Religion is an important part of many people's lives. Parents often ask for strategies to use when they take their child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to a place of worship.

In the United Kingdom people from different religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism live together. On the basis of religion there are various places of worship - churches, mosques, temples, gurudwaras, synagogues and meeting rooms. Many religions place high importance on visiting a place of worship. Some religions require visits only on special occasions; in others it is an essential element of the religion.

This information sheet offers some ideas to use when you take your child to a place of worship. Because of the diversity of religions in the UK it is not possible to cover all the details and differences involved in going to the places of worship for your faith. But we hope that you will get some ideas that you can adapt to suit your family and religious needs.

In this information sheet the terms autism and ASD are used to represent the whole autistic continuum, including Asperger syndrome. To help with clarity and as most people affected by ASD are males, we have used the pronoun 'he' to refer to a person with autism.

Where is the problem?

Before you start planning a strategy for your child, you need to be aware of what makes it difficult for your child to attend the place of worship. Is it something that he does that is not acceptable in the place? Or is it something that he does not do that makes it difficult for him to participate? Let's look at some examples.

Adrian starts getting fidgety after he sits for the church service for five minutes. He often starts humming hymns during the sermons. On a few occasions he has started singing the hymns loudly. As a result of this, his mother has stopped going to the Sunday mass. 

Harjinder's parents like to go to the temple for all major Sikh festivals. After they bow in front of the holy book the family goes to get their prashad (usually a sweet made with semolina or flour) as is customary in their religion. On some days the priests offer a piece of fruit instead of sweet. While Harjinder loves having the sweet, she does not stretch her hand out if a piece of fruit is offered instead of the sweet. On some occasions she has thrown the piece of fruit when it was offered by the priest. This started creating embarrassing situations, and now her parents have started avoiding this part of their temple visit, or would take turns to get it without taking Harjinder along with them.

Both these situations make it difficult for the person with autism to be accepted in the place of worship. However, they are different in one respect, while Adrian's singing (doing a specific behaviour) is his hurdle; Harjinder's refusal to stretch her hand (not doing a specific behaviour) is creating difficulties for her.

It is possible that some children could be doing both behaviours on different occasions. As a parent you would have to find the reasons for both behaviours so that you can encourage the development of appropriate behaviours, while working on reducing the inappropriate ones. Before you address any of the behaviours you need to understand why the behaviour is occurring or what kind of difficulty your child faces in a religious place.

Possible difficulties

Inability to understand 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.

One of the core difficulties of ASD is social interaction. People with an ASD 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, people with autism sometimes behave in a socially inappropriate manner.

Lack of fear

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.

Children with an ASD may not have a conventional sense of fear of things such as fire and electricity. Some children may develop a sense of fear after facing incidents such as the above, but they may not transfer the learnt 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. If your child does not have a developed sense of fear you will need to be careful whenever you take him to situations where there are potential dangers.

Sensory stimulation

There is a lot of research that shows that people with autism are often sensitive to different kinds of sensations. The basic sensations are taste, smell, vision, hearing and touch. In addition to these five senses, we have two more senses: proprioception, which provides us with the sense of body awareness, and vestibular sensation, which helps us to have a sense of balance. However, here we will be dealing only with the five primary sensations.

Some people with an ASD over-react to the primary sensations, while others under-react to them. There is also a possibility that the same person may under-react to one kind of sensation, and may over-react to another kind.

In most places of worship people experience a lot of sensory information. Let's look at these sensory experiences in a bit more detail.

  • Hearing: most religious ceremonies involve chanting, singing or using musical instruments such cymbals, drums or an organ. Some people with autistic spectrum disorder could be over-sensitive to sounds and may not like any high-pitched sound. This may mean they get distressed when someone sings or when certain musical instruments are played. On the other hand, some individuals may like to hear the vibrating sounds and may try to get closer to the instrument so they can place their ear right next to it!
  • 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. Just as in the case of hearing, while some people with autism 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 with an ASD. 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 or disturb some children with autism.
  • Tactile: during festive seasons places of worships can be quite busy with very little physical space between people. Most of us find this uncomfortable, but people with an ASD may be very uncomfortable in crowded places. During summer months, some people with autism 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 people with an ASD 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 your child might refuse to eat the offered food could be because of its taste. Again, some people may choose to eat inedible things, such as flowers used for worship, because they like the taste.

Possible difficulties continued

Routines

Imtiaz likes going to the local mosque regularly along with his father. His family were very happy with Imtiazs 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.

One of the difficulties that people with an ASD face is the inability to cope with sudden change. This can affect their behaviour in different settings.

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 or the person who accompanies the person with autism.

Any or all of these reasons can result in a change in behaviour.

Some people with autism are unable to predict the changes. If they have met an experience which they consider unpleasant 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.

There can also be situations where a small change can upset them, eg going to the place in the company of new people can disturb the person because he did not expect this and has lost his familiar routine.

Boredom

People with an ASD are more willing to get involved with an activity if they understand the reason for doing it. Not many people with autism will engage in an activity because it will please others.

If children with an ASD do not understand religious ceremonies, they will probably want to get away from the situation. This is not unusual for most children, but neurotypical children may sit through ceremonies to please their parents or to get positive feedback from other members of the congregation, whereas a child with autism may not do so.

Tayo's mother is scared of going to church because of Tayo's unpredictable behaviour. On some days Tayo sits through the whole mass but on other days she starts crying. Recently she has even started pulling the hair of people sitting in front of them. Tayo's mother has no choice but to quickly retreat from the church when such behaviour occurs.

In situations such as this it is always useful to find out when the child does participate and when she does not. For example, is it the days when there is an extremely long sermon that she gets upset?

Knowing the cause

The best way to know what causes your child difficulty in attending a place of worship is to keep a record of what happens on those days. This could be written in a diary or a notebook, or you may choose to make a simple form that you can use. The main areas that you need to note are:

  • where did it happen?
  • what happened before the incident?
  • who else was in the place?
  • what exactly did your child do?
  • how did you react to it?


Here are examples of two styles of noting the same information. You can chose any of these, or make your own that suits you.

Example 1

Where did it happen
(time, location, etc)?
 

What happened before the incident? Who else was in the place?

What did your child do?

What was the outcome of the behaviour?

Synagogue, Friday evening. We were early for the prayer. Jacob and I were making vocal noises in the synagogue. At first it was just two of us then other people started coming. Jacob continued making vocal noises. He started crying for no apparent reason; I tried to explain to him not to make noises. Took him out of the synagogue.

Example 2

I took Jacob to the Sabbath prayers. He was very happy in the car and enjoyed the drive to the synagogue. We were a bit early for the prayers. Jacob was curious about the place and was looking around. He 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. Jacob continued making noises in spite of my efforts to calm him down. After a few minutes he started crying for no specific reason. Trying to calm him did not work and I had to take him out of the synagogue before the prayers started.

As these examples show, keeping a record like this helps you to come up with some possible reasons for the unexpected crying.

  • Did Jacob start crying because he was being told off by his father?
  • Or is he crying because he wanted to continue the game and his father was no longer engaging in it?
  • Another possibility is that he did not like having strangers in the same room.


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

Some strategies to try

Once you work out the reason for certain behaviour, you can start putting in place strategies to enable your child to visit your place of worship.

It can be a bit tricky when you start to know which strategy to use in which setting. You may find that sometimes your child may show the same behaviour for more than one reason. The knowledge you have gained from the recorded information will help you in understanding this, though of course there is still be an element of trial and error.

Here, we will look at possible strategies that you may like to try.

Prepare your child

Most religious places have specific rituals and customs. It can be difficult for someone who does not understand the sequence of the events to remember or follow them.

It might be useful to practise some of these rituals so that your child is familiar with them. But be aware that some children with an ASD find it difficult to repeat a learnt skill in a new setting or with new people. If this is the case with your child, it might be better to start by taking your child to the place of worship when it is not busy. This will enable the child to follow the sequence with a familiar person in the new setting at his own pace. It would also be useful to ensure that he can follow the sequence with different people.

You can request the help of your other family members or friends to get your child comfortable in doing the rituals with different people.

For some individuals the anxiety of being in a new situation can make it difficult for them to remember the sequence of the events. Some may benefit by observing others complete the sequence before they are expected to do so. If possible, ask others family members to perform the sequence before your child with an ASD has to.

Some individuals may find it difficult to concentrate on the sequence in a very stimulating environment, such as a religious place. In such cases having a visual representation in hand can help them to follow the sequence.

Visual representation could use real objects, photographs, line drawings or just written words, whatever is most meaningful for your child. If you use a visual representation, make sure that you use it in your practice sessions at home first so that the child is familiar with the system. Then you can show the visual representation to the child, or give it to your child and let them follow it independently.

Here is a visual representation for visiting a Gurudwara (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.


Even if your child is unable to say the prayers, being able to follow the sequence will give him a sense of participation.

Explain the change

As mentioned earlier, children with an ASD may have difficulties in coping with any kind of changes. It is therefore always helpful to prepare your child for any change.

For example, if you are aware that there will be a new priest at your place of worship, inform your child. You could do this by talking about it. But it would be extremely helpful to support this with some visual support. For example, you can request a photograph of the new priest and then show it to your child along with the photo of the religious place. Or if you already use a photograph with the picture of the previous priest, you could simply take that photograph while replacing it with the new priest's picture. Talk through the process so that your child understands why you are changing the pictures.

If you or your child's school already uses visual support, then it will not be difficult to use it for different situations. But if this is not the case then you may have to introduce the concept before you can expect your child to understand it.

Social Stories

Social Stories were developed by Carol Gray. They explain a social situation in a simple story format. The Social Story is usually written in the first person from the viewpoint of the person who finds the social situation difficult - I like, I do, etc.

The Social Story explains what the situation is, what is expected in such a setting and why. The language used in Social Stories has to be at a level that the child can understand. You can also use photographs or line drawings with the text to help in understanding.

It is best to read a Social Story just before the situation for which it has been written. This helps the person to remember what they are supposed to do in the setting. For example Rashid, who was mentioned above, could benefit from a Social Story about what to do if someone else takes his family's regular prayer space in the mosque.

There is more information about writing and using a Social Story on Carol Gray's website: www.thegraycenter.org

Some strategies to try, continued

Sensory stimulation

As explained above, the sensory stimulation provided by some religious places could be overwhelming for some people with an ASD. This will hinder their chances of being part of the religious prayers and rituals. While it is possible to desensitise a person to some sensations, it may also be necessary to accommodate and provide alternatives in some other situations.

An occupational therapist trained in sensory integration methods would be able to provide you with some specific strategies for your child. You could also try some of these simple strategies.

  • If your child finds it difficult to cope with loud sounds, it may be helpful for him to have headphones to reduce the impact of the sound. An alternative is using cotton wool for the same purpose. This will be more discreet and will make him stand out less.
  • You may also want to choose times when it is not so busy and loud. This would be true for most other sensations as well.
  • If your child likes smelling different things, you could provide him with his own set of smelly stuff, eg a bag or box which has a collection of objects with different smells such as a piece of soap, some garlic, some lavender, in small containers so that they don't contaminate each other. Make sure that you explain to your child that he is only allowed to smell these and nothing else at the place.
  • If your child cannot bear the physical closeness of other people, try to find a spot that is less crowded, and avoid going at busy times.
  • If taking the bread or other offerings in his hands is a problem, suggest alternatives like taking a paper napkin in his hand so that he does not have to feel the texture that he finds unpleasant.
  • If your child is choosy about his food and does not like eating some of these offerings, allow him not to eat it as long as he collects it and then gives it to a family member - that is, if you think it is necessary for him to take part in this bit of the ceremony.
  • If intricate carvings, mosaics or stained glass reflections disturb your child, try to face in a direction where they are not so obtrusive. If this is not a possible option, see if you can go at another time during the day when it is not so bright. Also, think if it is possible to go to another place of worship without these distractions.
  • Slowly introduce the sensations that your child finds difficult to cope with so that they get more used to them. Remember not to overload them and that this has to be a gradual process.

Build up the positive behaviour

We all learn social behaviours from other people. It is important when we are teaching a new social behaviour to make it a positive experience.

If your child finds prayer sessions long and difficult to cope with, introduce them to shorter sessions and praise them for taking part. For example, if it is possible to join the prayers in your religion at different times during the prayer, join towards the end. You can slowly increase the time by joining a bit earlier each time, with the aim to attend the full session. Reward your child for successful attendance.

Some parents found it useful to join at the beginning and then leave after a few minutes. Whatever you do, make sure that you take the child away before he starts showing signs of distress. Otherwise he will learn that he needs to show these distress signs every time to get out of the situation. If you take your child out only when they show distress, without knowing it you will be encouraging the inappropriate behaviour.

Distractions

Some children may not be able to attend a session because they are bored. They may start showing inappropriate behaviour as a request to get out of the situation.

You could try to distract the attention of the child with different material so that they can keep themselves busy when they get bored. Make sure that the material you provide does not make a loud noise which disturbs other worshippers.

If silence is expected, you will also have to explain to your child that they cannot make a noise or talk to themselves while in the place of worship.

A bag of smelly things as suggested above can be a helpful distracter. You can also use anything that fascinates your child, such as a piece of thread, a video game, a book or a kosh ball.

Motivators

As explained above, some people with an ASD may not follow a routine to please other people. You may need to give them a reason why this is required.

Some children with an ASD might be able to understand the religious philosophy involved, and you could use this to explain why they are required to follow some customs. Of course, later on you will also need to explain why others may have different beliefs or practices so that your child does not end up trying to impose the practice they have learnt on everyone else!

However, it may not be possible to motivate some children by explanations and a concrete reward may be needed. You will have to decide the best reward for you. As far as possible use a reward that would be an automatic part of the process. For example, if your child likes food and giving food is part of your religion, explain to your child that he can get the food after he completes the worship.

Use visual supports with 'first and then' cards. You can use any visual representation that is easily understood by your child, such as a small piece of carpet to indicate prayer and an empty sweet box to indicate the food. Or you can use pictures, photographs, or written words.

Look into possibilities for your child to 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.

A parent I know of encourages her son to attend the mass by allowing him to play with the musical instruments after the mass for a few minutes. This has been arranged with the parish priest. The child looks forward to his music sessions and this motivates him to sit through the mass.

If there is nothing that motivates your child in the situation, you may have to use other rewards to encourage appropriate behaviour. Remember that at first the rewards should be immediate to develop the identified behaviour. You may slowly increase the time span once the behaviour has been established.

Your communication style

It is important that you keep your communication simple and say exactly what you mean: KISS (Keep It Short and Simple).

Many children with an ASD find indirect speech and idioms difficult to understand unless they have been specifically taught to use them. Some may use complex language but will not necessarily understand what it means. Don't be misled by the language your child uses.

Some people with autism will also need time to register the information given to them. Whenever you explain a situation to your child make sure that you give one piece of information at a time and take a small break after each bit of information.

Look at your reactions

Think about how you are reacting. Do you anticipate the difficulties and get anxious about them? A good way to know the effect of your behaviour on your child is to notice how he behaves with someone else, such as your partner or other family members, in the same situations. If there are no problems with other people, one of the things you may have to work on is your own anxiety and how to express it.

Remember that most children are very perceptive of such feelings, which can also make them anxious. Sometimes their reactions could also be because they think that is what you expect from them in the situation. Try to project a calm image even when you are anticipating a difficult situation.

Seek help

Even with these ideas you may find it difficult to take your child to a place of worship. It might be useful then to get support from a professional, such as a teacher or psychologist, who has an understanding of autism and knows how to teach new skills. It might also be useful to chat with other parents who have children with an ASD. They may well have been through some of the same situations and may have strategies that worked for them.

The priest is the most important person of all to talk to.

Choose what you want to work on

A number of factors could be inhibiting your child from attending a place of worship. It can be very frustrating for you and your child if you try to work on all of them at the same time. Choose the behaviour that is most crucial for his participation and work on it. Once that has been achieved you can move on to other behaviours.

It is also important to involve other members of your family so that they understand what you are trying to achieve and so that the child gets consistent message from everyone. It would also mean that you are not the only one with his responsibility.

Involving the community

We have suggested things for you to try with your child but remember that going to a religious place is a social event. This means that you or your child are not alone but part of your community.

To make it possible for your child to be integrated into the community, it is important to involve members of the community as well. Many parents have found it useful to talk to the religious head or the priest about their child's autism. If the priest understands your child's difficulties, there is a better chance that s/he can pass on that understanding to others in the community.

Getting the priest on board will also be useful if you want your child to take part in the religious rites of passage.

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.

Creating awareness at your religious place is not necessarily the kind of task that you as a parent/carer would like to take on board. But if the community is more accommodating of your child's condition, there is a possibility that your visits to your place of worship will be a lot more relaxing, so try working on it.

Useful reading

Gray, C. (2002). My social stories book. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

May, F. (2005). Understanding behaviour. London: The National Autistic Society

Savner, J. L. and Smith Myles, B. (2000). Making visual supports work in the home and community: strategies for individuals with autism and Asperger syndrome. Shawnee Mission, Kansas: Autism Asperger Publishing Company

Smith Myles, B. (2000). Asperger syndrome and sensory issues - practical solutions for making sense of the world. Shawnee Mission, Kansas: Autism Asperger Publishing Company

Whitaker P. (2001). Challenging behaviour and autism: making sense - making progress. London: The National Autistic Society

 

Written by Prithvi Perepa, Development Officer (BME Communities)


Quick link to this page: www.autism.org.uk/20594