Helping Kids on the Autism Spectrum to Sit Through Church Services


"We are a Christian family who would like to attend church on a regular basis. However, since our child with high-functioning autism has certain issues (e.g., hates big crowds, hates wearing a dress shirt, hates sitting still for longer than a few minutes at a time, hates the loud organ music, hates the feel of the hard wood pews, and on ...and on ...and on), we have found that it is just easier to stay home. Is there anything we can do to help him with this?"


Making it through a church service with a youngster with Aspergers or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) can be a true test of faith. Between keeping him under control and warding off the evil eye of fellow church members, you may feel that no one in your family is getting anything out of the service.

If you have your heart set on some kind of ideal worship experience in which your neatly dressed youngster sits quietly for every minute of the service, you’re probably out of luck. But that doesn’t mean your family should give up and stay home.

Try these techniques for getting the most out of each church service (even with a child on the spectrum):

1. Be careful that what you’re offering as an incentive actually encourages good behavior (e.g., threatening to leave if behavior does not improve may backfire if leaving the church is exactly what your youngster wants to do). Make sure the alternative to sitting through church is even more painful (e.g., sitting in the car by himself until the service is over).

2. Big rewards with long time-frames often backfire. If your youngster feels unable to comply after a short while, he may decide the reward is unattainable, and then have no incentive to behave at all. Offer your youngster very small reinforcements after very short intervals of successful behavior control (e.g., a sticker or a cracker or a chance to play with your keys every 5 minutes, a walk to the bathroom every 15 minutes, etc.).

3. Practice sitting through church. As with all "training" – it starts at home. Pull together half-a-dozen chairs or so and arrange them in a row (like the pews at church). Then you and your youngster (along with any other family members that want to join in) sit in them for short periods of time. Your Aspergers child and his siblings might sit there while you read them a story or do a puzzle. These are short periods of time (e.g., just 5 minutes to start with). Then go a little longer (e.g., 10 minutes).

4. If certain objects or activities (e.g., drawing, writing, crackers, fidget toys, stuffed animal, chewy tube, weighted vest, etc.) help your youngster control impulses and stay calm in other settings, bring it along to your church service. You may see a few raised eyebrows, but not as many as you will if your youngster has a meltdown during church.

5. Consider sitting in front. Most moms and dads have a tendency to sit in the back because they don’t feel like the whole church sees when their kids act up, and they can make an easy exit. But crouch down to your youngster’s level. They can’t see anything besides the back of people’s heads. They don’t see why they are there. They often behave a lot better when they can see what is going on. In many churches, there are side aisles, so while you sit up front, you don’t necessarily sit front and center, so you can still make an easy exit. Your place of worship may even have a door off to the side to a hallway. But even if you don’t have that, it is less distracting to everyone than you think if you need to walk down the aisle to the exit.

6. If your youngster is unable to sit still and be quiet and behave appropriately in any other place, don’t expect church to have some sort of magical transforming effect on him. Don’t set your youngster up for failure by setting goals he is unable to achieve.

7. Consider using headphones for the quietest times of the church service and allowing your youngster to listen to soft, calming music.

8. Try different areas of the church for sitting. You may have sat in the very back pew for years but now find that it can be helpful to move up.

9. Don’t neglect your own spiritual needs during the task of keeping your youngster quiet and contained. Put less emphasis on having the ideal church experience, and more on experiencing the moment.

10. You don’t have to make it all the way through the service for it to be a good experience. Sometimes planning for success involves knowing when to leave. If you have noticed your Aspie can be good for the first 20 minutes and then loses it, leave after 20 minutes and make a big deal about how great that was. Then set 30 minutes as the next goal ...then 45 …then maybe your child can go the full hour or so.

11. Over time, you can drop some of the “supports” that enable your Aspie to participate in the service. You may find that familiarity breeds success. Your youngster knows what to expect, how long church lasts, and even that going to Communion means it’s almost over.

12. Use the “going-out-to-eat-after-church” method. Some Aspergers children can sit still and act halfway civil for extended periods of time IF they know they will be going to one of their favorite restaurants immediately after church.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


•    Anonymous said... Attend Saturday night mass
•    Anonymous said... Get him involved in sunday school during the church service. Tell the teacher at sunday school about his condition so they can give him extra attention. I am sure they wouldn't mind...
•    Anonymous said... I let my daughter play on her Kindle Fire while we are siting with all of the people. I know she is paying more attention while playing then she would be with me trying to get her to sit still. It is something we have had to work up to, even on bad days we still sit outside the doors.
•    Anonymous said... I think staying home is the best option. Besides secondary school, being forced to go to church was the worst nightmare of my childhood.
•    Anonymous said... I wanted to take my children church as well. I went through an ugly divorce a few years back. My son is high functioning Aspergers. We went to an old church in the country, and those folks were so accepting of us and my son's behaviors. When I was downstairs, the pastor discussed with the parishioners my son's diagnosis. They were wonderful, and loving and generous. They are in church, not to judge, but to share their faith. We eventually moved to a church with children's program, but I will always be thankful for them. For your son, ask if you can reserve a corner in the back pew, then you can take turns leavin g with him if needed.....don't worry what about he wears, he's in church and there is no dress code for God, let him wear what he is comfortable in....let him bring a cushion, or pillow, or fabric he would enjoy sitting on.....let him wear ear plugs, (my son wears the headphones that came with our van to go to movies...it muffles the sound).....give him a puzzle or activity he can do quietly during church. I tell my children God likes variety and if our children are welcome anywhere...it better be in God's church. Blessings.
•    Anonymous said... Many churches now have groups for autistic children. Ours does! Call around and ask.
•    Anonymous said... My asd 10year old helped run the creche for holiday club this year, 10 years of God's love and he's keen to give back. There are times people comment on all the children's behaviour at church, just smile, breath deeply and remember that Jesus said, let the children come to me. I know not everyone on here is a Christian, but everyone needs support and I'll b praying for you.
•    Anonymous said... My children attend church every week, in fact our lives revolve around our faith, but they never wear smart clothes, and everyone knows my elder son is autistic. Church isn't there for the good, quiet kids an their families. Church is there for the lost and the broken. Anyone in church not helping you find a way of accessing faith for your children is not a Christian, I'm afraid churches can be full of judgemental non Christians. But look deeply, ask for support and be prepared to look around. We could not get through life without the support of our church family, pray for guidance and the right place will happen. X
•    Anonymous said... My daughter used to take a tea set to church each week and wander around giving cups of pretend tea and coffee to people. No one was offended by this and now she is 10 and can sit through a service also helps holding babies and supports other children. I could not get through the past 6 weeks without my faith and church.
•    Anonymous said... Why would you put your child through that for your beliefs?
•    Anonymous said... you could find another church. My cousin is Catholic but with her autistic son she is going to a less formal Evangelical church and has for many many years. Not all churches want formal dress and many can be laid back and understanding. When my daughter was small, before her diagnosis, we went to a local one that is happy just to let the little ones, autistic or not, just wander about and play. When my daughter got older she liked the order of the litergy and we went back to mass, but people there are ok with us sitting at the back, her just reading/with nintendo as that what it takes for her to be able to sit still, and for her to quietly nip out if the crowds/noise got too much. God made our children the way they are and they should be accepted the way they are in a church.
•    Anonymous said…  Churches need to have an ante-room for small children, mothers with babies, and others. Ours has a speaker fitted in the room and glass panels so the adults don't miss out on the service. York Street Church of Christ is where I go.
•    Anonymous said…  Find a church thats more interested in Christianity and not vanity..there is no reason you should have to dress up for church..
•    Anonymous said…  Keep him in comfy clothes and let him bring a few items that comfort him. My son with HFA loves to bring hot wheels, he doesn't even play with them he just keeps them because they make him feel good. We also take him out during the greetig time which is too overwhelming for him. Your church is probably a loving and accepting environment so dont stress. Jesus said "let the children come" and that meant all kinds.
•    Anonymous said…  Maybe teach the church to be more accepting of him would be a good start? Is there any reason that he HAS to dress a certain way or sit in the pews? Can he bring a bean bag/comfortable chair? The Church should be accepting of ALL Gods creations, not just NT ones. I have often found that they need reminding of this.
•    Anonymous said…  My son is 10 and will only wear soft clothes. Church isn't about wearing fancy clothes, let him wear whatever he's comfortable in. We tried getting himto wear nice clothes, but it was a losing battle, so now he can just wear what he's comfortable in. Does your church have a kids area? My son cannot stand being in the service as he can't sit still for long and finds it boring. Looking at it from kid's view point, I can understand that.
Have you prayed, asking God what direction you should go in? Maybe look at having a time of fellowship/church at home? Just a thought.
•    Anonymous said…  My son to this day will not wear a button down shirt. (Age 32) when he was little he wore Polo shirts to church. I have seen elderly folks bring seat cushions. We usually say in the front that way he didn't notice the crowd so much. The piano didn't phase him and organ was seldom used. Oddly enough he didn't mind the sign of peace or shaking hands with priest as we exited after mass.
•    Anonymous said…  Our church does not have a dress code, tshirt and jeans are perfectly fine, the kids have their own room where they have music (noise reduction headphones are provided for those who need them) and we have a sensory room so that if any child needs a break they can go in there to use the beanbags, weighted stuffed animals or blankets, etc and then rejoin the rest of the group when they aware ready. There aware churches like mine who understand different needs and meet them. Call around your area and talk to the Children's Director, if they don't already have something like this in place then encourage them to do so in order for everyone to be able to attend church and know God's love.
•    Anonymous said…  Our son has the same problem. Do not fear. We go to a Catholic Church. Our son used to scream and throw a fit. We use to take turns going to Mass not because we weren't accepted but because we couldn't relax and focus. We not take our son every Sunday. He is 10. He still gets upset if we have an older priest who talks to slow. He has learned to handle it. We ignore many of his antics and ignore anyone who seems to have a problem. Most of the parishioners know us and our family and love our son. Just relax and don't let people make you look unkindly on your church. Go for you and then take him gradually as he grows up. Our Dr. Said there is no reason he should not be going with us. you are in our prayers. We have been there and still are. Persevere.
•    Anonymous said…  We use black ear plugs for loud singing. They are small. My teen must attend church. special plan for your child. They are a blessing. :)

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Anonymous said...

My son had many of the same issues, but I took my kids to church every Sunday and sweated through every mass for years. He is 14 now and is able to make it through mass just fine. Hang in there -- it will be worth it in the long run :-)

Anonymous said...

Since we homeschool we saw church as a great opportunity for our child to make friends, but we had the same issues as you. We were attending a stuffy, old fashioned church and not only could our child not sit through a service, some people had issues with his behavior. I started asking around and found a large and more modern church that already has a few kids with autism attending. They start off children's church by jumping in a bouncy house, and the works seem to know how to handle him. He loves it. Just keep an open mind, start looking around, and you might find a church you like better.

kmjoyner said...

Don't give up on church. When my son was younger it was difficult to even take him to the grocery. I just kept taking him places. Many times we left early. A couple years ago we found a Christian concert was going to be in our area. We took the plunge and took him. We went a little early to miss the crowds (was in a big basketball stadium). This decreased the anxiety. We picked seats farther up which put us farther from the biggest croissant. It also allowed for movement. He took his gameboy to fill in the time. We had already made the switch to a more "modern" church (but still having strong doctrine). We also had been listening to a Christian radio station (klove) that played the same music that was used for worship at church.Some of the same artist were doing the concert. He did do well. A few times he did get a little uncomfortable but our location helped a lot and he made it through the entire concert. We did leave a few minutes early to avoid again the crowd. He since has went with the youth group to a couple different conferences where there have been large crowds of kids, loud music etc....... Because the church is so good at dividing the kids into small groups each week during class time he has gotten comfortable with the group as a whole., he has dine great during the trips. We started with just a couple hour excursions with his group to last year going with them for 5 day long Jr high conference on a college campus! All his group leaders know his diagnosis. We have talked one on one with them educating them on what he needs. Most evenings he would spend time running on campus to relieve his anxiety which is ok. We have found running is one way he finds a release and he lives it. He is planning on joining the cross country team this next fall. He loves going to church. He gets us up and going now. It is the one place he goes where he feels his peers accept him. Please don't give up this desire. It may be the very thing that will make the biggest difference in your son's life. Of course my son still in an Aspie, so still struggles with school and with adolescents also kicking him we struggle at home at times too but church has given him a place where he feels he belongs. He also has made the choice to accept the Lord as is savior!

Anonymous said...

My Aspie loves church, but I can still shudder when he is a bit too bouncy, too loud or just plain awkward. He knows our firm boundaries about behaviour, and knows that any adult will quietly chide him if needed. But also he knows that he can help (a small job with responsibility or order - tidying books & papers away, handing out service orders on the door etc), he can play with the other children, and if he needs to calm down can retreat into his bubble with the aid of a small pad and a pencil. Find what helps with your child, explain clearly to others around his quirks, and persevere - the rewards will come.

Anonymous said...

We have had great success by allowing our 6 year old to take his DSi to Church. We had to take a little time explaining to the congregation why he had it on but they were easily converted when they realised that he could still tell them what the service had been about. After having some very stressful meltdowns they could also see that the DSi enabled him to remain calm. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

We found for our son sitting in a quiet room off the main auditorium helped. He also finds it calming to chew gum. When he was younger we tried the sensory cushions in his seat so he could get the sensory feedback he needed while sitting down. He does pretty good now at 9, we still occasionally sit in a separate room but we do sit up front and sometimes as a reward he can sit with his friends. It's a struggle but worth it if attending religious services are important to you.

Anonymous said...

we too found a church that offered childrens church. He actually enjoys going :)

Anonymous said...

I am going to share this! I work for Goodwill Industries of Tulsa and work alongside children and adults with Aspergers, Autism and many other disabilities each and every day. I am going to print this out to give to the parents so hopefully they will feel more comfortable going to church and finding a perfect church family.

Anonymous said...

have you discussed this with the youth pastor at your chruch of choice?

Anonymous said...

It took a long time before my son felt comfortable going to church.. we started in small doses..maybe just 15 mins or so..and we walked with a small cushion for the pews, we sat near the door, and I had the iPod at the ready should the choir be a bit 'annoying'. We now attend church regularly with no issues whatsoever. On, and I would give him a choice of what shirt to wear...

Anonymous said...

Our church offers Children's Church during our regular service while the pastor is doing his sermon and this helps both our Aspie and HFA sons do well. Talk with your youth leader to see what can be arranged. You could also allow your child to use headphones with some quite music to sooth them.

Anonymous said...

We learned sitting way up front gets rid of the countless distractions from sitting in the back and the Pastor becomes more of a focal point for the child. Also, forego the dress shirt if it bothers him that much, a nice polo perhaps? We have organ music which bothered him in the past; your child could wear ear plugs. Continuity is key, my ASD child I think feels more at home at church because it's very predictable and generally unchanging (we go to a LCMS lutheran church). When he was younger he timed the length of the service by how many hymns were left to sing and that helped him get through. In the end, church is not an option but an obligation in our household and the kids know it. Also, having that cookie afterwards in the fellowship hall is a nice reward :) hope that helps!

Anonymous said...

Small cushion for seat, hat and headphones for noise, early or late arrival & sit in corner with obscured view of crowd. Casual clothes god doesn't mind what he wears. Small toys in pockets and snacks in my bag like raisins( quiet& no crumbs). Enjoy!!

Anonymous said...

In the beginning it was rough and I actually had some people ask if they could pray for my kids without even understanding their diagnoses. I just said, sure we can use all the prayer we can get. Also at that stage I didn't feel our church was conducive to kids with special needs. That was 10 years ago when we acquired our first child. Things are different now and the kids fit right in. Our church doesn't really fit the norm. It's not a quiet church and the kids seem to like it and sometimes they actually pay attention. One son sits in the corner and plays with his cars and the other is usually on the floor right behind us or wandering around. If necessary call around to different churches and explain your child's needs. You are sure to find someplace that is accommodating to your needs.

Anonymous said...

Go to http://ag.org/top/index.cfm Until we started to attend Praise Assembly of God in SC we'd not been able to to go to church either. This is by far the most laid back of all churches ever. They have children's church where the kids go directly to it and you go to services. Their staffs are amazing ( I say this because we are military and now we are in NC and it took some leg work but found another Assembly here that fits our family) They have a boys program called Royal Rangers that is "Faith based boy scouts" if you will...wonderful again and the best part is, if it's too loud he can wear head phones, seats are comfy, jeans and T's are completely acceptable!!! Don't give up!!! We went to a different more formal church for years and everyone would leave miserable. That isn't the case anymore!

Anonymous said...

Ok. I know kids with AS can be challenging - but not everything in every situation can be that problematic. My son is an Aspie and although there are things he doesn't like about situations - we don't always give in and not do it. Life is full of things you want to do and many things you don't. Having AS shouldn't be a reason to avoid everything you don't like. Actually is a good lesson in dealing with the other things that you cannot change. Church - God doesn't care what you wear. I let my son wear whatever shirt he is comfortable in within reason of course. The highschoolers in our very traditional church are not as dressed up as we used to be as kids, so my son isn't as bad as some. Depending on the age of your child, bring things that help him adapt - ear plugs, cushion for the seat. Even a book to read or something quiet to manipulate - stress ball etc. Something to break up the monotony of the service. Look at getting him engaged in a part of the service - maybe usher or something so he is doing something for part of the service and doesn't have to sit so long. Would he like to get up and stand - then sit in the back and allow that. Don't just give in because it is easiest. In the long run that is the worst solution. Teach him to find ways to be in situations like this. Even if you have to start with 5 minutes and add more. Give him a timer to watch it count down, etc. Good Luck

Anonymous said...

You could take a cushions for him to sit on, some church's don't actually have pews but comfortable seating. Take something he loves to do which will occupy him during the service, sitting in the lobby or an area where there is not the crowd of people could be something to think about. Going around seeing different church's and services to see how they are run is the best as some church's are more relaxed and others very formal. I have been to some church's that actually have a room or the parents and children to go to so the service can still be heard and seen but without forcing the children to sit still. Kids still get to attend church with adults but have fun at the same time. I hope you will be able to find a church that suits your needs, I have found that a religious understanding gives people a good foundation for life.

Anonymous said...

we've found that the best place for us to sit with D is right at the back near the doors. He's got no one behind him so he doesn't feel too much stress. Also, no one see's him when he has to escape when he gets overwhelmed by it all. And it means we can be 1st out as we're not waiting for everyone else to leave.x

Anonymous said...

God doesn't care where you worship. Stay at home if you wish or take turns as parents attending every other week, bringing the lessons home to share with your spouse and child. [Parents of Aspergers children need social interaction too]
Stressing an autistic child beyond their coping skills to appease church 'duty' seems silly to me. God loves all, no matter where they be.

Anonymous said...

We had such a hard time with this when my son was smaller that we actually started a special needs class at our church. We have been able to serve several kids on the spectrum through this class. Our ultimate goal is to have the kids out in the service when they are ready. Two of the children go out for the choir and music time now, then come into the classroom for the lesson. We have the room color coded for each child. It is sensory friendly (lighting, etc.), and we have trained teachers who are in there every Sunday so there is consistency for the kids. This has been an amazing asset to our church family.

Anonymous said...

We borrowed a DVD of our service and watched it at home. We stopped the DVD numerous times to talk about what is going on, why is the pastor over there. watch what happens next. It was like a "social story" book. Sophia was able to watch and ask questions what it. She has done better since then. We sit in the back and she has an "escape route" and a place to go.
6 minutes ago · Like

Anonymous said...

Great article and great comments! Now that our son is a bit older (4 years) he suddenly was able to understand how to be quiet in church. I'm sure that "A ha" moment comes at different ages for different kids. He likes knowing what's going to happen and he really likes being able to participate with the correct "Amens" and "peace be with you" etc. So, the folks who talked about practicing were right on.

Anonymous said...

I see all of these comments but none of them fit my situation.. My son is an aspie and he is 14 years old. Until 2 years ago (prepubertal adolescence) I never had any problems bringing him to church or with him sitting through church. At about age 12, here adults began to recognize him as a young man and hey wanted to "talk" with him every Sunday. Slowly, he complained more and more...first about the music being too loud, then thie people who always want to talk and "judge him" so he says. He says that he is a believer, he just cannot stand social encounters and he is now physically bigger than me. He refuses to get in the car to go. He also has ODD (oppositional defiance disorder) and would rather be separated from his cherished things (grounded) hthan lose and get in the car to go to church. I am really at a loss about this. I don't know what I can physically do anymore. I was arching the web hoping that someone else might share what I am going through, but I have not come across any as of yet.

Anonymous said...

As a 50 year old, Aspie woman, I can say that being forced to sit through church - where I didn't understand what was going on, and my bare legs, painfully stuck to the pews, and I couldn't see well enough (pulpit, etc) - has made me an Agnostic by the time I was twelve. I just didn't "get" organized religion, but I am spiritual. By the time I was twelve, finding out Christians can be very unkind, intolerant, rigid and dogmatic, and just plain hypocritical left me with not wanting any more inauthenticity. We like our world joyful, kind, truly accepting and less uptight - doesn't work with church. That was just my experience, but I've met other Aspies just like this, when it comes to ideology and religion (we can see through the bull, often). I'd day: Don't torture your kid with church. Find his passion and entertain that. His passion gives him the career later so he won't be dependent on society for welfare, and social acceptance, to some degree; church is just frustration. Teach your beliefs at home and let him/her be spiritually connected with a "personal" relationship to God. We have nothing to prove in front of a congregation about our personal spirituality. We are normally offended by self-righteous, high-mindedness normally discovered at church and other large social settings. We are already simple, loving lambs in the eyes of God, everyone else needs to go to church.

hdlmatchette said...

i have aspergers but my NT family has forced me to stay throughout the WHOLE hour EVERY SINGLE TIME I went to mass my whole life. It's not right. Why couldn't she use these types of methods?

Joanne said...

Church comes in all shapes and sizes try a few out till you find the ASD friendly one that suits your family.

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