Wandering the Arcade: Ministering to Youth on the Autism Spectrum
This post is in partnership with the Center for Youth Ministry Training and is a product of the Communicating the Gospel to Youth class, taught by Dr. Andrew Zirschky as part of CYMT’s Master of Arts in Youth Ministry degree program through Memphis Theological Seminary. Rebecca Bibee is a third year CYMT graduate resident and serves as the youth minister at Epworth UMC in Huntsville, Ala.
Picture in your mind two teenage boys, one with a blonde buzz cut, one with curly hair. Best friends, boisterous, independent, loving, funny, confusing, trouble, unique, sneaky, growing, smelly, kind. These boys are some of my treasures in youth ministry. I hope they sound like some of the teenage boys you work with, because that’s who they are. They are people. They are youth. They both also happen to be living with an autism spectrum disorder. More importantly, they happen to be awesome!
Integrating Into the Group
I met Andrew* and Mark* when they were in sixth and seventh grades, respectively. At that time, they were both enigmas in the youth ministry. You know those kids I’m talking about, the kids who you can’t tell if they are actually learning about Christ, but you love them anyway. Both diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, they formed a deep friendship over a shared love of sirens, air-conditioning units, and fans. I’d love to say that everyone in the youth group was kind to them, treating them just like any other peer. However, Andrew and Mark had a propensity to imitate sirens the whole way to Six Flags and wake up all the boys on retreats by banging on the lockers near their sleeping areas at in the morning. Other than that, those boys were, and still are, loved by the youth. We created an inclusive environment that both gave Mark and Andrew a supportive place to grow, and allowed the typically developing youth the chance to know Mark and Andrew as just people, not autistic kids.
In one of my education classes in college, my professor said two things that have stayed with me that pertain to students with autism spectrum disorders. The first is that students with autism spectrum disorders are often on the outside looking in. That means that these students look at the youth ministry and, in most cases, want to be a part of it. However, they lack the social skills and understanding to integrate into the youth group by themselves. That’s why, in the beginning, it was so important for Andrew to have Mark and vice versa. They often used each other as a kind of buffer between themselves and the over stimulating outside world. When Mark did not want to play dodge ball because of the noise level in the gym, he and Andrew could go off to the side and look at pictures of the industrial fans that they both loved. We also found it very important to have a designated volunteer who could anticipate these situations and help Andrew and Mark find a more suitable activity. One such night involved a bowling night where all Andrew and Mark wanted to do was watch the balls come out of the ball return, with no consideration for what would happen when their face was inches away from the bowling ball being pushed at them. Because Andrew and Mark knew me and trusted me, I could divert their attention to wandering around the arcade and writing stories, which we did for quite a while.
The other thing that my professor told us was, “If you’ve met one student with an autism spectrum disorder, then you’ve met one student with an autism spectrum disorder.” As a youth minister and someone who works with teenagers, I often find myself putting the teenagers I work with into categories, like the scene in Mean Girls where they categorize everyone in the lunchroom. We have the smart kids, the cool kids, the kids who make us want to quit every Monday. It would be so easy to group Andrew and Mark into the category of “special” kids. But just like Thomas*, my prom-king SGA president, is his own person, Andrew and Mark are individuals as well. All of our youth, be they exceptional or typical, are unique God bearers as laid out in Genesis 1: 27: “So God created human in God’s own image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them.” God is not revealed any less in Andrew or Mark than he is in Thomas or you or me. We cannot simplify or categorize these students just because they are different. To do so would be to belittle God’s creation.
The Challenge of Understanding Pragmatic Language
The real challenge with Andrew, Mark, and all students with autism spectrum disorders is how do we take God—who is inherently abstract to our limited minds—and make God come alive to a person who thinks in mainly concrete terms? People with autism spectrum disorders struggle with pragmatic language, or language which, “includes recognizing what is relevant to others, information, and implications. It assumes shared meanings: meanings that are understood without being stated.” (Jacobsen 418). When we say that God is a rock to a typically developing teenager, he or she can usually infer that we do not mean that God is literally a rock. However, neither Andrew nor Mark could do that with confidence. In fact, through their eyes I began to see how much of the way that we speak in youth ministry uses that pragmatic language. We say that God is a God of supreme grace and mercy and also that God is a God who loves justice.
We use language that is contradictory and confusing to describe God because God is so big. However, a typically developing teenage brain (which in itself seems to be a contradiction) can look through these contradictions and metaphors to a larger, more complete image of God. When I asked Andrew and Mark to describe God, they would not even attempt it because they were interacting with so many contradictions. One size fits all youth ministry was no longer working. At the time, this realization broke my heart. I felt like a failure because I could not adequately communicate my understanding of God to these two teenage boys.
I finally realized that MY understanding of God was not what was important here. It was Andrew’s understanding that was important. It was Mark’s understanding that was important. You see, they had never been given the opportunity to ask concrete questions about God without feeling like they were somewhat behind the learning curve. One night myself and another volunteer had the opportunity to sit down with Andrew and Mark and ask them about who they knew God to be. One by one, we discussed the attributes of God as they saw them. God is strong. God is kind. God is loving. But we discussed these characteristics individually, not crossing quality with quality until one of them did it for us. We waited for Andrew or Mark to create scaffolding between qualities of God to fit into THEIR individual understandings. Did Andrew and Mark fully comprehend the vastness of God that night? Nope. But it was a start.
The Challenge of Relying on Empathy
Another thing that hindered Mark and Andrew in youth ministry is our dependence on empathy in our teaching. Think about it: we often start a talk or a lesson with some sort of story of our own experience that emotionally ties into the lesson that we are teaching. In fact, the Bible relies on our empathy as readers. Sure, Joseph was a suck-up, but we feel for him when his brothers sell him into slavery. Andrew, particularly, lacked empathy, which hindered his understanding of the implications of the Gospel. While Andrew could beat you in any game of Bible trivia, he cannot tell you the moral or social implications of the Biblical story he is reciting. Though Andrew could tell me in exact detail the way that Christ died on the cross for our sins, he could not tell me why that is such a big deal. One night, when asked to think about Christ’s suffering, Andrew wrote about how crucifixion was a bad way to die. Sometimes youth with autism spectrum disorders can recognize the hows of a situation but not the whys. Again, we asked Andrew to explain his perspective on what happened to Christ and we listened. We asked simple questions and again we listened to Andrew. We did this until one night Andrew connected his own life with the death of Christ, not my life or yours. This is still a work in progress for Andrew. Some days this is a work in progress for me, too.
Andrew and Mark are now in their junior and senior years in high school, respectively. They are still all of the things that I described, and so very much more. To be honest, they have some of the strongest faiths that I have encountered. That is a gift, I think. They also are (mostly) beloved and accepted in their youth group, and because of this acceptance, they are loved and accepted in school by their many peers who see them on Sunday nights. They always have someone to sit by at lunch, which gives me great joy.
A youth in your youth group with an autism spectrum disorder is not to be feared of babied, but loved, embraced, and most importantly taught the Gospel in a way he or she will grasp. That is my prayer for Andrew, Mark, and all exceptional youth.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
 Jacobsen, Paula. Understanding How Asperger Children and Adolescents Think and Learn: Creating Manageable Environments for AS Students. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2005. Print.
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