There are nine Primary instruction manuals (yes, nine!) for teaching Primary lessons to children in the LDS church.
The Primary manuals are thick with ideas, support, scripture references, instructor guidelines and suggestions of age-appropriate activities. There are additional supports for teaching children found on the church websites— that support includes resources by topic, additional ideas for sharing time, and even short videos with weekly topics and tips.
While there are occasional blurbs at the end of a lesson about making accommodations for children with special needs, conspicuously missing are basic instructional guidelines and support for teaching children with learning, processing, or Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). This includes but is not limited to Autism, Asperger Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and Sensory Processing Disorder.
When a Primary Presidency and classroom instructor learn they have a student with an ASD developmental disability or Autism, if can be disconcerting. Managing a classroom of squirming kids for two hours each Sunday is no small task, and the idea of adding a child with special needs can feel overwhelming. There are frequently questions about disruption of others students, modeling of what is considered “reverent” or classroom-appropriate behavior, physical boundaries, and a myriad of other honest concerns and questions.
It’s important for instructors in the group environment during Sharing Time and in the smaller classes to be on the same page with understanding the individual child, and with a plan of how to manage the child’s needs, while still respecting the needs of the other children and rules of the classroom.
The starting place with this understanding always begins with the parent(s).
The first call a Primary Presidency should make is to ask the parent(s) to tell them about their child. The parent(s) will be able to easily and most accurately convey the strengths and the possible trouble areas for the child.
Frequently a child with Autism will function better when an individual is called to be their teacher in a one-on-one capacity, rather than as a group setting. This may not always be possible, but depending on the needs of the child and the resources of the ward, this can be a very successful starting point. If the child has one person with whom they feel comfortable and trust in a small classroom, they can often manage the louder, less structured Sharing Time lesson with less anxiety or disruption, and can be easily taken out, if the need arises.
The following are tips leaders and teachers may incorporate in the classroom and may discuss with the parents regarding how best to teach the child. Parents will be the best source of information on how these particular issues influence their child, and will be able help choose and incorporate which of these suggestions will be most helpful for their child.
- Sitting in a chair for two hours with “reverent’ behavior is difficult for all children, but it borders on impossible for a child with ASD. While it’s important to respect others, having a separate space for the child with autism to sit can be successful. A small carpet square at the back of the room, a corner designated as ‘their’ spot, or sitting under a table in the back are accommodations that can allow the child to listen and be present without the stress, anxiety, stimulation and disruption of a front-row chair.
- Teaching specific social rules such as turn-taking and acceptable social distance can be challenging. Touch and proximity can either be sought, or avoided aggressively.
- Physical contact should always be initiated by the child. Hi-fives or even something as nice as a gentle hand on the shoulder to praise can be overwhelming. Touch and uninitiated physical contact can be challenging and stressful. Sitting in close proximity to other wiggly children coupled with a loud classroom or sharing time can raise anxiety and behavior issues.
- Children with autism can have obsessive behaviors, or “stims”. These can include rocking, hiding, squeezing into tight places, humming, flapping of hands or feet, vocalizing, and other things. The use of weight blankets, belts or vests, ear protection, small therapy items to chew or wring in the hands can all help with stims. Allow for this in the classroom.
- If you ask a question or give an instruction and are greeted with a blank stare, don’t take it personally. While manners and consideration for others should be part of the church environment, communication of emotion can be difficult for kids with ASD. The reading of social cues and facial expressions to infer direction is also often not comprehended. While a stern glance or long pause might correct a typical child, it will probably not be understood by a child with ASD.
- ASD children tend to be very literal in their thinking. Try and keep your language simple and concrete. Inference and guessing can be frustrating.
- Avoid using sarcasm. Even lightheartedly or jokingly- ASD children may not understand, and can take a silly “Great!” over a wrong answer to be literal.
- Avoid using idioms. “Put your thinking caps on”, “Open your ears” and “Zipper your lips” can leave a child completely mystified and wondering how to do this directive, and can lead to frustration.
- Give clear, closed choices: “Do you want to read or draw?” rather than asking, “What do you want to do now?”
- Give very specific tasks in sequential order, which the child may follow. With a typical child, you can say, “Open your book” but to child with ASD, you might have to say, “Pick up your book. Put it on the table. Find page 1. Point to the picture of the ark.” The more specific, the more able the child is to follow the directive.
- Structure and routine are very important, and if the child knows exactly what will happen each Sunday, (s)he will be far more successful. Drastic or even subtle changes in behavior often reflect anxiety. Anxiety can manifest is different ways, and is frequently due to stress about change in routine or instruction.
- Provide advance warning of any impending change of routine, teacher, or switch of activity, if at all possible, even if just a phone call or email. The parents can let the child know at home what to expect on Sunday, with greater successful outcome.
- Avoid overstimulation. Music time can be particularly difficult for some children with Autism, as can Sharing Time. Be prepared to make changes to the expectations. This might be a good time to take a walk around the building, or to plan on a separate activity in a quieter room.
- Providing other children present with simple explanations of the needs of a child with a disability can help them understand why there might be different rules and expectations for others. It is a perfect opportunity to discuss the Gospel and how Heavenly Father makes each of us unique, and can be a chance for young children to be exposed to others of differing abilities.
Teaching children with ASD can be rewarding and tremendously enriching. These children will ceaselessly surprise you with what they learn and remember, even if that learning happens unconventionally or it seems they weren’t paying attention.
Suspending expectation of learning occurring in a particular, anticipated manner is key to successfully ministering to children with Autism and developmental disorders. (And probably the rest of us, too…)