Teaching Autistic Kids: When God Did the Unthinkable

Written By Jasmine Goh, Singapore

Jasmine has always dreamed of writing a book but never imagined that her first would be about autism. Her book My Unique Child: A Practical Guide to Raising A Child with Autism was published in 2018. She hopes that God gives her an easier subject for her next book.

 

As the music started, 14-year-old Edric lifted one hand towards the heavens and lay the other on his chest. He looked at the microphone in front of him and, in time with the music, sang the first lines of the song. His tone held steady as he led the rest of us, children and teachers, into the chorus.

It was Christmas, and we were performing a series of songs at the church café. When we finished, the crowd—an unusual mix of eager parents, curious pastors, and casual café-goers—erupted in applause. Our lead singer grinned as we gave him high-fives and then quickly corraled the children back to our classroom.

This particular incident is now one of the highlights of my time at Shalomkids—a ministry for autistic children. For the first time since the ministry started, we had successfully put up an item in a public space without any of our kids having a meltdown (whew!). But more than simply feeling relieved, I was also deeply moved because this was the first time our children publicly declared the hope of the gospel. Even just a year ago, this would have been unthinkable. It was almost like God telling me, “See what I can do?”

Shalomkids putting up a performance at St Andrew’s Cathedral in 2016.

 

The Start of My Journey

I was 21 and a linguistics major in university when I joined the ministry in December 2009. I’m often asked why I decided to join Shalomkids. I don’t have any autistic family members or relatives. I didn’t even know what autism was.

It happened one Sunday when I saw a notice in the church bulletin recruiting teachers for the ministry, and something made me approach the pastor to ask if any experience was needed.

Maybe it was a spiritual prompting that led me to it. But for my 21-year-old self, it was nothing more than youthful curiosity. Any person on the cusp of turning 30 will attest that sometimes it’s the least significant choices in your 20s that will change your life. And this was exactly one of those.

The pastor told me it was a new ministry and all teachers would undergo training. With his encouragement, I signed up for the training and became part of the pioneer batch of teachers in Shalomkids.

I soon learned that autism is a type of neurodevelopmental disorder that presents itself most acutely in social communication and repetitive patterns of behavior.

Autistic people may misinterpret social cues like body language and tone of voice, or even miss them altogether. In such cases, their response may then be inappropriate for the situation, indirectly causing offence or embarrassment. They may also engage in repetitive behaviors such as following a routine, fixating on a subject of interest, and stimming (self-stimulatory movements like hand-flapping, rocking, and repetition of sounds and phrases).

At Shalomkids, all our children have a diagnosis of autism and most attend special education schools. Some of them also have intellectual disability and a handful are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

 

Watching Edric Grow

When Edric first came to us, he was eight and didn’t speak a word. In fact, during Praise Time, when all the children gathered at the front to sing praise songs together, he chose to sit under a table at the back of the classroom. No amount of persuasion could draw him out. As most of us teachers were still new to autism then, we didn’t know what to do. Physically pull him out? Dangle a reward? Threaten him with punishment?

A veteran teacher suggested that we get him to participate from where he was. We concurred without hesitation, simply glad to receive direction at this point. One teacher slid under the table to give Edric instructions while the rest of us carried on with Praise Time. This went on for weeks, and each time he would observe Praise Time from under the table.

One Saturday, he sat on a chair at the back of the room instead of going under the table. We decided not to make a big deal out of it and simply carried on with the session. Secretly, we rejoiced. And during debrief that day, when all the children had left, we openly expressed our delight at this “breakthrough”.

Bit by bit, as weeks passed, we moved that chair closer towards the front. It was more than a year later that Edric’s chair finally joined the last row of chairs at the front.

After some months, we noticed that he had moved himself to the first row. He still didn’t speak much but he would sing. And when we did action songs, he would do all the actions too. Then one Saturday, he shocked us all by lifting one hand and laying the other on his chest while we sang the song “Gift To You”. A quick check around revealed that none of us had taught him to do that.

When I finally overcame the shock, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. This was the same boy who had sat himself firmly under the table during Praise Time. Yet here he was, three years later, praising God with his voice, his hands, and his entire being.

And the song he chose to express his worship of God could not be more apt for the moment:

Everything I am
Everything I’ll be
I give it to you, Lord
And do it thankfully

Every song I sing
Every praise I bring
Everything I do
Is a gift to you

In that moment, I realized that this transformation could only be the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit enables Edric to sing and he sings as a gift to God.

A few years later, when the church invited Shalomkids to put up an item at the church café, we decided that Edric should sing “his song”.

As you know by now, Edric sang beautifully. No one who saw him that day would have guessed that more than five years earlier, he was a little boy who hid under the table during Praise Time.

 

It’s the Holy Spirit Who Works

Week after week, as we teach the children about God and Jesus, we don’t always know whether they are listening or even absorbing what we say. Their eyes are wandering. Some of them are stimming. Some are wearing ear defenders (earmuffs that minimize auditory overload). But when I saw Edric opening himself up in worship, I knew. Even when words fail, the Spirit gets through.

It is the Spirit of God who helps us to understand what God has freely given to us (1 Corinthians 2:12). And all I have to do is be faithful and continue declaring the word of God.

God’s kingdom includes everyone who believes in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We may wonder of those with autism or intellectual disability, “Can they understand something they can’t see?” After 11 years of serving with Shalomkids, I’ve learned that even when we can’t fully understand how they’re able to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, that does not mean that it’s impossible! My role is simply to do my part to present the gospel, and trust the Holy Spirit to speak into their hearts and minds.

 

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