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April is Autism Awareness Month: Delighting in the Patterns of Worship

Many people with autism spectrum disorder find joy, security, and comfort in familiar patterns. We can also take great delight in the perfect match that exists within many of our corporate worship patterns. Take an individual who delights in patterns, structure, and “sameness,” and you have a recipe for a joyful worshiper.

Casey taught me so much. He entered our room and school building without the ability to speak to us in words, but he certainly found other ways to communicate! I often commented “I wish we could have 30 seconds inside his mind to see the world through his eyes!” Casey, however, gave us glimpses into that amazing mind of his through many of his actions. The first months of school he created comfort and safety by building visual patterns. They would stretch around the room, winding in between classroom furniture. He would use whatever tools were available to create these amazing spirals; varied sizes, textures, and shapes would take over when the typical building block toys were not enough for his creation. After the morning routine of visual pattern building was complete, other activities could begin. Eventually, Casey understood that there was a pattern to a school day as well. We would use pictures to map out his day, and he eventually stopped building the morning creation in favor of building his picture schedule. As the familiar pattern or activities, architecture, and people filled his life, he no longer built the incredible visual strands. A new pattern had emerged.

Many people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) find joy, security, and comfort in familiar patterns. As we notice and delight in our brothers and sisters with ASD this month (April 2016 is Autism Awareness Month), it seems we can also take great delight in the perfect match that exists within many of our corporate worship patterns. Take an individual who delights in patterns, structure, and “sameness,” and you have a recipe for a joyful worshiper.

Consider the Patterns of Your Worship Space

Imagine your worship space. Is your design fairly stable from week to week? Many congregations may change out banners, a few furnishings, or add special features for special days, but visually, your worship area is most likely stable. The number of panes in the stained glass window, the type of chairs or pews, the entry and exit areas, the floor tile or carpet, the hand-crafted communion table, the number of lights suspended from the ceiling, or the people who always sit in the same spot can all wrap around an individual and create a predictable visual space from week to week. You may have never noticed you could create a welcome for an individual who relies on those patterns to make life a better place. Don’t be surprised if an individual with ASD points out a visual inconsistency such as a burned out bulb, a small stain on a banner, or a congregation member who ignored the sign about having a lid on a coffee cup before bringing it into the worship area.

Worship “Rituals”

If you move from that visual stability to the patterns of the worship liturgy, you can often see many rituals that happen each and every week. And even for those communities that bristle at the word “ritual”, there are still many elements that are similar during each gathering time. Mutual greetings, Scripture readings, favorite congregational songs, reciting the Lord’s prayer, standing up and sitting down at predictable times, playing the last line of the hymn before joining in with singing, or inviting children to come and go at predictable times often create a welcoming structure. While each worship service is different, most of us have many patterns built into our time together. Not only that, but also many churches pass out a “visual schedule” called a bulletin or order of worship. While there is certainly variation from week to week, the overall feel of a worship service tends to be predictable and patterned.

Patterns Benefit All

I suppose, while we may notice more intensity at times in the desire for patterns and “sameness” in our brothers and sisters with ASD, that desire is certainly at work in each of us. While the patterns of worship may wrap around and create intense joy in some, most individuals enjoy the predictable routines of our community gatherings. Even from year to year, we look forward to the way people can join the choir for the singing of the “Hallelujah Chorus” on Christmas morning, the Easter lilies on display which represent saints who have gone before us into heaven, the parade of current and previous military personnel on Memorial Day Sunday, or the way the Fall cornucopia display looks especially lovely on the communion table. While God may have created Casey to particularly delight in patterns and order, that is certainly a pull and desire He placed in each one of us. Patterns create meaning in life. Even when life is miserably pushed off track by a death or delightfully interrupted with a birth, we numbly walk through our days until new patterns emerge, creating a “new normal”. For believers, even those times are often surrounded with worship routines that remind us that even during times of change, God is a constant presence and faithful part of each moment.

Making Worship Inclusive

For some congregation members with ASD, we may need to add a few more items that increase the likelihood of participation in the patterns and predictability of worship. I had one such brother in Christ who did much better digesting the pieces of a worship service when a rocking chair was placed in a pew cutout. The rocking motion combined with the order of worship made Sunday a delightful event. Another individual really enjoyed participating with a pair of sunglasses and some sound blockers. When she had these items with her, she could better enjoy her time in worship. Another person best took in the worship elements while watching through a camera lens on his iPad and taking photos of his favorite parts. Another person seemed to dislike the worship service as evidenced through his screaming until he had a chance to come to the worship space when no other people were present. He got to explore the seats, put his name on one of them to “reserve a spot”, and then heard some of the songs as the worship team started to practice for the Sunday service. He bounded into church eagerly the next Sunday, knowing where he would sit and having experienced some of the patterns without the confusion of the other worshipers.

Living God’s Pattern

Do you currently have persons with ASD worshiping with you? Have you had individuals with ASD come once and then not return for some reason? Don’t miss out on the opportunity. While there are many excellent patterns already in place that will create a welcome for persons who enjoy routine, don’t forget the most important pattern that you will have a chance to discover -- God’s pattern. Psalm 139 says that God “knit me together in my mother’s womb.” That creative knitting pattern certainly shows great diversity from person to person. We should delight in discovering the strands that make up each person in the congregation, but it can be especially helpful when getting to know an individual with ASD. Discovering the strengths and struggles of a person with ASD will certainly give you further insights into how you can create a worship service where each person can better enter in to that corporate time. As we commit to finding God’s pattern in each worshiper, it allows us to be obedient to the pattern God designed for his church – one body together in Christ.

For more information on creating a greater welcome in worship for each one, contact CLC Network.