Jul 03

Making Accommodations: a discussion with Family Outreach of Helena’s Jackie Mohler, M.Ed. [Part 1]

On Wednesday, June 26th, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Family Outreach’s Family Support Specialist, Jackie Mohler. We met for about 40 minutes in her office at 1212 Helena Avenue, and talked about her experience in working with parents that have kids on the Autism spectrum, and how she coaches them to be advocates for their children in community settings. Family Outreach is on the web at www.familyoutreach.org. If you would like to contact Jackie via email, she can be reached at jmohler@familyoutreach.org.

Before I get into specific strategies that Jackie suggested for faith communities that want to better accommodate the special needs of a family that has a child on the autism spectrum, I thought it was telling that she mentioned to me that I was the first pastor/minister-type that had ever contacted Family Outreach to talk about how to better minister to families with autism! Now, in our day and age, there are lots of avenues available to churches, pastors, youth ministers, and religious organizations… So, maybe the fact that Family Outreach had never had that contact with a congregation is not shocking. But, to my pastor friends that are reading this, please don’t under estimate the value of sitting down with those who are working with these families every day. Working with any sort of special needs family is as much art as it is science, and the conversations and relationships built up through creating a network of support for these families are a far more vital aspect of the ministry than the specific knowledge gained. Gain a healthy curiosity in the expertise that those in the school, mental health field, and social services have that you do not. Come humbly and ready to listen… I think you will find a great deal that resonates with your heart for your church, your community, and the families in it!

Now, on to a few “gems” of insight gained through this brief conversation. (I will pose these insights in a question and answer format, and though I am working from my notes and will represent the spirit of the conversation, none of these words should be understood as direct quotes.)

Q: What are some of the more practical tools you could see used in a church setting to help a child with autism, and their families, feel more embraced and included in the fabric of the congregation?

A: Autism Spectrum represents a wide range of children with varying abilities. One thing that can help ANY child in the classroom or youth group setting would be visual schedules. These can be anything from pictures of the areas or activities that the child will experience throughout their time under your care to symbols or pictures that represent different activities. These tools are helpful because children on the spectrum do not pick up on the visual cues that many of us do unconsciously in knowing how and when to anticipate a transition. The whole class could be cleaning up supplies from a craft or activity, knowing that this time is naturally wrapping up. But, for the spectrum child, the transition from crafts to Bible time, for instance, will seem sudden—jarringly abrupt—and, potentially disturbing. They have “missed the cues” that this transition was about to happen, and may not be appropriately prepared to make that transition with the class, youth group, or congregation. (a great example of a visual schedule from a church setting can be found at http://theinclusivechurch.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/teaching-children-with-autism-the-tangibles/)

Q: Besides the visual schedules, how would you suggest churches help these children make these transitions smoothly?

A: Well, each child is different, but sometimes placing an object in the child’s hand that signifies the next activity that they will be doing is helpful. For instance, if the classroom is outside for some recreational time, the teacher can bring a box of crayons with her. Then, as the time for play outside is just about to conclude, she can use that box of crayons to help the child transition to coming back inside for coloring time or the craft. By placing it in the child’s hand, it becomes a tactile bridge to the next activity on the schedule. It fulfills through the sense of touch what the visual schedule does through the sense of sight.

Q: I understand that for families with a child on the autism spectrum, and for the children themselves, the sense of failure can be a paralyzing force. Having tried an activity, food, or setting once and being unsuccessful can make cultivating a desire to try again almost impossible. What would you suggest as far as accommodations faith communities can make that could set these children and families up for success?

A: Well, that’s the key… set the situation up for success and reward effort, participation, and movement towards the goal of better inclusion and participation. Know which “hills to die on” as they say… For instance, the expectation that these families sit through an entire worship service without disruption is WAY too much to ask.

Q: So, what do you suggest? Does it involve lowering our expectations or inviting chaos into the worship service, as some might protest?

A: No… it is not about lowering expectations. Lowering expectations would be to assume that these children will never be able to sit through worship and so excluding the family to a cry room, glassed in and away from the rest of the congregation. No, it’s not about lowering expectations, but about setting reasonable expectations and working incrementally toward the end goal of whatever period of time seems best for the child and the family. Maybe the child can only make it through 5 minutes of the service. Make those 5 minutes the LAST five minutes of the service, so the child can “make it to the finish line” with everyone else. This will create a sense of accomplishment that exiting after the first 5 minutes would most certainly not engender! Rather than everyone looking at the care giver and the child leaving early on in the service, singled out and with the sense of failure, the child gets to leave at the conclusion of the service with everyone else! You see, if you think in terms of the actions that will communicate the value you are going for: inclusion, welcoming, success, etc.—well, then you will likely come up with your own solutions to whatever challenges your specific child or family is trying to overcome!

[look for more insights and accommodations in Part 2 of this discussion, coming later in the month]