5 Ministries that Love Parents with Autistic Kids
Not everyone is religious or spiritual; but for those who are, there are specific ministries that are known for being openly available to individuals with disabilities. Of course, Christians and other religious groups of people pride themselves on having an open-door policy at their celebrations and gatherings, allowing anyone to worship. However, there are some ministries and organizations that seem more open and welcoming than others.
Currently, less than 10 percent of US ministries openly welcome parents of children with autism. In part, this is because many people don’t understand the social, communication, and sensory challenges caused by this developmental disorder. The average church setting can overwhelm an autistic child with its loud singing, blaring music, bright lights, and strangers. Consequently, repetitive behaviors may intensify.
Also, many religious communities may not have people who are equipped or trained to work with children with autism during Sunday School or similar environments. Ministries are not similar to schools in that they are not legally required to provide the least restrictive environment with accommodations, modifications, and behavioral supports.
“Faith community leaders may also feel unprepared when parents turn to them with concerns about their child’s development or they observe developmental red flags in a child in their congregation. As trusted confidants, faith community leaders can play a critical role in identifying young children with signs of autism, and their advice is vital
in helping families access the services they need,” (Autism Society NC).
Although autism-friendly churches comprise a minority, some parishes make those with special needs their priority.
Here are five ministries that openly welcome children with disabilities and their families:
- Friendship Ministries
- Handi Vangelism Ministries International
- Key Ministry
- Joel Osteen Ministries
This organization out of Wyoming, Michigan offers a model worship program for people with cognitive and developmental disabilities, including mild to moderate autism. Each congregant or “friend” is paired with a mentor, trained to facilitate worship. Mentors also connect with their friends on a heartfelt, spiritual level.
The first half of each worship service includes a welcome time, singing, prayer, and a Bible lesson. Participants who can’t sing may contribute by waving flags, beating drums, or playing tambourines. Next, each friend and mentor sit together, further exploring the Bible message. Mentors read from ministry workbooks, explaining key points in simple terms. Able congregants can draw, place stickers, or engage in another activity illustrating the lesson. Refreshments are then served, and the meeting concludes with group singing.
At Friendship, the children follow along with a specific curriculum titled the Together Curriculum.
“TOGETHER is delivered entirely online, which means that you will be able to access it as soon as you order it. It includes fun, interactive “warm-up” exercises, recommended videos to accompany the songs, and dramatic and visual Bible presentations. This new approach provides learners of all abilities with important tools so that each participant can grow in faith and friendship.”
Friendship Ministries has administrative offices in the US and Canada. Through the outreach directory, parents of autistic kids can find a local friendship group. Churches wishing to start disabled ministries can obtain program guides, curricula, songbooks, and other printed resources.
Through this ministry, which began in 1973, parents of developmentally disabled kids can deepen their faith through email devotionals, group Bible studies, and Bible clubs. Handi’s support group, Parents in Progress, hosts monthly meetings and publishes an upbeat newsletter.
Headquartered in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, the ministry also hosts fun local and regional family events, such as breakfasts and picnics. During the summer, Handi Camp overnight programs are designed for disabled children ages 9 and older. Trained and caring counselors adapt all the activities to each camper. The medical staff includes nurses and a health care coordinator.
Handi’s ministry teams travel to churches internationally, holding training workshops, seminars, and weekend conferences. Through such events, clergy can learn specific ways to serve parents of developmentally disabled kids. Plus, through the autism seminar, ministers gain ideal teaching and communication skills.
Handi’s mission is “to share the compassion of Christ by walking alongside individuals facing life’s challenges and equipping others to do the same.”
3. Key Ministry
This organization links families of disabled kids to the perfect churches for them. Parental support may take the form of respite events, mentors, and worship services tailored to those with special needs. “Connect Groups” are small church communities, offering Bible studies and family activities. Parents can find local churches in two ways. One is signing up for the master list. The second is clicking on the church network map, each pin representing a US parish.
At Key Ministry’s website, the “Family Resources” webpage profiles a wealth of helpful books, their purchase facilitated by Amazon links. On the “Find Support” webpage, parents can use search tools to locate online communities, faith-based support groups, and interactive learning opportunities, such as video conferences.
The values Key strive to reflect in their ministry are:
- Champion the local church
- Family-based ministry
- Ministry that is relational, redemptive, restorative, and inclusive
- Affirming everyone’s ministry gifts
For churches seeking to initiate disability programs, Key Ministry hosts live training events, both online and at its Cleveland, Ohio headquarters. Also offered are free training videos, online articles, and downloadable print resources.
Based in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS)
consists of nearly 1,300 Canadian and American congregations. WELS’ mission is to help people experience God’s love in their daily activities and relationships. Through the disabled outreach “Special Ministries,” parents of autistic children can access a broad network of supportive Christian resources.
“WELS Special Ministries reaches out to individuals, congregations, and families to offer specialized services and resources to address the special need(s) with which they are confronted. We serve people who are physically, mentally, or emotionally in need of special consideration in regard to their ability to learn, worship, and participate in local ministries and everyday living situations. We also serve thousands of people who are away from their church home, such as military personnel, people living overseas, and those in prison or some other institution.”
Using the church member directory, parents can email fellow caregivers. By registering their kids, they can receive cards, letters, and token gifts year-round. New Friends is an outreach by high school and college students, engaging special needs families in fun activities. Summer heralds local camps, and autumn brings Joy in Jesus retreats. “Give Me a Break” webinars help parents enjoy their kids and better manage time.
For pastors, WELS provides worship formats and Bible classes suited to autistic kids. Clergy are also invited to Midwest summer camps, featuring training programs in disabled outreach. Plus, using a WELS e-book, local churches can start their own parent support networks.
This international ministry, hailing from Houston, Texas, offers a disability program called Champions Club. Membership is welcome to kids ages 4 through 12, across the autism spectrum. Each developmental center or “club” has four activity rooms, all uniquely appointed and expertly staffed. Club meetings occur on Sundays, coinciding with worship services.
“Champions Club is a premier ministry and developmental program for young people with special needs. This program is in partnership with Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, where the Champions Club was originally launched in 2008. This program will meet the developmental needs of children in four important ways: SPIRITUALLY, INTELLECTUALLY, MENTALLY, and PHYSICALLY.”
In the Physical Therapy Room, professionals exercise kids using a trampoline, slide, stairs, and interactive games. Children decompress in the Sensory Room, doing calming projects. In the Educational Room, coaches lead fun learning activities. The Spiritual Therapy Room is where kids hear about God’s love and His good plan for them.
Churches can also subscribe to Champions Membership, complete with all the resources and tools to launch local clubs. The welcome package includes a manual, intake and assessment forms, developmental plans, and instructional videos. As of September 2019, Family Memberships will be offered, giving parents of autistic kids access to group counseling, life skills training, and ongoing encouragement.
Conclusion to Ministries for Parents of Children with Autism
Regarding church attendance and participation, applied behavior analysts can work with parents to help their children with autism become more attentive, responsive, and cooperative. To instill desired behaviors, a therapist uses things a child values as rewards, such as toys, books, or privileges, like watching videos.
When a child shows poor conduct, the therapist introduces a better substitute. This sequence is repeated several times. Whenever the child cooperates, they earn a reward and lavish praise. With continued practice, they learn to behave in a favorable manner, one with benefits!
Pair kids with ABA therapists and worship become more accessible, pleasant, and fun for everyone!
Search your community and surrounding areas for ministries that welcome individuals with all abilities.
Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University
Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University
Updated May 2021