Practical Tips: Ministering to Teens on the Autism Spectrum

It’s Sunday night; you know what that means? Life Night! You walk into the youth room and hear Matt Maher singing, “Lord I Need You” and walk through the game plan for the night with the rest of the Core Team. It’s a little different than usual, and you like it when things change, makes it more fun! Instead of starting off with a game, the night will start with a viral video. The kids are going to love this!

You are excited about the change in the routine but then think of one of the teens in the youth group who might have an outburst from the shake-up. Usually, the first thing at Life Night is the Gather: game, skit, or a viral video, followed by the Proclaim teaching. Well, when it’s decided to watch the viral video first, talk about the lesson for the night, then play a game, this change, although subtle, may cause anxiety for the teen in your youth group on the spectrum.

What you don’t see in the scene is your teen walking into the youth room checking out the time repetitively to see if it is 7 pm; time to start the game, his favorite part of the night! He prefers to interact with adults, never his classmates. He would much rather do activities by himself, and he tends to talk about himself and LeBron James (that is it, LeBron is his favorite thing), and he is rule driven. If Life Night is supposed to start at 7 pm, he will make sure to let the youth minister know it is time to start; over and over again.

What Causes the Triggers?

When you have a teen on the autism spectrum, you want to know the signs they will show when they are anxious. Multiple triggers can cause anxiety:

  • Sensory overload
  • Social rejection
  • Teasing
  • Change in routine
  • Life, just life

Triggers might be something as “simple” as a Core Member telling the teen with autism “No” or touching your own hair (this happened to me one time, put my hair up in a ponytail and BAM meltdown), or changing the routine (having the viral video first and the game third).

Meltdown include, but are not limited to:

  • Self-critical comments
  • Inability to stop worrying even with adult reassurance
  • Increased insistence on routines
  • Repetitive motor mannerisms (shaking head, biting nails, flicking, etc.)
  • Increased focus on individual interests
  • Outbursts
  • Silliness

What can we do to help?

  • Teach coping skills
  • Sensory room
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Increase break times
  • Increase in rewards and reinforcers
  • Use visual supports

Since many people with autism have sensory difficulties or are often nonverbal in communication, pictures help prepare them for any unexpected activities. Teens with autism do NOT like to predict what is going to happen; they NEED to KNOW what is going to happen.

Keep It Visual

Whenever I go shopping, I need to make a list. If I don’t, I will buy more than I need and will forget to purchase something. We all need stop signs; they let us know when to STOP. These are visuals. Students with special needs understand what they SEE better than what they HEAR. Visual communication is the MOST EFFECTIVE communication form for most students on the spectrum.

Below you can find a visual chart you can use for the four parts of a Life or Edge Night to clearly communicate to teens on the spectrum what to expect from moment to moment. In addition, when you sense a teen on the spectrum is becoming anxious, use a Five Point Scale to determine what level of anxiety they are experiencing so you can communicate and minister to them well.

visual chart

5 point autism scale

Verbal Skills Don’t Equal Social Skills

You may have a teen with an intelligent vocabulary. This does not mean they won’t have meltdowns or become upset by certain triggers. We know many of the teens are unable to communicate some of their needs, we need to make sure they have a way of letting us see what they do need. These are called visuals. If a teen with autism shows increased anxiety, the best thing to do is NOT to TALK; this can make things much worse. We use visuals not just for anxiety but for making choices as well!

Medium Exchange

Any material, task, prop, or interest area can connect the teen with autism to a Core Member, youth minister or peer. Typically a medium of exchange is something that does not require speaking to the teen. If the teen starts to tap a pen repetitively and LOUDLY because of the change in schedule, give him something to “fidget” or play with (a koosh ball is a great tool). You might also want to use additional sensory or fidget tools.

Sensory or Fidget Toolbox

Sensory or fidget toolboxes are ideal for classrooms, churches, youth group, or anywhere it is needed to keep restless fingers busy, bodies relaxed, and minds focused. These tools are fantastic for teens on the spectrum as well as teens with ADHD. You want whatever tool you use to be age appropriate for middle and high school teens. Small fidgets that fit right in the hand are what you desire so the teens can bring it to a small group or activity.

Sensory tools will help soothe, self-regulate, organize, calm the brain, improve the mood of the teen, and support individual behavior and emotions. These tools will also decrease the episodes of sensory overload or sensory meltdowns.

Deep Pressure and Touch Tools

Put into a small basket or box labeled fidgets:

  • Small balls, a squishy ball, koosh ball, stress balls
  • Anything stretchy, rubber bands, or resistance bands
  • Slinkies
  • Theraputty and clay
  • Objects to pinch, squeeze, and manipulate
  • Weighted lap pads or weighted shoulder wraps

Oral Sensory Needs

There are many options for Oral Sensory Needs. A lot of them can be purchased at the Dollar Store such as chewing gum or water bottles with permanent straws attached. Parents know if their son or daughter has an oral sensory need and teens will bring it with them. It might be disguised as a necklace or dog tags, pen, or something else.

Auditory Needs

Headphone, specifically noise canceling headphones allow teens to hear instructions yet cancel out the uncomfortable and painful sounds in the room. Putty earplugs also do the trick.

Favorite Things

Another thing to try when you see a teen getting anxious is talk about his FAVORITE thing (yes, this involves talking).

–I would like to address this real quickly. I have seen people talk to teens with autism like they are in third grade. Please DON’T do this; they are still teenagers, stinky, odd, hormonal teenager so talk to them like you would any other teen. Your voice doesn’t have to change an octave because this child is “different”.

Back to talking about the teens favorite thing. To redirect the teen from having a meltdown bring the conversation to something they love. Take the teen with autism from the Sunday Life Night; he LOVES LeBron James. Bring that up. “Do you think that LeBron has had his schedule changed before without him knowing? What do you think he did about it? He didn’t worry about it because that would waste his time and he is awesome! LeBron is the man; he doesn’t let something like that bother him!”

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19). Nowhere in the bible does it say only to teach those who are mentally healthy with NO disabilities. NEVER!

Christ wants us to help EVERYONE. Yes it might be arduous and uncomfortable, and your hands will get dirty. In Galatians 6:2 it says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.” What do we always say during the Nicene Creed, “We believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” The church is ONE! We need to take this verbal agreement and make it an ACTION. That’s what Jesus did; you saw his love in his actions.


All of the examples above came from this website.

About the Author

Sarah LeClair

I live in the Mitten, I work in an amazing district for Special Education, and I absolutely ADORE IT! I have a FUN, wild family, who loves to dance whenever we hear a fun tune. I have two furry roommates for life, Princess Buttercup and Steve. Princess Buttercup's head is permanently crooked and Steve has a mustache. I love getting lost in the woods and going on adventures. I can't control myself when I hear worship music, my hands instantly go up and I do not care because I LOVE our Lord! I LOVE working out and caring for the body God gave me because "I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well." Psalm 139:14

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