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 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 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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