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When it comes to kids with special needs, Katie Garvert knows her stuff. Starting out as a special education teacher, she now helps the church reach out to special needs children. Included among those are teenagers with autism.  Unfortunately, though, these are the ones many do not know how to include them in church-life and especially in ministry positions. Katie has some ideas.

First of all, anytime we are working with kids and teens with autism, it needs to be a team aspect, and there is not one answer for everyone or every situation. Autism is a developmental disability, but the details of autism are subjective. There is no cause, so there is no cure. Every specialist has a different opinion.

Katie quoted from, on what autistic teens are thinking:

  • “Please don’t make us normal. We would rather be functional.”
  • “Teach us real world rules.”
  • “Give us information about autism early on.”
  • “Don’t force us to do things we cannot do.”
  • “Don’t punish us for things other kids do.”
  • “Do punish us when it is necessary, but make the cause-effect relationship very clear.”
  • For parents, “Do ask for help when you need it.” (We need to offer a respite place for parents in the church.)

Katie suggests Student Led Spiritual IEPs:

  • No longer relying only on parent input. Meet with the student to figure this out, asking them questions about what they want.
  • Requiring the student to advocate what he/she would like to get out of these years; initiative and buy in.
  • Jim Pierson’s questionnaire or make your own. Set goals and have them written down to show regression and/or growth.

In terms of what will help, fidget-toys will help many sit through a longer teaching time, and sensory rooms help when they need time out of the large group, in order to regroup.

These kids are cast out by society. We, as a church, need to welcome them back in love. Katie suggests one way that the church should do this is through mentoring. Mentoring is about living life together (could be adult-student or student-student). The teenage years are also when mentors need to prepare them to be an adult, and the students need a place where they can serve back. A great deal of training and debriefing is needed for mentors, though, so make sure that is present.

A separate class could be helpful, as a last resort, to teach students. Lifeway Books provides a great curriculum called Access.

While they are in high school, they need to be thinking about their life after high school. Maybe they will need a class of their own at that time. They could bring snacks to share with each other. This could also provide community, social events, and relationships.

Katie suggests peer training. The number one difference in teens with and without special needs is their peers. We need to be able to communicate to the other students why the autistic student acts the way he or she does. We need to get them to engage in a small group that accepts the student, and we need to give those peers permission to say, “no.” If he or she is uncomfortable, it is ok, but help them know how to express that.

In closing, she offered several out-of-the-box ways to take ownership in our ministry; and whatever ministry they choose, make sure you do not just drop them off.

  • Shadow a facilities volunteer to help stack chairs or set up room for event.
  • Coffee bar
  • Bookstore
  • Greeters
  • Communion
  • Children’s helper
  • Tech support
  • Parking lot attendant

The main goal is to use what your church already has to offer, and plug them in in different ways.

UPDATE (1/6/14): Katie Garvert will again be leading special needs ministry workshops for the 2014 Orange Conference.  To learn more click here.

Katie Garvert is the Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Woodmen Valley Chapel currently serves 70 individuals affected by special needs, many with autism spectrum disorder.  Katie has helped Woodmen Valley Chapel establish special needs inclusion programming and parent support events for this multi-site church.  She is also responsible for overseeing the church’s deaf ministry.  Prior to joining the Woodmen Valley Team four year ago, Katie was a special education teacher in the public school system.

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