My son Benji is on the Autism Spectrum and he hates church.
My husband and I can’t quite put our finger on exactly what bothers him about it.
Maybe it’s the change in routine (it isn’t like school)
Maybe it’s the music (he does have auditory sensitivities but they are inconsistent)
Maybe it’s the sitting still.
Maybe it’s something else.
Disciplining and outlining my expectations of age-appropriate behavior were not working for him or for us as parents. I kept waiting for him to grow into church, to become more mature, to become more disciplined, to change, but it only got worse. We needed to try something new.
But what was “new”? My bag of parenting tricks was empty.
One Sunday, not long ago, Benji dissolved into a silent, furious meltdown in the service. While the music played, he threw himself on the ground, or buried his head in the padded seats, his bum in the air, refusing to talk, refusing to sit next to me. He forcibly pushed me away, only communicating through grunts and puppy-like whines.
I don’t know what to do. I can’t help him. This is never going to change.
I felt myself falling into the familiar panic and despair, but before I did, I plunged my hand into my purse, hoping and praying that I had some toy in there to distract him out of his funk.
A toy train. That was it.
This? I held it up, my eye brows raised, as the congregation sang, the people unaware of the fierce struggle happening in the back pews.
Something clicked, but not in the way I expected. His eyes latched on the the toy; he grinned, but instead of reaching for the train, he flung himself across my lap.
I knew what he wanted, and slowly and firmly, I ran the wheels of the train over his back. He was allowing me to touch him when he was upset! I was stunned, and pleased and I went with it.
This. This was something I could actually do to help him. It was amazing, rare, and empowering.
Back and forth, back and forth. Ten minutes passed, my baby in my lap.
Then, he sat up.
The fight had left his eyes. He took a deep breath and smiled at me. He went to Sunday School soothed.
The train now lives in my purse. It isn’t magic though so I’ve added a few more tools to my worn-out parenting bag:
One is a small therapeutic brush, given to me by his Occupational therapist. It works a lot like the wheels of the car; by brushing it over the skin, it soothes frazzled sensory input. Weird, right? but I’ll take all the crazy voo-doo if it helps my son.
Finally, Pokemon has joined Project: Good Sunday.
I’m going to be honest. Pokemon drives me crazy. I don’t really get it. It is awkward, repetitive, has way too many characters, no plot, and is all about “battles.”
But Benji loves it. He loves it so much that I save Pokemon for Sunday’s only (otherwise, I go a little insane because I can only handle so much Pokemon monologuing).
If Benji participates in Sunday school with no meltdowns or fits, then he can watch one episode of Pokemon after church.
There was one Sunday a few weeks ago where he did not have any meltdowns or fits but he sat on the wall the whole time in Sunday School. He did not get to watch Pokemon that day. He was upset but understood the consequences.
But since then, he and Pokemon have had a standing, Sunday afternoon date.
Taking Benji to church is hard (and he is only one of our 4 sons!). I have been really close to giving up church all together; it has been that hard.
But I’ve kept trying because faith is important to me and my husband and we want to share our faith with our family. Going to church is a part of that for us.
My son has unique needs that frustrate and even infuriate me at times. And honestly, he doesn’t really care about singing, God, or learning about Jesus right now.
In the past, I’ve tried to discipline his behavior instead of trying to soothe his system or to give him incentives to be on his best behavior in a structured setting.
Changing my tactics and focus has helped. When I focused on his heart, seeking to love him and connect to the things that are important to him, Sundays got a little bit easier.
A yellow train, a therapeutic brush, and Pokemon have helped my son to feel loved.
And more than anything, I want him to think, “My mom loves me” when he goes to church, and my prayer is that someday, by helping him feel my love, his heart will be more open to a loving relationship with God.
Is Church difficult for you and your child?
What do you do to help your child, on the spectrum or off, feel loved?
Share your story below!
I hope that our story can bring hope, healing, and happiness to others. Would this post encourage someone you know? If so, please share!