Visiting a place of worship, such as a church, mosque, temple, gurdwara, synagogue or meeting room, can be difficult for people on the autism spectrum. Here we look at how you can identify the causes of any problems, and offer ideas you could try relating to:

Not all of our suggestions will be appropriate for your family member, religion or place of worship.

Identifying the cause

What makes it difficult for your child or family member to attend the place of worship? Is it something that they do that is not acceptable in the place? Or is it something that they don’t do that makes it difficult for them to participate? Do they get distressed, run off, or have a meltdown? Do you feel you or your family member is misunderstood or judged?

Keep a diary of what happens when you visit your place of worship. This should include date, time, place, what occurred before, during and after the behaviour, how the person was feeling and how people, including yourself, responded to the behaviour.

I took Abi to the Sabbath prayers. She was very happy in the car and enjoyed the drive to the synagogue. We were a bit early for the prayers. Abi was curious about the place and was looking around. She started making loud noises and listening to the echo in the empty hall. I joined in the first couple of times, then other people started coming. Abi continued making noises in spite of my efforts to calm her down. After a few minutes she started crying for no specific reason. Trying to calm her did not work and I had to take her out of the synagogue before the prayers started.

  • Did Abi start crying because she was being told off by her mum?
  • Or is she crying because she wanted to continue the game and her mum was no longer engaging in it?
  • Did she not like having strangers in the same room?

It may not be possible to find the exact reason from one such record, but if you keep a regular record of all such instances, you may soon build up enough information to help you to pinpoint some causes. Working out possible causes will then help you work out strategies.

Social rules

Rashid and his brother usually say their prayers at a specific part of the mosque. One Friday they were late in going to the mosque and by the time they reached it there were already some other men standing in the location. Rashid walked up to the men and asked them to move away from their space.

Autistic people can find it difficult to understand the social rules for different settings. They may also try to impose rules that are applicable to one situation to another. Because of this, they sometimes behave in a way that seems socially inappropriate.

You could:

  • create a visual sequence that they can refer to during the visit. This could show what to do on arrival, finding a space, praying, and so on.
  • write a social story about a specific issue, eg about finding an available space
  • ask the leader in your place of worship to accommodate you family member’s need, eg allowing them to go in the same spot every time, and telling the other worshippers about this.

Religious rituals

Some autistic people may find it difficult to participate in religious rituals, and to follow the sequence of a ritual.

You could practise some of these rituals at home. But be aware that some find it difficult to repeat a learned skill in a new setting or with new people. It might be better to start by going to the place of worship when it is not busy.

For some people, anxiety or sensory stimuli can make it difficult for them to remember the sequence of a ritual. Some may benefit by observing others complete the sequence before they are expected to do so.

Even if a person is unable to say the prayers themselves, being able to follow the sequence could give them a sense of participation.

Here is an example of a sequence for visiting a Gurdwara (Sikh temple) for a boy with his father:

  • take your shoes off
  • keep them in the shoe rack
  • wash your hands
  • tie the scarf on your head
  • walk up to the holy book (Guru Granth Sahib)
  • kneel in front of the holy book
  • take the prashad (sweet)
  • go and sit back with daddy.

Read more about sequencing.

Awareness of danger

It was the first time that Amit's parents took their son to the Hindu temple. All through their visit they held his hand tight so that no untoward incident could occur. After finishing the prayers, the temple priest brought the arati (plate with a small fire lighted on it) to offer it to all the devotees. Before his parents could realise, Amit stretched his hand and put out the fire, burning his palm and upsetting the priest.

People on the autism spectrum may not have a conventional sense of fear of things such as fire and electricity. Some may develop a sense of fear after facing incidents such as the above, but they may not transfer that knowledge to a new situation. If Amit's parents take him to a new temple, he may again try to touch the fire because he may not realise that it will burn him.

You could

  • write a social story about a specific issue, eg about not touching the fire, and review the story before every visit, or before going to a different place of worship
  • give them a preferred activity to do with their hands (eg using a fidget toy) at certain points in a ritual.

Routines

People on the autism spectrum can find any kind of change or transition difficult. This can affect their behaviour in different settings.

Imtiaz likes going to the local mosque regularly along with his father. His family were very happy with Imtiaz's behaviour, as they felt that this visit helped him in integrating into his community. But Imtiaz has started refusing to enter the mosque since the mosque underwent some renovations and the entry door to the mosque has been changed.

Here the reason for Imtiaz's refusal to go to the mosque is easy to understand: the change of the entrance has upset his routine to going to the mosque. In other instances the change to the routine could be more subtle, for example the appearance of a new priest, days when special prayers are offered, change in the location of the place where food is offered.

Some people are unable to predict changes. If they have had an unpleasant experience once, eg an extremely loud praying session during a special festival, they may think each visit will involve a similar experience and so refuse to go there.

You could:

  • ask the organisers and senior people in your place of worship to let you know about any planned changes to the building, decoration, services or people in charge
  • tell your autistic family member about any changes well in advance, eg showing them a photo of the new priest, or of the newly decorated hallway.

Read more about routines and preparing for change.

Motivation

People on the autism spectrum may be more willing to get involved with an activity if they understand the reason for doing it.

Some children on the autism spectrum might be able to understand the religious philosophy involved, and you could use this to explain why they are required to follow some customs. You may need to explain that not everyone has to follow these customs.

If your family member is an adult, they are entitled to decide not to take part in any religious activity.

Jenny starts getting fidgety after she sits for the church service for five minutes. She often starts humming hymns during the sermons. On a few occasions she has started singing the hymns loudly. As a result of this, her dad has stopped going to the Sunday mass.

Here are some ideas to try.

  • Introduce them first to shorter prayer sessions, or if possible, join towards the end, and praise them for taking part.
  • Write a social story to explain why the mass happens, or the purpose of specific parts of it.
  • Create a visual sequence to help to keep them on task. This might be needed for every service, or just at services which you expect to be longer, or different in some other way.
  • Arrange to sit where your family member can see something they enjoy, such as light from a stained glass window.
  • Take a comforter, toy or fidget object.
  • Look into whether they could take a responsible role that they may enjoy, such as tidying up the place, saying farewell to people or being responsible for other people's belongings.
  • Give your child a reward for taking part in the service, such as playing with the musical instruments afterwards, or getting a preferred food afterwards.

Sensory factors

Many people on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing everyday sensory information. They may have high sensitivity or low sensitivity, or both, in any of the sensory areas. In most places of worship there’s a lot of sensory information.

Hearing

Most religious ceremonies involve chanting, singing or using musical instruments such cymbals, drums or an organ. An autistic person may enjoy some of these sounds and try to get nearer to the source of it. Others may get distressed at certain volumes or pitches.

Smell

In a group of people you have different body odours and smells such as perfumes. On top of these smells, places of worship also have other smells that are part of the rituals such as incense, flowers, and food. While some people may find these smells overwhelming, others may actually seek these smells, for example going up to other people and smelling them.

Visual

Candles, fires, and other sources of light can provide visual stimulation to some people on the autism spectrum. Some religious places have stained glass windows, or mosaic patterns on the walls or floor, or wooden or stone carving, all of which provide interesting patterns of light play. This could interest to some, but disturb others.

Touch

During festive seasons places of worship can be quite busy with very little physical space between people. Most of us find this uncomfortable, but autistic people may be very uncomfortable in crowded places. During summer months, some may not like the sensation of their own sweat. In some religions, part of the worship is the distribution of food to the people who pray. Some autistic people have difficulties with the texture of food and may not eat it, or will refuse to take it in their hand.

Taste

Another reason that they might refuse to eat the offered food could be because of its taste. Some people may eat inedible things, such as flowers used for worship, because they like the taste or texture.

Things you could try

  • Go at less busy times.
  • Arrange to sit where your family member won’t be facing bright lights, or where they can be far away from the source of noise or odour.
  • Bring a bag or box of smelly stuff that the person enjoys, such as soap, garlic and lavender, in separate small containers so that they don't contaminate each other. This could distract them from other smells.
  • Offer a peaked cap to help to shield eyes from lights, and earmuffs, ear defenders or earplugs to reduce sound.
  • Write a social story to explain what shouldn’t be eaten.
  • Take a paper napkin so that their hands don’t feel the texture of the communion bread or offering.
  • Ask the religious leader if particular things, such as use of cymbals, can be avoided.

Find out more about autism and the senses.

Autism awareness and acceptance

You could talk to the religious head or the priest about autism and your or your family member’s needs. If they understand more about it, there is a better chance that they can encourage others in the community to be more accepting.

Srinivasan's family wanted him to have his upanayan, the Hindu rite for a Brahmin young man to enter into adulthood. The family were worried that, although Srinivasan can sit for the whole ritual, he might not be able to recite the verses in Sanskrit as required in the ceremony. The family explained their concerns to the priest, who then gave the key chants that Srinivasan would be expected to repeat during the ritual. The family practised these with Srinivasan, who quickly learnt the phrases. During the actual ceremony the priest simplified the process so that there were no additional demands on Srinivasan. The help provided by the priest enabled Srinivasan to successfully complete the ceremony.

If you are an organiser, senior person or religious leader in a place of worship, think about how you can:

More information

Behaviour – top tips

Autism and Christianity

Churches for all

Creating autism-friendly environments

JADDS (Jewish autistic and deficit disorders support)

Muslim Autism Society

Parent to parent telephone service

Welcoming autistic people in our churches and communities, Ann Memmott

What is autism?

Last reviewed May 2017