Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

It’s been four months since I left the Good News Group and I’ve lamented on how hard I have found it and reflected on what God might me leading me to next. However, one gift God has given me is the opportunity to go back to GNG once a term to lead the teaching. I loved being with them at Christmas and this term the group are looking at mission, along with the rest of St Andrew’s church.

So I’m going back this Wednesday to introduce the topic, which has given me opportunity to pray and look at what place people with intellectual and other disabilities have in the mission of the church.

It is clear when we look at Mephibosheth in the Old Testament and the paralysed man who was brought to Jesus through the roof by his friends, (Luke 5 and Mark 2). as well as the parable of the great banquet (Matthew 22), that people with disabilities are meant to be in the kingdom of God. David brought Mephibosheth to the king’s table, despite him being previously banished and his own assessment of his life being “I’m nothing but a dead dog”. (2 Samuel 9:8) David treated Mephibosheth like a kings son. Jesus showed in his healings and actions, and specifically when healing Bartimaeus (Mark 10), that sin did not cause disability. Jesus showed great respect and inclusion of people with disabilities in his kingdom. Showing us all that we were all in the same state of judgement for sin and in need of rescue by God’s son who came to save us.

So starting with who needs salvation?

…the answer is all of us.

Who can be in God’s kingdom?

….anyone who believes Jesus is God’s son who came to pay for our sin.

My teaching is going to begin by reminding us all about this fact. We cannot be missionaries if we don’t know and believe what the message is!

I’m going to play two songs, and probably have my puppet sing it to the group. First ‘Mighty to Save’ by the Newsboys and then ‘Rescuer (Good News)’ by Rend Collective. I find that music is a great way to help reinforce the teaching and I want to use these two songs to remind us all that the gospel is an exciting thing to share, that it really is the good news.

Then we will look at the Holy Spirit and how before Pentecost, even those who had seen the risen Jesus were scared and hiding away. When God’s power came by the Holy Spirit they were bold, could communicate with people they couldn’t communicate with before, and had courage to go and tell everyone they met the good news about Jesus.

I know the members of the GNG who are passionate and sure of their faith in Jesus. I want to tell them that their communication, intellectual or physical barriers should not prevent them being missionaries. I’m thinking of One young woman who speaks through eye gaze technology forming sentences on a screen. What she has to say about the gospel is just as good as what Billy Graham had to say about the gospel. And the gospel doesn’t always need words. Signing, caring, inner joy are all ways to communicate the gospel about Jesus.

I know words aren’t always necessary. I became a Christian because of some believers actions. I saw Jesus shining out in the way they cared for, accepted and included me. At that time my life was a mess, I had too many wrong things going on and I was on the verge of a mental breakdown. These people did not judge, but showed me Jesus loved me through their actions towards me. They just made sure I knew Jesus was the reason they cared for me so much. A few months later I gave my life to Jesus and started on the best part of my life.

My friends who are seen as ‘less’ by society (and some in the church) because of their disabilities have so much to offer the churches mission. All of them who believe have the same access to the Holy Spirit as all believers. So, ‘what qualification do you need to be a missionary?’ The answer is to know who Jesus is and believe he is the saviour God has sent for all people.

Obviously mission starts where we are. Telling our friends, housemates, carers, families, neighbours, therapists, doctors and people we meet in the community about Jesus is mission. But it would be easy to assume that is all the mission people with disabilities can do.

There may be some difficulties in people with disabilities becoming full time or even short term missionaries on overseas or local mission events. But we need to give them every opportunity to be included. That may mean extra work to make it happen. For example, does your youth group get involved in a short term overseas mission? How could a disabled teenager be given the same opportunity? How can we help and make this happen?

One of the barriers we have found has been logistics. I have always wanted our GNG members to be given the opportunity to speak and share the gospel when we are invited to speak at events. But getting people there has been a real barrier. Time, safety, distance and medical needs have been a challenge. So whilst aiming for getting much better at this what we have done is start with what we can do. So we have tried to stay local, so I can pick people up and get them home in the same day. When I’ve been in Manchester and Liverpool lately, this allowed Cristina, Stefan and John to come and be part of our mission.

Another thing I tried was video. So when I went to London, I interviewed John and Chelsea who then were able to present what they had to say on screen. There’s a few opportunities coming up where we can have more GNG members involved in sharing the gospel, their stories and faith (God willing). We will continue to learn new ways of communicating that message…after all, that’s the ‘gift of tongues’ that we are asking for.

Communication might be in words, signs, pictures, music, actions. The Holy Spirit can use all of these, through any of us to let others know who Jesus is and how much they need him as their saviour.

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What kind of Father is God?

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This Christmas I have been thinking about Joseph.  We often talk about Mary, the blessed Virgin but prompted by this 80s song by Michael Card   ,  I got my puppet to sing it to the congregation when I did the Christmas talk at the Good News Group.  (and here are the lyrics)

If you want a multi-sensory experience with this post – get yourself a small piece of play dough or ball of blue tack and follow the instructions at each section.  There is also a picture and symbol with each part too. 

The word Immanuel means “God with us” and The Bible says:

“God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. Anyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life.”  John 3:16  (NIrV)

Joseph became the dad to God’s son.  What an important job.  I am sure that Joseph loved God and we know he obeyed God.  God sent him the message by an angel, and so he married Mary.  We don’t hear much about him in the Bible because it tells us that God was really Jesus’s Father – and Jesus came to show us what God his father was like – and tell us that God is our Father too.

So what kind of Father is God?

A Father who Loves…

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Make a ball with your playdough and think that as you hold something you made in your hands – God holds the world in his hands and he loves it so much.  He wants the world to know how much he loves it.  And to do that he sent his son Jesus into that world.

When we say, God so loved the world it reminds us that he made the world, and he made you.  The Bible also says:

“You created the deepest parts of my being.
    You put me together inside my mother’s body.
How you made me is amazing and wonderful.
    I praise you for that.
What you have done is wonderful.
    I know that very well.”    Psalm 139:13-14 (NIrV)

A Father who forgives

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Make a cross with your playdough.  This reminds us of the sacrifice Jesus made for us and the hope we have when we remember that cross.

When Jesus came into this world, as well as telling us about our Father God’s love, he came to do an important job.   He let people nail him to a cross to take the punishment for our sins.  Our sin is that we ignore God and that leads to all kind of selfishness and bad things in the world.  God knew we couldn’t make ourselves right with him.  So, Jesus did this for us instead. When Jesus died, we know God raised him to life and he went up to heaven to be with his Father.  We know we will not die because Jesus came alive after death.  That is the hope we have when we believe in Jesus, to live with him in heaven forever.   Now Jesus is alive and at work with his Father to look after all those who believe in him until that happens.  That’s him looking after Us!

And the kind of Father God is, made sure Jesus left us with another very important promise – that one day Jesus would come back and make this world new and how it should be.

And that is why…

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  John 14:6 (NIrV)

A Father who promises always to be with us…

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Make a person with your playdough.  Don’t worry how rough it seems.  Now breathe on it.  Help it move.  Can you make it live?  Of course not, but God made you, he knows you and all that you love, hate, he knows all your gifts and dreams and all the things you struggle with.

When Jesus went to heaven he promised that he wouldn’t leave us.   But he went into the sky and the disciples were left very sad and worried.  Some days later, the Holy Spirit came and breathed God’s power into them.  They had all this confidence to go out into the world and tell others about Jesus.

The Holy Spirit is God’s presence and power with us now, so you can have God’s power every day too.  When times are tough, when you feel broken and when you feel amazing – God’s promise never changes.  He is always with you.

“How can I get away from your Spirit?
    Where can I go to escape from you?”   Psalm 139:7 (NIrV)

“Lord, you have seen what is in my heart.
    You know all about me.”   Psalm 139:1  (NIrV)

A Father who is generous in giving gifts…

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Make your playdough into a tiny world again and give it to the person next to you as a gift.  Make sure we have all given and received a gift.

“God’s gifts of grace come in many forms. Each of you has received a gift in order to serve others.”  1 Peter 4:10  (NIrV)

It seems harder when you have a disability, when the world tells you ‘you can’t’.  When people think you are not as good as them because you don’t learn in the same way, or because you need help to do look after yourself each day.  That’s not God’s way at all.

God says anyone is his child when they believe in Jesus.  He gives everyone the same gift of the Holy Spirit as everyone else that believes in Jesus.  God does NOT put limitations on what you can do for him. So thank him for Jesus and be bold, be strong and praise him every day.  I look forward to what he will do in your lives and what you will do for him.  It’s going to be amazing.

Summary

So, what kind of Father is God?

  • A Father who loves
  • A Father who forgives
  • A Father who promises always to be with us
  • A Father who is generous in giving gifts.

I still have my earthly Father. I call him Dad and I love him.  But he is just a human being just like me.   He can’t be all the things my heavenly Father is.  Jesus said we can call God a special Father name – he called it Abba – it’s the same as Daddy.  Do you feel that close to God that you can call him Daddy? 

I love to pray…

Daddy thank you

Daddy I love you

Daddy help me

Today God’s promise to you is that if you believe in Jesus you are his child.  He promises to love you and that after you finish your life on this earth you will go to be in heaven with him.   You will meet the real Jesus and live without pain, hardship or tears forever.   And while you are waiting for that day he promises to be with you always….every… single… moment.  Every one of you here can serve God, love God and be used for him in your life.  Don’t let anyone say to you, ”you can’t”.  Because when the Holy Spirit is in you, you have God’s power to do anything he asks you to do.   It really is going to be an amazing life when you follow Jesus. 

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Has God ever asked you to let go of something you loved, even if it was a really good thing?  Why would God do that?

In September I stepped down from the Good News Group and have now had a term of not being there each week.  (Although it was wonderful to be involved in the Christmas service with everyone.)  I’m still a bit heartbroken to be honest but it has been good for me to think about why God would do this to me and what I might need to learn from it.

One thing I realised is that God wants me to come to him and give my time to him.  I’m still working this out as I am naturally a really busy person and can soon fill up a few spare minutes or hours.  Social media is a big draw to me – and I’m still having to discipline myself to stop looking at it so much – (not doing brilliantly on that yet).  Wouldn’t it be awful if I just filled up my time with worthless activities instead of God… so I am aiming to do more walking to my local country park and while I am walking, listen to the lovely voice of David Suchet reading a book of the Bible to me.  I am already falling back in love with God’s word by doing this.  I’m not studying it, or doing a study book…just listening.

By letting go of the Good News Group I have given others the chance to step up.  I have been praying each day for the team that is left and know that it is a difficult time of transition.  But I know too that this is God’s work and he will equip and enable them.  I remember when the previous leaders left, very suddenly, and three of us offered to take on leadership ‘temporarily’!!! We had no clue how to do it or how we were going to manage, but at every step, in prayer, God has enabled us.  If you are running a similar group or thinking of doing so – just pray, pray, pray and know that God will enable you.  The more we trust him, the more he is able to give us – and then we can give the glory back to him.  We know we don’t deserve any of it.

I think I was taking some of God’s glory and putting my hope in what I was doing, not who God is.  I need to be humble and repent of this.

And finally I am now seeing that God has work for me to do elsewhere.  My hubby and I are still visiting other churches and I am getting a better feel of what disability awareness and support might be needed by churches.  I am not feeling the need to settle anywhere else so far, but then if God has that in his plan, we are certainly open to it.  It is a time of waiting and learning – being such an active person, this does not come naturally to me, but then with God all things are possible!

My prayer for all of you (maybe 3 people…ha ha!) who read my blog is that you too know when God is calling you out to wait, listen and learn.  It may be a time he is getting you ready for the next stage of your ministry or a time of discipline and healing.  And don’t forget that our friends with learning difficulties may need times like this too.  It may be that God calls you to come alongside someone one-to-one and support them through their time of waiting.

God Bless and do keep in touch.  There will be some news next year, as I think God is leading me to new things that I have had meetings about recently…

 

Church service timetable pics

I’ve visited a few churches over the past couple of months and it’s been interesting to see examples of good accessibility practice but I’ve also seen that there is a lot more each church could do  (I haven’t been telling them this…. not yet, I’m grateful for people’s welcome and love!) We are waiting for God to show us where we need to be ad in the meantime

The Good News Group and I went to talk at a Harvest Service in Middleton, Manchester and was impressed to see how they had made a visual timetable powerpoint.  The same symbols appeared on the service sheet.  These small additions can make a huge difference for someone visiting, especially if they have additional needs, anxiety or just wants to know what is happening and when.

So I’ve made an example timetable on a power point that hopefully (if it works) you can download and use as a template (see below).  The symbols may not be in the order you need, but with a bit of cut and pasting, you (or a young person…LOL) should be able to rearrange them to suit you.

I’ve also added a few tips on presentation.  The background and text colours are based on dyslexia and learning disability advice and please don’t have a scene (or worse a moving scene) behind printed words.  I’ve seen this done for songs and it can make it unreadable for many people with additional needs, including dyslexia and sight impairment.

This sort of timetable can be used for any group, any event and once you have got the basic template, can be used quickly and easily each week.

Do have a go and let me know how you get on.  🙂

Church Service timetable  – download by clicking on this link.

Visuals come in many formats and we use visual images in many ways in church. Stained glass windows told the stories from the Bible to people who couldn’t read in times gone by.  When I was a girl, the minister used a ‘flannel graph’ board to illustrate the Bible story, and as a child, it certainly kept my interest.

There are many good reasons for using visuals to help people with additional needs access what is going on in church and connect with the Bible teaching we are presenting. The best thing to do is ask them what works for them, but by also adopting some good practice, you are accessible to those who potentially may yet come to your church.

Here are four main reasons:

1. Visuals are inclusive. If you can’t read so well, have hearing difficulties, speak a different language, have working memory difficulties, or find it hard to sit and listen then a visual image is there for longer than the words you speak. Well chosen visuals can also help those with visual impairments. A visual image allows the brain to process the message or information without having to remember the information at the same time.

2. Visuals (such as a visual timetable) help everyone know what is happening, in what order and when it all will finish. This can help people who feel anxious, who have autism or ADHD, for example. They can check for themselves what is happening and if needed, can add their own choices of activities to help with their managing to be in the service or group.

3. Visual pictures link parts of a story or series events together by putting them in a sequence you can see. It helps someone to recall what happened and see the whole story linking together.

4. Preparing visuals for a talk that you are writing helps you check how much it makes sense to others! It is easier to explain complex spiritual language using a visual illustration…but take care…people may take it literally. Here’s an example…

Set my heart on fire..

 

What does this really mean?  Maybe something like “give me power and passion to be enthusiastic for Jesus every day.”   It is good to explain our spiritual terms, not just for those with additional needs, but think about those new to Christianity and those who don’t understand our language very well.

Here are some ways you can start to use visuals in your church and children’s groups.

1. Have a visual timetable of your service. If you use a projection onto a screen have a plain background (and avoid moving pictures with text on top) with large font writing. Dark blue backgrounds with yellow writing can work well. But then at the bottom of the screen you can put a timetable of the service. It isn’t too difficult to take one picture off as each part of the service continues. You can use specialist software such as widgitonline (try the free trial) or just a set of free clip art images that are available online. Alternatively, have a visual timetable in a prominent place at the front of church or even on the service sheet. If possible have someone take off the picture symbol as each section finishes, maybe there is a child or adult who would love this job in your church!

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This was one way we tried – giving out a timetable of the service with the service sheet. 

2. When writing a sermon or children’s talk, prepare a key point you can illustrate with pictures. Try to think literally. One key sentence for people to take away.  When you are speaking, a visual picture as you move from point to point, helps people keep up and focus on each part. It also helps you slow down and keep on point! Here’s a link to how to write an accessible sermon.

3. In children’s groups a visual timetable should have the place they are going to and the place they are going to after the session is finished.  You are breaking down the session into manageable chunks.  If necessary a child with additional needs could have their own. They may need included; a safe space and a sensory or favourite activity that helps them engage.

4. Picture sequences of Bible Stories can help children who struggle to listen, read, write or speak. They can follow the story as it is told, put the events in order and answer questions by pointing to the pictures. Here are some good resources …

www.widgitonline.com – try the free trial but plan what images you would like to have and keep in that trial time.  Then you can make lots and reuse them.  Consider if it is worth buying a subscription for one or more people who would be making these every week for you.

jpeg Jesus calls disciples

Here’s one I made earlier. 

freebibleimages – my old favourite – but free – so what’s not to like?

Additional Needs Alliance website – lots of free resources people have added.

This is just a beginning and I’ve tried to show as many examples as I can. Please add examples that have worked in your church in the comments below.  Let’s share our good practice.

Here’s the catch up for the recent Methodist Church Belonging Conference. all about including additional needs in church. 

 

This post comes after I have done two training sessions at churches in Liverpool and Manchester.  What I have been inspired by is the heart of the church leaders and others to start a new season of accessibility and inclusion at their churches.

We all know that oak trees grow from tiny acorns and that Jesus said if we had faith as small as a mustard seed then anything is possible.

Matthew 17:20-21  (NIRV)

 He replied, “Because your faith is much too small. What I’m about to tell you is true. If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, it is enough. You can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there.’ And it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

In Liverpool, I spoke about autism along with Cristina who is, by her own definition, ‘An Aspie Christian’.  It was organised by Liverpool Deaf church and we had two BSL interpreters signing our talks and allowing us to communicate with the deaf members of the audience.  We made a point of recognising that there were deaf autistic people and that communication with them needed to take both differences into account.  I learned from the deaf people who attended, some of the differences in deaf communication that I hadn’t know, such as interrupting isn’t really a ‘thing’ for them as the way they communicate in sign language is more fluid than waiting for your turn to say something.  As always, the sensory needs of autistic people were of great interest to the audience and they responded really positively with ideas about what support they could give in their churches.

In Manchester, I spoke about the ‘hidden disabilities’ including dyslexia, ADHD, autism, and how we may have a high number of adults with different disabilities that we know nothing about.  The implications for our preaching and teaching is huge.  What if 50% or more of our congregations can’t understand our Bible teaching fully?  (There are no statistics for the people who actually understand a regular sermon because much is ‘hidden’ and people don’t want to admit they didn’t ‘get it’. – So I made an educated guess to make a point).  We are disabling people if we make sweeping assumptions about the ability to understand and things like literal understanding of spiritual words and concepts (set my heart on fire). There is the need for concrete examples that people can relate to alongside acknowledging the awe, wonder and mystery of our God.  We looked at autism in particular, and what autistic people might need from the church to help them be included and discipled.  We looked at the enormous amount of gifting in people with hidden disabilities that we may need to think of different ways to grow and develop.

What was wonderful in both these settings was seeing church leaders and members wanting to do something positive to make their church more accessible.  Some were just starting out, right at the beginning of looking at what they do and thinking about what was helpful and what wasn’t.  Another church had done a lot of work on becoming dementia friendly and could see how some of those approaches (such as using visuals and having a quiet space) could be developed further to support some autistic people.  One church had started to put symbols on their service sheet as a visual clue to what that part of the service was about.

These may seem tiny but they are significant steps.  We all have to start somewhere and often it is small things like making a quiet/sensory area available, changing the language in sermons to make it more understandable to more people, using a visual schedule to show what will happen in the service and having ways to help people who can’t sit still or who find coffee time terrible because of the noise and demand of socialising.

The best thing is to do an audit of what you do, involving any autistic or other disabled people in your congregation, asking them.  If you are not sure who you have, then speak to an autistic person you might know and ask them to do an audit with you.  An autistic perspective can be such a valuable thing, as long as you remember that each person is different and so other changes may need to be made for others.  Then you can develop a plan – with goals and regular updates about how things are going.

I have written about writing a more accessible sermon here.  Changing our teaching style may be more challenging than you think but more rewarding than you can imagine. Looking at words and explaining things clearly can help all our congregations.  Explaining the Bible, spiritual terms and language in ways that almost all the congregation can grasp means that more will go away from a Sunday service equipped to live the Christian life each day.  Using visuals or drama can help people see what it means and what the concept might look like in real life examples.  It is the simple things in the Bible that we need most to live out in our lives when we are not at church.

My starting point is this question…If a group of adults with learning disabilities arrived at your church in a minibus one Sunday to join your service – would you be ready or could you adapt what you were going to do so that they felt welcome, included and understood something about Jesus’s love and desire for them to be part of his kingdom?

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Keswick 2017

I have been to help with the Keswick Convention Prospects team twice now and although I love it so much the thing that stands out to me is the Wednesday evening in the big tent when the Prospects group go on the main stage to share what they have been doing and sing a song with everyone.  This is well received but feels like a missed opportunity.   The measure for me is this, that when all the group sit down after being on mainstage, the meeting carries on as usual.  The songs contain complex words (and one year we did really have the ‘ineffably sublime’ song…what on earth does ‘ineffably’ mean?)  and the talk is long, full of complex language and concepts and mostly inaccessible to the Prospects group.

A missed opportunity or a token gesture?  I would rather see real inclusion.

Hebrews 11:1 (NIRV)

Faith That Produces Action

Faith is being sure of what we hope for. It is being sure of what we do not see. 

In churches do we know how to support families where children are having meltdowns. First, don’t judge but understand what is happening…
this blog will help – from Clearly Nurturing

clearly nurturing

The thing about sensory processing differences is that they are there all the time, sensory cravings alongside sensory defensiveness in a world full of light, noise, movement and touch means it can be surprisingly easy to get overwhelmed. The thing about autsitic masking (think swan with crazy fast, unseen feet working so hard to camouflage and do the right thing even when it feels like you are an alien in a world where the social expectations and rules are always just out of reach) is that it takes so much energy, so much focus to survive or overcome worry after worry just to make it through the day. So it doesn’t need much of a niggle, misunderstanding, or unexpected moment to be knocked off balance and all the bottled up worries and stress to burst out. Meltdowns happen. They are inconvenient, stressful, messy, noisy, attract unwanted attention, are painful and…

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