Youth work with young people who are autistic

I had a very interesting meeting this morning with Ann Memmott who is our Diocesan adviser on Autism. We had a useful discussion on the issues and challenges faced by those on the Autistic Spectrum in their encounters with church.
Ann has written an excellent paper on working with people with ASD and you’ll find it here. I’m reproducing with her permission though the excellent summary as I know a lot of our groups/projects involve young people with Autism or Aspergers.
“Almost 35,000 people in Oxford Diocese are on the autism spectrum, people of every age and background and intelligence level.
Do ask us what, if anything, we need. Do please offer a welcome, and treat us as equals worthy of respect and a place in God’s church.
1. Check the lights in each room, especially fluorescent ones – any flickering ones? Please replace them. (This also helps people with epilepsy)
2. Noise levels. Is there anything unexpected in today’s service/meeting? Can it be changed easily? If not, can you warn us? (This also helps people with mental health conditions and those who are deaf)
3. The building. Do we know what it looks like, and what the layout is like today? Is information on a simple website, perhaps? (This also helps people who have visual disabilities or those who are nervous of attending somewhere new)
4. The Order of service – really clear instructions for us e.g. where to sit, when to stand and sit, what to say at each point? Either write it down, or get someone to be with us to quietly say what to do, please. (This also helps those new to church). Different colour paper may help some to read service sheets, e.g. light blue paper rather than white.
5. We are very literal, and our minds may see in pictures, not words. If you need to use complicated language, can someone be available to briefly explain it afterwards if we need it, maybe by email? (This helps those who find reading more difficult, too, which is one in every five people in the UK)
6. Physical events e.g. shaking hands? Water being splashed about? We may find this physically painful, or alarming as we’re hypersensitive and need to prepare ourselves for sensory changes. Please warn us what will happen, and avoid physical contact unless we offer first. (This also helps those with arthritis, and those who are nervous of being touched because of memories of violence)
7. Rest area – somewhere quiet to go if we need to, please. Or don’t worry if we wander outside for a while. (This also helps people who have chronic fatigue illnesses, and mental health conditions for example, as well as those with back problems who may need a quick lie-down on a bench)
8. Socialising. Be aware we find it difficult and exhausting as we cannot ‘see’ or hear you that well, and may not recognise you. Our body language can be different to yours, and we may not make eye contact. Please don’t think we’re rude. (This also helps people who are more introverted).
9. Be Clear and Accurate. If you say you’ll do something, please do it, and on time. Those on the autistic spectrum will always find it very distressing if you promise to help and don’t, or promise to phone at a certain time and don’t, or if you use expressions like “I’ll be back in five minutes” when you mean, “I’ll be back some time this afternoon”. If you need to change arrangements, please just let us know.
10. Support: Find a quiet caring person to be aware of us, someone ready to lend a little assistance if we need it – but within safe guidelines, especially if one of us also has Vulnerable Adult status”

Youth work specifics that we talked about included:

i. Meeting earlier in the day is better than later
ii. Flag up what you are about to do/change
iii. Know that young people with Autism experience a high level of bullying
iv. Socially, ASD young people will be a considerable way behind their peers
and lastly
v. Support the whole family
Additional: Ann has done a piece of work where she has looked at some teaching material and noted what would and wouldn’t work with an ASD young person, makes for an interesting guide if anyone would like to know more about this.

4 Replies to “Youth work with young people who are autistic”

  1. That is a very helpful summary of issues arising for people with ASD. Can I add two bits to that?
    For no.5 its worth remembering that we often use drama in our work with young people. And particularly we might ask them to act out emotions (ie. a conflict between friends). Some people with ASD can find that very distressing, not being able to understand that these emotions are just fiction.
    Also, don’t be afraid to give young people with ASD some responsibilities, appropriate to their abilities. Often they are treated as ‘backward’ or in need of constant help. I used to have a young woman with Aspergers help me at a childrens club I was running. She was brilliant at taking registers and remembering kids birthdays – two things I am rubbish at. She was also my harshest critic if I tried to wing it or didn’t prepare properly.

  2. Ray, I agree. Those with an autism spectrum condition have much to offer any group, church and session, no matter what our level of skill or communication style. Often there is great loyalty, accuracy, a keen ‘eye for detail’, often good recollection of information…and often a marvellous sense of humour. Well worth getting to know each of us and valuing us for who we are and what we can bring to our churches to share with God and others.

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