When I speak at conferences and workshops, there’s one question that someone always asks. They pull me over to the side after a talk or whisper it to me as I sign a copy of my book. Sometimes it’s a family member, sometimes a member of the church ministry team, and sometimes it’s someone who feels they’ve always done the wrong thing. (Don’t worry! The people who come to me not knowing often go on to be some of the steadiest advocates for autistic children in a parish.) You might have already guessed it.
What do I do if an autistic child has a meltdown at church?
If you’re welcoming enough for a family with autistic members to attend your parish, you’ve probably encountered a meltdown (or a shutdown). The autistic person might be loud, wiggly, or unpredictable. They might seem to be defiant and “not listening.” They might go silent and stare and not move out of the way or answer you or their caregiver or family members. If you’re not autistic, it’s likely that you didn’t know what to do to help.
If you read my book, you’ll know a couple of things NOT to do:
- Don’t shush! The annoying noise of shushing will make everything a thousand times worse. (And you sound like the serpent, so, probably not great for you to imitate the evil one.)
- Don’t give the stink eye! Any kind of staring is unhelpful, but dirty looks (any looks less than you would direct at an image of the Lord Jesus) are harmful.
But never fear. There are simple things anyone can do to help an autistic person get themselves centered and back into self-regulation.
6 Ways to Help Calm a Meltdown at Church
Why sitting? It’s a de-escalating action. The floor is best for several reasons, including the fact that you are non-threatening there, you can’t fall off of it, and you are either at the other person’s level or looking up slightly at them. Looking up slightly at someone is another de-escalating (calming) form of body language. Don’t get inside someone’s personal space. Sit about one meter from them, and relax your hands and shoulders.
AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, usually some sort of pictoral language system. Though it’s not 100% universal (since everyone is a little different!), most autistic people (me included) think in pictures and will sometimes have trouble translating them into communication if we’re stressed. AAC can provide a mooring line between our sensory-overloaded bodies and our thinking. It can help us to steer ourselves through a sensory overload storm. If you aren’t familiar with AAC, you can still have a Meltdown Calming Card on hand (<-links to my post and free printable!). Having someone with you in a crisis is invaluable, and AAC helps an autistic person feel “withed.” Okay, “withed” is not a word, but knowing someone is with you, feeling not alone, is not always obvious. Someone willing to partner with you in a feeling to communicate it can be a powerful form of companionship.
If you don’t know the person who’s overwhelmed, stick to something neutral like noise-canceling earmuffs that your church keeps on hand. Or if it’s very bright, offer a pair of sunglasses. Don’t talk about it. Just go get them and calmly hold them out, staying a meter away after you sit. If you know the person, offer to retrieve a sensory tool from their church bag. If your church has stretchy silicone sensory strings (aff link) or other quiet calming tools like sensory brushes (aff link) on hand in a sensory station (hint: This is a great idea! Please do it.), you can bring those, too. It’s up to the autistic person to decide if they want the sensory tools, but it’s up to you to offer if they or a family member can’t get to them on their own. If and ONLY if you are friends with the person and family and know how to do so safely, you can offer to do hand squeezes or shoulder presses or strong hugs or holding and rocking. These last type of sensory soothing are generally parental territory, but I’m including it because parents (and godparents) might need to learn these things, too.
What? I want you to pretend to be bored? Nope. I want you to engage the mirror neurons in everyone around you, including the autistic person who’s overwhelmed. Yawning is hardwired into everyone. It doesn’t always work on its own, but if you can get the person to yawn with you, you might be able to calmly offer one or more of the other helpful techniques. There are louder ways to mirror that we tend to use at home if one of our children is having a big overload, (for instance, matching pitch on their cry but at a low volume slowly dropping to a low tone, and calmly, quietly repeating any phrases they repeat, or sometimes first saying their name until they interrupt their crying to tell us to be quiet, whereupon we repeat what they were saying). But that’s loud, complicated, and not often feasible in public. Try yawning.
Once a person is able to mirror, or their family members are able to look at you to ask for help, calmly offer to lead them through the crowd to a calm space. This might be a bride room or an empty classroom or an office or even an empty corner of the parish hall. It’s most certainly NOT a loud cry room or anywhere where people might stare or shush. Churches who want to welcome families with autistic members should plan ahead and pick a space that’s set aside for quiet calming. You’ll need to avoid flourescent lights in that space, and add a rocking chair and maybe a weighted blanket or a tent. (If you visit my church, I will show you the calming tools in my classroom.)
If other people are already helping by sitting and offering aid, you still have a very important role! Calmly place yourself between the overwhelmed person’s group and prying (or stink) eyes. Keep a perimeter of at least a meter for safety and comfort. By limiting the stimuli coming at the family group, you help them sort through the already-too-much sensory input without adding to the burden. You can also calmly invite people who try to shush or act superior/rude/judgmental to be quiet and pray for the family instead. In fact, acting with assertive grace is exactly the best thing you can do to help mitigate the situation if the other bases are covered.
Please share this post with your friends and family and church members! The more prepared you are to welcome autistic families in all their joys and graces and occasional overwhelm, the more prepared you are to welcome Christ.
Want more straightforward advice about autistic thriving? Pre-order my book Our Autistic Home, coming this November with Park End Books.
Have anything to add? Please continue the conversation in the comments!