My child with autism is not able to sit through religious services for more than a few minutes. How can I teach my child to attend religious services with our family for longer durations?

Answered by Jessica Rothschild, MA and Sharon A. Reeve, PhD, BCBA-D
Caldwell College

Autisim and ReligionsThis is a question that we have been recently asked by quite a few families with individuals diagnosed with autism. In response, we have prepared a set of guidelines that are based on research that we have recently conducted in this area. Hopefully, these guidelines will help you achieve a positive experience in promoting success for teaching an individual with autism to attend a religious service. We also hope that this will help you avoid potential obstacles that we have encountered in the past.

Getting Started

Educate the religious community.

  • Assess the level of support of the religious community in helping individuals with autism or other developmental disabilities learn to participate meaningfully in the religious service by meeting with the priest, rabbi, minister, or other religious leader. During this meeting, discuss the community‘s current awareness of developmental disabilities and their experience, specifically with including individuals with autism in religious services.
  • Also, discuss possibly including an educational message in the bulletin or having informational packets on developmental disabilities available after the services.
  • In the educational message or informational packets, include information on the importance of inclusion of individuals with developmental disabilities in the community. Be sure to also emphasize the positive effect this can have on the individuals with disabilities, and the religious community in general.

Defining and Measuring Success

  • Your measure of success is the individual’s ability to be part of the community experience of the religious service.
  • You should first define on-task behavior and off-task behavior. These definitions should be individualized.
  • Examples of an on-task definition and off-task definition:
    • On-task behavior: Looking at the religious services materials, activity book provided, and/or at the religious leader or the front of religious service center and keeping one‘s feet on the floor or dangling beneath the seating.
    • Off-task behavior may consist of two categories depending on how disruptive each are to the religious community.
      • Off task Category 1 includes audibly disruptive behavior that likely disturbs the religious community and should result in the individual leaving the service and going to the back of the worship center so as not to further disturb the religious community. These behaviors may include tantrum behavior such as, crying, yelling, falling to the floor, or forcefully hitting or kicking the furniture.
      • Off task Category 2 consists of behaviors that are minimally disruptive to the religious community and should result in redirecting the behavior. These behaviors may include repetitive gross motor movements, audible fine motor movements (tapping the furniture), or vocalizations above conversational volume.
  • Next, develop some benchmark goals for the individual. You can do this by observing a peer of typical development close to the individual’s age and collecting data on the on-task behavior of that person.
  • One way to collect data is to set a timer for 60 seconds (try a vibrating or silent timer so as not to interrupt services or just look at your watch every 60 seconds). As soon as the timer goes off look at the peer and determine if he or she is on task or off task at that moment and score accordingly. Continue data collection for at least 20 minutes or better yet, until the religious service is complete. Do this a couple of times, if you can.
  • Calculate the percentage of intervals that the same-age peer of typical development was scored on task by dividing the number of intervals the peer was scored on task by the number of intervals scored and multiply by 100. Use the time the peer spends on task to set the bar or criterion for your child.Example of collecting on-task data for a peer:If your child is 4 years old then try to observe a child of typical development around that age. If that child was on-task for 70% of the intervals you scored, this means that the on-task criterion for your child should be no higher than 70% because that is typical of other kids your child’s age. Use the same assessment for an individual that is 8, 16, 24, or any age.
  • Now do this same procedure with the individual you are working with to get some initial assessments of his/her on-task behavior and continue this data collection procedure throughout teaching (as further described below). These comparisons may help you better identify your priorities and determine if your interventions are working.

Materials Needed

Preferred Items

  • Give the individual a preferred item when on task during the religious service.Items may include preferred snacks (delivered in a small container located next to the child), an iPod with headphones, books, and other items that do not make noise.
  • Clipboard or binder for relevant data sheets.
  • Timer (vibrating or silent) or you could even use your own watch

Attending the Service

  • Begin by assessing the amount of time the individual currently stays in the religious service without engaging in off-task behavior that is disruptive to the religious community.
    • For example does he/she last 20 minutes without engaging in disruptive behavior or 5 minutes?
  • Based on this assessment, begin at the end of the service and stay in the service throughout the designated amount of time.
    • For example, if you determined that the individual can successfully last 5 minutes without engaging in disruptive behavior, then begin by attending the last 5 minutes of the religious service. This amount of time may also be as little as 30 seconds, initially. This is ok, you’ll get there!
  • During the first few visits to the religious service give a preferred item or snack to the individual when he or she engages in on-task behavior.
    • If you are using snacks, initially deliver these very frequently (even as frequently as every 30 seconds). As the individual engages in on-task behavior for longer periods of time, deliver the snacks less frequently. When the individual attends the entire religious service, give the snacks immediately after leaving the worship center (outside the worship center doors).
    • If you are delivering a preferred item, the individual keeps this item unless they engage in off-task behavior that is disruptive to the religious community.
    • We found that often when we delivered a preferred item to an individual they remained engaged in on-task behavior with that item until the service ended. This is a great outcome!
    • You also might need to deliver both a preferred item and a snack; we did too for some individuals.
  • If the individual engages in the off-task behavior category that results in disrupting the religious community, bring him/her to the back of the worship center until he/she is calm and quiet. Once he/she is calm and quiet bring him/her back into the service.
    • If you need to bring the individual to the back of the worship center for two consecutive visits, go back to the previous teaching phase on the next session. For example, if he/she engages in disruptive behavior during the religious service for two visits in a row when trying to stay for 10 minutes, go back to attending the religious service for 5 minutes during the next visit.
  • Next, increase the amount of time spent in the service by 5 minute increments, after he/she meets the previously set criterion for two consecutive services until they are attending the entire service.
    • For example, let’s say the on-task criterion is 80% of the time period for two services and the individual is initially attending the last 5 minutes of the religious service. When he/she meets criterion, increase the amount of time he/she attends the religious service to the last 10 minutes of the service.
  • As teaching progressed, we found that individuals also learned target behaviors required for participating in the religious service, even though we never directly taught them. This was a nice surprise, and we hope it happens to you, as well! If it doesn’t, teaching an individual to participate in a religious service is the next step. Examples of these types of skills include saying prayers, singing religious songs, or greeting other worshippers.

Helpful tips:

  • We’ve been most successful in teaching individuals with autism how to attend a religious service with an instructor first, likely due to the lack of history of that instructor with the individual in the religious service. If this is a possibility for you, we recommend it.
    • Once the individual attends the entire religious service with the instructor, parents or caregivers can then begin to attend the service with the instructor and child.
    • The instructor can then systematically increase their distance away from the individual until he/she is with the parent in the absence of the instructor.

For more reading on this topic, check out one of our Advisory Board Member’s book: The Inherent Worth and Dignity of ALL Individuals by Dr. Bobby Newman

Additionally, Former Board member Mary Beth Walsh served as a co-editor of this faith-based book:

Citation for this article:

Rothschild, J., & Reeve, S. A. (2010). Clinical corner: How can I teach my child with autism to attend religious services with our family? Science in Autism Treatment, 7(4), 3-5.

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