When Pastor Andrew Miller came to Azalea Park United Methodist Church in July 2016, he faced a dilemma. The small church and its aging congregation were failing to reach the largely Hispanic, low-income community it served, and he considered whether it should close.
“We had to admit we were out of touch with the neighborhood,” he said. “We were not on the faithful path.”
Shortly after, Miller met with the East Orlando community’s Latino leadership, which also had a dilemma. They saw high rates of autism among children in the community. A lot of families couldn’t afford specialized care, so they had opened a center, Santiago & Friends, to provide one-on-one care and therapy.
The group wanted to rent space from the church for a school for autistic children, and Miller saw an opportunity for Azalea Park to rebuild its relationship with the neighborhood by filling a vital need.
“Instead, I offered to partner with them, and let them use the rooms for free,” Miller said. “We needed a ministry, not a renter. The kids were there, the families were there and that made it easy. The church could again be the church.”
The Azalea Park congregation, all white and almost all adults over age 50, embraced Miller’s plan and welcomed the children and families for both care and worship.
|Pastor Andrew Miller, holding his 18-month-old son, Josh, leads the kids in singing during an autism-friendly Easter service.|
Miller had never spent significant time with children on the autism spectrum and vulnerable adults and quickly realized he needed to re-think everything about the style of services.
“Our services are mostly sitting down, mostly auditory, and that wasn’t going to work,” he said. “We have a praise band with guitar and a drummer—when you play that kind of music, you’ve left your folks with sensory sensitivity at the curb already.”
Miller met with autism therapists at Santiago & Friends to brainstorm about how to create an appropriate service. They reduced it to less than 30 minutes with a more tactile, hands-on style.
“We got them up and moving, interacting with the service,” he said. “You can’t have it too light or dark, too loud or quiet; it’s a lot of balancing.”
Miller has an undergraduate degree in music and was a youth minister in a place where, he said, the music was loud.
“I’ve had to recalibrate. Even a few notes on the organ are too much,” he said. “Now we just use an acoustic guitar or teach the kids to sing with no accompaniment to avoid sensory overload.”
He also taught the kids to play the didgeridoo, an indigenous Australian wind instrument.
“It’s a contemplative instrument whose tones are low, not shrill, and they’ve really connected with it,” Miller said. “We’ve come up with ways to get them involved, like using this instrument in services.”
The kids run the full autism spectrum from high functioning to those who need to wear head protection to avoid injuring themselves. There are also teens and young adults in the group, but Miller said he doesn’t think in terms of age.
“The teens and young kids are often at similar levels of comprehension. My learning curve was teaching to ability levels, and not thinking of linear age,” he said, adding that because many of the kids are nonverbal, he has to observe how they respond with their body language, rather than words.
The group now meets once a month with anywhere from 30 to 90 attending. They start with a meal, then hold a worship service for the families.
Once they flew kites; at the last meeting, they all wrote their dreams out on paper and then folded the paper into boats. They created a little waterway and put the paper boats in, so the kids could watch their dreams sail on the path they’d made.
|Ready for the Easter egg hunt at Azalea Park.|
“The message is you are worthy; you are loved; you are precious,” Miller said. “God made you the way you are, and God loves you the way you are.”
This year at Easter, Azalea Park held a different kind of service—both English and Spanish are now spoken from the pulpit—and a different kind of Easter egg hunt.
“In the past, we’d hide the eggs to teach kids to look around, to engage. Now we set them out in the open. With kids who have autism, it’s more about building,” Miller said.
They had a photographer there to take pictures of each family and print them onsite, so everyone left with a family portrait.
“It was an amazing time,” Miller said.
A 2018 article in Christianity Today cited a study that suggested churches exclude children with autism, whose condition limits social interaction.
“We think our audience is one type, and it’s not,” Miller said. “Think about who’s in your community that you aren’t reaching.
“We, as pastors, don’t always remember to think about who’s not coming and why what we can provide that’s life-giving to those who can’t make it through our regular services. With that realization, you start to plan everything differently.”
“To other churches, I’d say, do not be afraid – like Joshua 1:9. Don’t be afraid to do something new,” Miller said. “I came in with a lot of preconceived notions. I’ve had to learn in the services for autistic kids that it’s okay to be wrong and go back, fix it, and make it right.”
—Eileen Spiegler is a freelance writer based in Fort Lauderdale.