While at Orange Conference 2012 I attended a breakout session led by Linda Martin, a board-certified music therapist who has a master’s degree in music education, music therapy. She serves as the program coordinator for the Autism Discovery Institute at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, California. She also works in music therapy and consulting for several southern California school districts and churches desiring to start or grow their special needs ministries. Linda provided some great information about ways churches can incorporate kids with autism into their small groups. Here’s what she covered in a nutshell.
Autism deficits affect three core areas: social, language and behavior. When you are preparing to minister to a child who is on the spectrum in a small group setting you should be prepared to address all three areas to varying degrees.
When you have a child on the autism spectrum in your class, it is helpful to provide a visual schedule for the time the child will be in your class. Many times children with autism are very anxious about what is going to happen. They like schedules and predictability. By providing a visual schedule (and sticking to it as much as is humanly possible) you will provide a sense of comfort and security for them. A good resource for pictures is google images or you can use actual pictures of your own classroom.
It is also important to help children with autism by modeling appropriate communication for them. If they have the verbal skills, help them learn to look at people (or at least in their direction) when they are talking to them. Provide ways for them to express themselves if they don’t already know (“I was mad when you took the ball away from me” or “I don’t want to eat a snack right now”). Many times children who are non-verbal can communicate in other ways–find out from parents if the child can communicate in writing or by drawing and then provide the necessary resources, if at all possible.
When dealing with disruptive preoccupations with objects, parts of objects, or hobbies it is helpful to understand how these behaviors can be used as an effective tool in getting the child involved in your small group. If the child has an intense interest in an object or a particular subject look for ways to use the interest as a reward for a desired behavior. Make the arrangement ahead of time with the parent or caregiver and the student. The example was given of a girl who loved to scrapbook. The arrangement with her was that if she would sit in group time for x minutes then she could later spend x amount of time scrap booking.
The last component that Linda covered was the social aspect of working with the child with autism. She suggested looking for ways to insert yourself into the child’s play. By inserting yourself into the child’s play you are opening an opportunity to engage peers in the play as well. Because children with autism do not understand social cues, it is our job to help them understand and use verbal cues (look at Eva when you are talking to her so she knows you are talking to her).
In closing, Linda shared with us about using music therapy as an effective way of teaching scripture and other concepts. Music therapy is using music to teach a non-musical goal. When choosing songs to use you should consider the pace of the song, repetition, whether it provides opportunities for rehearsal, teaches a concept, and uses simplified language.
***It is our desire that ChosenFamilies.org as a community would be able to provide more resources such as these for churches in working with children and adults with hidden disabilites. If you have input or suggestions we would love to hear your comments.