Okay ministry leaders (particularly youth ministry and faith formation), this one is especially for you.
I confess. I’m kind of a control freak. As a youth minister and faith formation director, I prayed and planned meticulously to try and create beautiful, powerful, meaningful experiences in which my kids, teens, and/or parents could be absorbed by and thus encounter Jesus in new and profound ways.
Sometimes, our best laid and prayed plans have wrenches (or even larger machinery) thrown in them and we are left to quickly adapt without letting on to those in our care. I hate that. Yes, we can theologize and spiritualize to find the silver lining and the Holy Spirit at work, but don’t deny on a human level, you hate it too. Most people do. Change is hard, especially when it’s unexpected.
I want you to think of one of the most frustrating and challenging times you had to deal with unexpected change in your ministry plans. Hold on to that for a moment because there are some members of the Body of Christ who have an even more difficult time with change and the unexpected and we need to talk about them for two reasons: first, you’re going to be a better servant of Christ for these brothers and sisters when you can empathize, understand, and accommodate; second, you’ll be prepared to be a better servant of Christ when their struggles might sometimes become your unexpected change in plans.
These members of the Body of Christ, our brothers and sisters, whom I’m speaking about are those individuals young and old who are on the autism spectrum. The reality is that when we plan our ministry events, it takes special thought, understanding, and consideration to plan experiences that will truly be inclusive of our neurodiverse members. Until then, and as we are learning how to see through the lens of autism and learning the needs and strengths of the individuals in our ministry, we will likely plan youth groups, retreats, meetings, prayer experiences, etc. that could trigger: a meltdown, socially uncomfortable situation, anxiety and/or completely miss connecting.
Probably the most important thing any one in ministry leadership and service can do is to think inclusive to help autistic individuals with change and the unexpected.
First, don’t let there be too much “unexpected” element in your ministry events and experiences for your kids or teens on the spectrum. “But Lindsey, what about ‘let go and let God’? What about getting the kids or teens to be in the moment, in the present?” I hear you. I love challenging my students (and adults!) to be present to what God is doing in the moment, especially on retreats. However, depending on the autistic individuals you’re ministering to, they might not be able to be “in the moment” because they’re consumed with anxiety over not knowing what to expect. Kairos and Cursillo are well known for not allowing retreatants to know what the week or weekend will entail and often not even what time it is. This might not always work for people on the autism spectrum. Let them have the schedule and know what time it is.
In fact, the second tip is to do what behavioral therapists call “priming”. Basically, give individuals on the autism spectrum a “heads up” and explain thoroughly what will be happening and what expectations for behavior and participation might be placed on the individual. You can do this verbally or you might need to do this visually through pictures, social stories, or videos, depending on the individual’s needs. This holds especially true for experiences that are new or different for the autistic individual. Having Eucharistic Adoration for the first time? Let the student or adult know in advance, watch videos or send them links to videos that as accurately as possible portray how Eucharistic Adoration will go at your ministry event, point out and explain what the student or adult will likely be doing (the social norms) and why, and let them take time to think and ask questions. Lights going off suddenly during a talk to make a dramatic point? Give your autistic brother or sister a heads up (and ask if they can keep it a surprise for the rest of the group, but even if they struggle with keeping a surprise, still give them the advanced warning). You might even develop a signal another leader can give them right before the lights are to go off.
Sometimes, change is truly unexpected and outside of anyone’s control. Perhaps the regular choir or music group at mass is out because everyone got food poisoning from their potluck practice the night before and now there’s a new group at the last minute. Maybe you just didn’t anticipate that a certain moment or element of your ministry event would cause a problem – trust me, this happens even to parents of children on the autism spectrum. What do you do in these situations?
First, try to put yourself into the autistic individual’s situation based on what you know and are learning about autism, particularly how autism affects them. Be kind, empathetic, and pray for the grace to remain calm for their sake.
Second, be kind to yourself. An older gentleman in AA used to tell me this all the time when we’d catch up during my study breaks at a nearby coffee shop. What does this mean? Frame these experiences in a positive light, rather than a negative light. They are learning opportunities for being able to plan and pray for a more inclusive experience in the future.
Third, let go. Sometimes we react negatively in these unexpected moments because we take on the burden of grace for ourselves instead of recognizing the true source as God. This also means letting go of ego and being vulnerable enough to accept looking foolish at times in front of those you minister to and with.
Most importantly, love the brother or sister in Christ in front of you. Don’t pity them or put them in the “different” or “other” box. Despite the differences in neurology and even behavior of neurotypical individuals and autistic individuals, we are more alike than most people think and it’s important to remember that. At the same time, accept and appreciate that they might have sensory processing differences, ways of experience God differently, impulse control or executive functioning challenges, and/or you might be speaking in neurotypical social subtleties that they are missing. They need you to support and love them where they are at right then and there.