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Autism in Our Primary

Wendy Green - August 31, 2009

Working with autistic children in a church setting, when you may not be trained in how to work with the disability, can be a great challenge. But with patience, the right attitude, and some essential tools, it can be a tremendous blessing.

"A new family is moving into our ward!" This statement always brought an air of joy and excitement to our small congregation. Our Primary wasn't very big, so the thought of more children and potential leadership help was pretty exciting.

During the next meeting, *Brother Johnson, an older member of our ward, shared information about the new family - his family. The husband, Chad, was Brother Johnson's son. Chad and his wife, Anne, had five children. The family was wonderful, Brother Johnson explained, but a few of the children had special needs. One boy was autistic and two other children had Asperger's syndrome. I wondered, what this would mean to our ward, to our Primary. Because our ward is very kind, I knew the next question most people would ask was, "What can we do to help?"

Brother Johnson asked for our patience and understanding as a ward. He explained that his son's family was amazing, though the children could be a challenge. What an understatement that turned out to be!

The Johnson family's first Sunday in sacrament meeting was rough. Their six-year-old son, Gavin, had the hardest time. He made a lot of loud noises, slapped his legs and yelled whenever his mother tried to correct him. His little sister and older brother also caused a commotion. The congregation tried to ignore the distractions, but it was difficult to disregard the loud outbursts from the back of the room.

Primary was worse. Gavin jumped from chair to chair and talked so loudly that whoever was speaking would have to stop until Gavin could be quieted. The older primary children tried to ignore his behavior while the younger ones kept asking why Gavin acted as he did.

The next Sunday, Anne took a few minutes during Sharing Time and explained autism to the children using terms they could easily understand. She talked about the different way Gavin's brain functioned compared to a regular person. Anne explained the noises he made and the leg slapping as the ways his brain made sure he was okay. This helped both the children and the teachers understand more about him. From that point on, the kids were much more accepting of Gavin and more tolerant of his behavior.

Some of the adults in our ward weren't as accepting. I learned that more than one person had complained about the children's disruptive behavior; one woman even said she might stop attending our ward.

My heart went out to Gavin's family. The family itself struggled, partly because Chad also had Asperger's and struggled with his roles as father and provider. I knew that the other auxiliaries were involved with helping the family, so I decided to focus my efforts on helping Gavin.

I was nervous about offering to help because I didn't know much about autism. But I was willing to learn. I approached our Primary President and said, "I'd be happy to sit with Gavin during Sharing Time." A look of relief swept over her face. From that point on, my unofficial calling was to be Gavin's friend, and I learned as much from it as I have from any other calling.

Be patient.

The first Sunday, Gavin wouldn't talk to me or look me in the eye. I had to corral him just like the secretary had before. I had to block the cabinet doors to prevent his climbing in them, and gently lift him off the chairs he jumped across every week.

I tried to keep my voice calm and offered positive statements like, "Let's keep our feet on the floor," and "Chairs are for sitting." I refrained from scolding him or telling him what not to do. After making the same statements in a calm voice, carefully setting him back in his seat, and modeling appropriate behavior, Gavin began improving and his outbursts lessened.

Keep it simple.

With my children, I often gave detailed instructions with accompanying explanations. I'd say things like, "Please don't climb on the furniture. It isn't polite, it makes the furniture dirty, and you could get hurt." I found Gavin responded better to simple gestures like shaking my head when he did something wrong or clucking my tongue to get his attention instead of repeating his name over and over. Also, using simple phrases like "feet down" to remind him not to kick chairs yielded a better result than lengthy requests.

Be genuine and specific with praise.

Children are perceptive and can tell when praise is patronizing. I made sure to praise Gavin when I noticed him trying to follow instructions. "Thank you for remembering to use a soft voice," brought a bigger smile than, "Thanks for being good."

Gavin was also a very talented artist and would draw amazingly realistic pictures for his age. A specific comment like, "Your dinosaur has super sharp teeth" showed I was really looking at his work more than statements like, "That's nice," or "Good job."

Create predictability.

We went through a ritual each Sunday. It started when I saw Gavin in primary; he would look me in the eye and say, "You're Wendy. You have green eyes." Then we would enjoy our time together drawing, whispering, and quietly playing with the stuff from my "church bag" in the back of the Primary room.

Gavin had favorite items that I was sure to bring in the bag every Sunday: farm sticker books, crayons, Legos, and Smarties. He'd take careful inventory of my bag each week to be certain nothing was missing. One Sunday I left a particular book he liked at home, and he threw a kicking fit on the floor. I learned quickly to maintain a consistent inventory.

Be consistent and reliable.

Along the same lines as creating predictability, make sure you yourself are consistent when working with special needs children. If I was late to Primary, Gavin's screams of, "Where's Wendy? I want Wendy!" would echo down the hall. I learned that to keep the peace, I really needed to be on time.

One Sunday, I went to a baby blessing at a different ward. I'd found a great substitute to be with Gavin and made sure she had "the bag." I shared a few of the tricks I'd learned to help Gavin manage his behavior. I thought as long as she knew the routine and had the all-important bag, Gavin would be fine.

I was wrong. Gavin threw so many fits that the primary president had to have his mother Anne come and take him.

Occasionally you may need to change the schedule, but make sure to account for the repercussions when you do. In my case, notifying Gavin's mother and Gavin himself and making arrangements more fitting to his needs might have ended better.

Love the spirit within.

Over the course of our time together, Gavin and I had become friends. I thought our key to success was the toys and candy I brought, but after the problems that resulted when I wasn't there, I learned my presence meant something.

The week after I missed primary, Gavin ran up to greet me. He climbed onto a chair so he could stand eye-level with me. He'd never touched me before, so I was surprised when he gently placed his hands on my cheeks. He looked me in the eyes and said softly, "You're Wendy. You have green eyes." This time, he added, "I missed you." Then he gave me a big hug - the first hug he ever gave me.

It also turned out to be the last hug we ever shared. Gavin's family situation had worsened, and the next week Anne unexpectedly took the children and moved.

It's been a few years since I've seen Gavin, and I still miss him. Working with him was a challenge, but it was also a tremendous blessing. He taught me patience. It was a different kind of patience than I'd learned from dealing with my own children, a more thorough patience discovered through kindness, compassion, effort, and understanding.

Several months after Gavin had moved, my six-year-old asked, "Do you miss Gavin?" I answered that I did. He asked, "Did you love Gavin?" I answered that I most certainly did. "I already knew that," he said before running off to play.

I'm glad my son knew how I felt about Gavin. I hope Gavin knew I loved him then, and I hope he still knows it now.


*Names have been changed.

© LDS Living, Inc. September/October 2009. Photo by Jayson Kingsbeer/sxc.hu.