Training An Autistic Child In The Way They Should Go

Proverbs 22:6: Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

Our youngest son was diagnosed on the Autism spectrum when he was 3 years old. There were various signs leading up to this that were giving myself and my wife concern that something was not on the same development path as our older son was on. First there was the delayed reaction to physical stimuli; he would get his finger pinched and wouldn’t react to it until a good 30 seconds later. His speech was severely delayed when compared to his brother and the “normal” developmental cycle. Then there was the traditional patterns associated with children on the spectrum; for him it was stacking objects in perfect symmetrical patterns. When we finally had him diagnosed by a professional, he was diagnosed as PDD-NOS – Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified. This is basically a category that doesn’t fit into any of the other autistic classifications.

The focus of this blog is specifically around raising a child on the autism spectrum in relation to the Reformed Christian faith; for us it would specifically the Reformed Presbyterian faith. The reason for calling this out is that there are some specific distinctions around the faith that determined how we ended up training our son in the faith. In traditional Protestant Christian worship, young children are typically kept in a nursery or children’s Sunday school class that is kept segregated from the adult worship. With Reformed Presbyterian worship this is not the case typically; the model of worship is that the whole family is part of the same worship service as we do not believe there is a biblical warrant for separating children into their own form of worship. This presents a challenge for any parent with young children be trained in this model, but more so for autistic children.

The key to having success with this is consistency and getting the child into the habit of following an orderly pattern. Patterns are vitally important for those on the spectrum as they use these patterns to build dependable working models in their heads giving the chaos that their brains are constantly being flooded with. For us the first few months were a challenge, but after that the pattern or habit was established and our son became perfectly content going through all of the elements of the worship service. Not to say there were not challenges at times, there were and will always be in one way or the other, but the once you get the habit formed and *remain* consistent your well on your way.

The journey doesn’t stop there though as the next step is educating the child in the core tenants of the faith. Since our son has always struggled with language and speech this presented a unique set of challenges around his Christian education. We had to start off very basic as to who God was and who Jesus was, what the Gospel is, what Sin is, etc. What was most interesting at least in our case was that our son understood a lot more than what he was able to communicate at the time. One time I asked him, “What happens when you die?”, to which he responded, “We go to Heaven if we love Jesus.”.

One of the long held practices of Reformed Presbyterians for teaching the doctrines of the faith is through catechisms, which is simply teaching through question and answer format. The core documents that encompass this came out of the Protestant Reformation in the form of the Westminster Standards, which include the Shorter & Larger catechisms. Even focusing on the shorter catechism for our son would not be sustainable, because though it takes in form a less detailed approach in content than the larger catechism, it’s still pretty much non-viable for a child with language challenges. This is when I ran across what would turn out to be a huge blessing called, “Special Catechisms for Special Kids: Teaching Autistic Children About God“. In this work the author condenses the language used in the Westminster Shorter Catechism into a language that is more suited for children on the spectrum. So I ordered the book and spent every night with our son doing a page of question and answer on the various core doctrines of the Reformed Christian faith when he was around 5.

It’s now 9 years later and what is the result of those labors? This Sunday (Lord’s Day) our son became a communicant member of the PCA church we attend. To be honest I wasn’t sure this day would ever come let alone when he was 14 given all of the challenges he has faced. Another key factor in this success was the support of our church session, which is comprised of the Pastor (Teaching Elder) and one or more ruling elders. Their support is key as they need to make the decision around setting the minimal requirements around granting communicant membership to anyone who wants to become a member of the church.

My motivation for writing this was to share the process for other parents that have children on the spectrum that there is hope and that if you are faithful to leverage resources that are available to you to train your child through non-conventional means that can give them a successful framework for growing up in the fear and admonition of the Lord. It was also intended to help the Reformed Churches address the ever increasing number of children diagnosed with Autism.

Sola Dei Gloria