!” Also, be sure to discreetly acknowledge their success (“Thanks for being respectful with your hands tonight. I know you worked on that.”).
Overstimulating environments can pose a real challenge for students with autism. Recognize that many youth ministry spaces and activities will likely be too loud, too busy, and too cluttered for students on the spectrum. Learn about the needs of your individual students on the spectrum and be prepared to make accommodations to help them navigate your setting and events. If your main youth room or event is going to be loud, bright, and busy, let students and leaders know of a quiet alternative space where they can retreat. Provide extra transition time after highly stimulating activities so students can decompress.
Your students on the spectrum are a gift to you and your ministry. Each one is a unique child of God worth delighting in. Please visit thinkingautismguide.com for more resources.