Note: For many families with special needs, we understand weekly church attendance may not be an option. Follow the Spirit and counsel with Church leaders to find the best fit for your family. For more information about how to incorporate the gospel into your unique family situation, click here.
Why is it all chaos breaks loose on Sunday mornings? I mean, I know Satan doesn’t want me to get to church, so maybe that is why.
In the midst of all the Sunday morning craziness, especially with young children, I want to share with you a little about church and autism—and how my husband and I have made it work for over 20 years. It involved a little revelation, a lot of consistent hard work, and a heap of help from God.
When my children were little, going to and staying at church was really challenging. One of our sons with autism also has ADHD and he was a firecracker as a child! I am embarrassed to admit he escaped our pew many times and immediately ran up onto the stand. There he entertained our entire congregation as either my husband or I tried to catch him—usually with the aid of a member of the bishopric.
There were so many times the thought popped into my head, It would be easier to not come to church, because I am not getting anything out of the meetings. We were so busy trying to keep my energetic children quiet so others could enjoy the meeting. Meanwhile, we juggled kids, toys, tears, and exhaustion.
I understood God knew me and my circumstance of getting four children to church, two of which have autism. Like Nephi, I knew God wouldn’t give me a commandment “save he . . . prepare[d] a way for [me] that [I might] accomplish the thing which he commandeth [me]” (1 Ne 3:7).
Dear Lord, my kids were awful at church today again. Why do I even come? Help me know what to do!
I also was “led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do” (1 Ne 4:6). I prayed to know how I could get my kids to church, keep them there, and maybe even glean something out of a meeting. Slowly ideas popped into my head. Here are the four that stand out the most:
1. Keep Going—Every Week
The first whisperings from heaven were simple, yet hard. Keep going, every week. I confess just thinking about going to church each week to face the wrestling match with my kids made me tired. But I set a goal to go because I wanted my children to know we went to church every Sunday—even when it is hard.
I had learned consistent schedules were important to kids on the autism spectrum and I wanted to make church a part of our "schedule." I also knew getting a 4-year-old on a schedule (especially when he was throwing a tantrum) would be easier than trying to implement a new schedule for a tantruming 16-year-old.
Please God, let this be worth it!
My soul was parched and needed the living water of the gospel. I realize now taking the sacrament weekly and renewing my covenant with Jesus gave me strength to keep going. I wasn’t there for the messages spoken over the pulpit as much as I was there because I needed to renew my covenants with the Only Begotten, who could strengthen me and help me bear my heavy burdens.
Tears ran down my cheeks as I prayerfully sang the words: "I'll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand. Upheld by my righteous omnipotent hand" ("How Firm a Foundation," Hymnal, #85).
I was also at church every week to teach my children to make those same covenants so they too could learn to rely on the Savior during their hard times. And as hard as it was, I knew I needed to teach this by example.
Dear God, give me the strength to keep going, every week!
2. Be Prepared
The next bit of revelation I received during a Relief Society lesson. The message was: Prepare yourself for Sunday. I discovered during that lesson that the song we used to sing in Primary—“Saturday is a special day. It’s the day we get ready for Sunday”—was actually correct ("Saturday," Children's Songbook).
I learned if I started church prep the night before, my Sunday mornings usually went better. This required that I lay out everyone’s clothes the night before, hunt down their missing church shoes, and restock my church bag with treats and toys to quietly distract my children.
Saturday preparation was still no guarantee someone wouldn’t have a blow-out diaper just as we were supposed to leave. Crazy things always seem to happen on Sundays. I just did my best to roll with the punches—preparing myself on Saturday made Sunday go much more easily.
3. Plan to Get to Church Early
When our family lived in Arkansas, the chapel was really full due to growth in the area. If we didn’t get to church 15 minutes early, we were in the back of the overflow.
Now I know we don’t reserve pews at church, but we do tend to sit in approximately the same place each week. Keeping things consistent for children on the autism spectrum is really important if you want to avoid meltdowns. For example, one Sunday we were late due to a challenging morning. We had to sit near the back of the overflow. My kids were awful that day because we were sitting somewhere different and I was in tears by the end of the meeting.
Because of this, I knew we needed to arrive early so we could sit in approximately the same place closer to the front. There were a couple of reasons for this (and no, it wasn’t so the entire ward could see what a spectacle we made every week).
- First, we needed a pew because it was harder for my children to escape.
- Second, kids with autism are more sensitive to everything—scents, textures, sights, and sound. I knew if we were closer to the front there would be less distractions for them. Some parents of children with autism even have their children wear noise-canceling headphones for this exact reason.
- Third, if I planned to leave early and a delay happened, at least we could still arrive before church started.
- Fourth, I knew if I got there early enough, I could get everyone settled and engaged in something before the meeting started. Hopefully this meant my kids would be quieter by the time the meeting began.
4. The Mary Poppins Bag
There is this scene in the original Mary Poppins movie where Mary just keeps taking stuff out of her bag like magic. I needed one of those bags in real life for sacrament meeting. I don’t have magic, but I do have God—and He is better than magic.
Dear Father, I need to find things that will keep my kids happy and entertained during church. Please help me!
We figured out our son Nathan, who has low-functioning autism and is still minimally verbal, really likes doing puzzles. We started out taking little 4-piece puzzles to church. Then it was a stack of 12-piece puzzles, then 25-piece puzzles, and so forth. I taped a little Ziploc bag to the back of each puzzle to keep the pieces together, because losing a piece meant a meltdown.
Jacob, our other son with autism, was Nathan’s antagonist during meetings. If he got close to Nathan, he would quickly scatter his puzzle pieces everywhere and a meltdown would begin. Sigh! So, we had to bring puzzles for Nathan, sensory toys to entertain Jacob, and then be sure Nathan and Jacob were on opposite sides of the pew. Our two other children were also busy and required help. Yes, we had more than we could handle at times.
I gradually built up a supply of different books, toys, and puzzles that we only used for church. God even helped me find sensory toys to entertain my children with autism. I would rotate through these items every few weeks so different things would come out of my Mary Poppins bag. It really did help to keep my children entertained and quieter.
Gradually the bag has grown smaller as my children have grown older. Following the whisperings of the Spirit, we transitioned from getting toys out before the meeting to making the children wait until after the sacrament for toys. Now we only bring a small bag for Nathan, who at age 20 does these amazingly intricate sticker puzzles after the sacrament.
Gratitude for Revelation
I am thankful for revelation from God. Following these tips has helped make going to church a pattern in our lives (even with autism as a communication barrier). The revelation I received was specific to our family. I encourage you to turn to God with the challenges you are facing with your family.
He is aware of you and your circumstance and will inspire you to know what you can do to make attending church and renewing your covenants a pattern in your life as well.
President Russell M. Nelson taught:
"The privilege of receiving revelation is one of the greatest gifts of God to His children. Through the manifestations of the Holy Ghost, the Lord will assist us in all our righteous pursuits.
"What wisdom do you lack? What do you feel an urgent need to know or understand? . . . Pray in the name of Jesus Christ about your concerns, your fears, your weaknesses—yes, the very longings of your heart. And then listen! Write the thoughts that come to your mind. Record your feelings and follow through with actions that you are prompted to take. As you repeat this process day after day, month after month, year after year, you will 'grow into the principle of revelation'" (“Revelation for the Church, Revelation for our Lives,” General Conference, April 2018).
We have come a long way from those crazy days juggling kids and keeping them on the pew. In fact, now we can sit on the front bench without anyone escaping. Who would have ever dreamed that would be possible?
I'm glad I persisted and followed the revelation to keep going, every week. Renewing those weekly covenants with the Savior and yoking myself to Him gave me the strength to keep going.
Gratefully, I learned the principle of preparation for church and the importance of arriving early. And my dear old Mary Poppins bag, well, we have outgrown it as well. But those bits of revelation from God saved me and kept me and my family going to church—even when it was hard.
Dear God, thank you! It was worth it.
All images courtesy of Tamara K. Anderson.
Tamara enjoys reading stories with happy endings, podcasting, gardening, writing, singing, chocolate, and going on dates with her husband, Justin. She is the mother of three boys (two of whom are on the autism spectrum) and one girl. She is the author of Normal for Me, podcaster of Stories of Hope in Hard Times, and can be found on her website tamarakanderson.com.
Get her new book, Normal for Me, on Amazon or get a FREE eBook by visiting her website during the month of April for Autism Awareness Month.