Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

When we work with adults who have learning disabilities (the key word is “with” because working together is what we do), often the people who don’t have learning disabilities say how much the way we communicate makes more sense to them as well.  When we have shorter talks, the Accessible Bible text, visuals, Makaton and BSL signing, a visual timetable, drama, sensory stories and interaction – then we find that all the carers, team and visitors learn just as much about the Bible as those who have learning disabilities.   We are communicating in ways that help people understand the Gospel and the truths about Jesus in the Bible.

When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, a key feature was that the disciples started to speak to the crowds in languages that they understood.  I think the same applies to how we use signing, visuals and other forms of communication in our groups today.  We are speaking in languages that people in our group understand.  And it is the Holy Spirit who helps us do this.

God knows I am a visual learner.  Visuals give my brain a better understanding than if someone tries to explain things to me in words.  When I met with a financial adviser about setting up a new pension, he drew a diagram to explain all the complex financial information about setting it up for me.  The normally complex information that would have gone way over my head, made sense in the way he communicated it.  I felt confident that I understand my pension and the new laws surrounding it.

God knows my brain better than anyone.  He made it and he knows just how to communicate to me so that I understand his word and his will.  Over the years I’ve been a Christian, God has often given me pictures to show me what he wants me to do, or explain something I don’t understand.  Those pictures have been in dreams, in art,  and lots of them have been in nature… because that’s often where I go to pray and ask him what he wants me to do.

For over a year I have had 5 big ideas going around my head.  All of them were in response to the needs of others that I have seen around me.  All of them were valid, valuable services but to do all of them would be impossible.  When I was in Keswick this year I sat looking at this view.

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I counted 5 mountains to represent each of the projects that were in my mind and asked God to show me which ones I should be working on.  The projects seem like mountains to climb.  There will be a lot of work and new things to learn as I navigate getting to the summit.  I thought the analogy of mountains suited my query to the Lord quite well.

One evening I again asked God to answer my prayers and show me which mountains to climb and which not to.  I looked up to the view and suddenly two of the mountains were covered in cloud, where none of them had been a few minutes ago.  The clouds stayed over these mountains for long enough for me to ask God if that really was my answer and for me to receive a deep sense of peace that it was.

God again was speaking to me in a language that I understand.  Pictures make sense to me.  I can ‘see’ the message and the Holy Spirit confirms it.  On that same evening I was listening to the message at the Keswick Convention on my computer.  The message was about mission.   The answer to my prayers was about mission.   I’m taking that as confirmation and going for it.  I’m praying for protection, resources and guidance.  And in my next post…I’ll tell you what those mission plans are…

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Helen Philip SHINE group

Photo from Helen Philip: The Shine Group

When I went to Keswick, one of the joys was meeting people who went to other Prospects (now Livability) groups and talking about how we all do things similarly or differently.  So I thought that you all would like to hear what goes on in other groups too.  We at the Good News Group have developed our own way of doing things but anyone who runs a group or wants to set up their own can develop their own routines and styles.  We all use accessible communication, inclusion and Bible discipleship as our basis.

Our first interview is with Helen and her team at the group, called SHINE, that meets in Worthing on the South coast.

  1. Who are you and how did you come into this role of supporting adults with learning disabilities in church?
    I’m Helen – I first came into this role when I was part of a church in Milton Keynes. I returned from 3 years away working for a Christian organisation in another part of the country and found that we had been joined by a lady called Debby with a learning disability who had recently moved to the UK from South Africa following the death of her father, to live nearer to her mother. I noticed that, while Debby had been welcomed into the church she had no Christian friends who shared her challenges, while having many friends at College who did not share her faith. I knew about Prospects, having prayed for many years right from the time when David Potter was setting up the charity, and contacted them to see if there was a group in our area. The nearest at that time was in Bedford, so for ten years Debby and I commuted each month to their meetings. I had the joy of seeing her grow in her faith and in her confidence as a member of the church, meanwhile I was learning how to support people in church, and in particular helping to lead worship in the group. After ten years of prayer, we were both part of the team which set up a group in Milton Keynes – still going strong today. I went on to be involved in Prospects team at Spring Harvest, and in the team leading the weekend at Highleigh every other year. So naturally when I moved to Worthing on retirement, I became involved in the group here, and now lead the team.
  2. What is your group called? How long has it been going?  When, where, how often does it meet?  How many people come?
    Our group is called Shine. It has been going for 13 years and meets monthly at Worthing Baptist Church in Christchurch Road, usually on the 3rd Sunday afternoon of the month, at 3pm. Around 20 people usually come, most with some form of learning or other disability, others just wanting to support us while enjoying an accessible meeting.
  3. What do you do in a typical meeting?

Our meetings take the form of a simple service, with the format having changed little over the 13 years. We start each meeting with the lighting of a candle and singing our “theme” song Shine, Jesus, Shine. We sing other songs through the meeting, including at least one which those who wish can do a simple dance to, and also sing the Lord’s Prayer each time using Ishmael’s version “Dear Lord, our Father who’s in Heaven”. As well as an opening prayer, often led by a group member, we have a time for members to share news or concerns and to be prayed for. We have a reading – if from the New Testament, we now use the new Accessible NIrV version, bought for us by a group member. A recent “innovation” for us is the introduction of an offering – the group have really appreciated the opportunity both to give as part of their worship and to play a part in the support of the activities in this way. Teaching may take the form of a short talk, a drama, or a combination of the two and, following a relevant song, we will then take a few minutes to consider how we can all apply what we have learned in our daily lives – this may take the form of a short talk, or interactive whole group discussion, or where appropriate there may be an active response such as bringing items symbolically to the Cross. Before our final song we celebrate any birthdays happening that month with a card and a song. Our meetings finish with afternoon tea together – our sandwiches and cake are legendary!

  1. How did you or others go about starting up the group?

The group came about when Marilyn Reading (now Marilyn Yarwood) moved to Worthing on the appointment of her late husband Samuel as Minister of Worthing Baptist Church. Having worked with Prospects at Spring Harvest and Keswick, Marilyn was keen to get involved with a local group and asked Tony Phelps-Jones and Pete Winmill if there was a group in Worthing. There was not, and so the suggestion came back – “why don’t you get a meeting together to see if you can start one?”. So Marilyn wrote to all the local churches to ask if anyone would be interested in starting a group. The Minutes of the WBChurch meeting of July 2003 record that she had been asked to call a meeting – those of September 2003, that 20 people attended, and a training day was to be held, and in early 2004 it was recorded that this had also been well attended and the group was to start that year (it started in May 2004).

  1. How do you enable people with learning disabilities to understand the gospel / Bible?

Simple teaching, aiming at short, clear and specific delivery of talks; drama; use of relevant songs; clear reference back to the reading – and encouraging people to ask questions both in the meeting and one-to-one afterwards.

  1. What can you tell us about the faith of PLD in your group? Are there examples you’d like to share?
  • Growing! As we have over the last couple of years encouraged more of the members to play a bigger part in aspects of the meetings “delivered” by the team, so we have seen them spontaneously gather round someone who is distressed or concerned about something and pray for them, rather than call one of us over to do it. We also hear reports of them praying for each other when they meet at other groups!
  • One member, who has severe dyslexia as well as other learning difficulties, and fragile mental and physical health, spent two years working through the Salvation Army’s “Battle Orders” course (challenging for anyone!) in order to qualify to become a Soldier (full member). She achieved this this year, and was commissioned in a wonderful service attended by our team, and by Pete & Christine Winmill. Already a member of the local Night Shelter team, she has now become a member of the Shine team, having met all the criteria of our safeguarding policy as well as clearly being a great role model and mentor to others in the group.
  1. How does your church family support the group?

The group is not formally part of any particular church family as team members come from a number of local churches, as do those members who are part of a church – most are, and we are encouraging the rest as they become more confident to link with a church near them. Having said that, Worthing Baptist Church, our host church provides meeting space, and all other facilities we need free of charge (we do make sure we give them a love offering each year!) – and the support for myself as leader, and the other team members and group members who are part of the church is fantastic – we ask for prayer through the church news sheet each month, and many members ask for prayer needs in between, group members who attend the church are specifically encouraged in their faith, and the ministers seek to make their preaching accessible to all by keeping terminology as simple as possible, and explaining clearly when less clear terminology is needed.

  1. What could your church do to support your group further?

We do hope to have some younger team members join us – most of the team are over 70 years old, so the question of succession is a real one! Our church is very open to encouraging those who sense a call to join us, and we hope over the next year to have the means in place to seek the same support from other churches in the area – while not wishing to lay ourselves open to the issues which can arise from launching a “recruitment campaign” of any sort! We believe our safeguarding policy will help in this – and here I must pay tribute to help received from the local Baptist Association safeguarding Lead who has been incredibly supportive and helpful.

  1. What is your church like for accessibility? What are they wanting to improve?

In terms of welcome, support, care with language etc very good. Physically we have issues in that our halls are not accessible to anyone who cannot manage steps, and so activities are limited to the sanctuary and welcome area (which thankfully does include loos!). This is an issue for the church as a whole and one of many building-related challenges we are seeking to address as a church.

  1. What advice would you give to someone wanting to set up a Livability type group in their church or area?

Based on my earlier experience, I would definitely advise visiting other groups in your area – at least one, but if possible more than one to get a sense of the range of approaches out there. Indeed, if you have the patience and the ability to travel, it is good to get involved in helping with another group for a period – particularly if, like me, you have no previous experience of interacting with adults with learning difficulties (you don’t have to do it for ten years!)

Thank you Helen and the Team.  We pray that your group will grow in love and fellowship, knowledge and grace.  In Jesus Name.  Amen.

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Photo from Helen Philip – Some of the SHINE Team

It’s important that we realise the scale of the ministry field. Children with additional needs grow up, so our ministry is to all those adults too. Where are they in your church?

The Additional Needs Blogfather

In a few weeks time for many, a new academic year will start; in some parts of the country, it starts this week.  The start of the new academic year is often the time that church children’s and youth clubs start up again, although of course some have continued during the summer, or have run holiday clubs or camps.  Sunday mornings become busier again as families return from holidays; the buzz of activity in weekly children’s and youth work across the UK builds up again… including those working with children or young people with additional needs or disabilities.

But what does the overall landscape look like?  What is the background narrative in the UK today to working with children, young people and families where there are additional needs or disabilities?  What do we see if we lift our heads up from the great work which many are doing individually and…

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A Team of all Abilities.

Here are some of the team as we played a new game I took along with me called “Linkee”.

I was thinking today about the amazing team that I was part of at Keswick.  Thirteen of us were in the team of all backgrounds and abilities.  We were from Glasgow in the North to Worthing in the South, and came together for just one week.    Straight away, on the Sunday afternoon when we all got together for the first time there was a lovely feeling of being in a family.  People who knew each other made sure that people they didn’t know were made to feel welcome.  It was a great start.

For the rest of the week, each person took up their role.  Whether it was welcoming, playing music, leading, signing, computer or serving tea –  I there was no fuss, no power struggles, no moaning.   We shared, laughed and encouraged one another.  Wearing the same T-shirts, who could know what our backgrounds were?  We were a doctor, care workers, unemployed, volunteers, retired, business people, teachers.  It didn’t make any difference.   Nine of us shared the accommodation and cooked, ate and cleaned up together.

I want to use my blog this week to say thank you to this wonderful team.  Thank you for making me feel so welcome and part of things from the start.  Thank you for making me laugh, asking about my life and sharing our needs for prayer.  Thank you for your prayers for the week, for the guests who came and their families and challenges.  Thank you for serving faithfully and joyfully.  Thank you for giving this week of your life to serve and enable people with learning disabilities to access great Bible teaching.  I know we learned from the Bible together.  I saw how all of you sat with, listened and prayed for the guests who came.  I know you will go home with them still on your heart and in your prayers.  I loved how you threw yourself into the week, never minded looking silly or doing something different.  You encouraged and supported, laughed and enabled all to join in.  Thank you.

As you go back to your lives I pray you are blessed.  I pray God touched your lives too and will be with you as you face your own challenges at home.

I’m praying we all get the chance to be part of a team like this again.  A team of all abilities and a team loving Jesus our Lord together.

Lynn x

 

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Our week at Keswick is separate from the main meetings of morning Bible Study.  There is a very good reason for this – many people with learning disabilities that come to our meetings find the main meetings inaccessible.  The language is too complex, it’s talk based and it is a long time to sit still and listen.  There are Bible passages to read and follow – not easy if you can’t read well or at all.  And so our meetings do provide access to the teaching in a way that is visual, explains complex or ‘religious’ words and concepts and allows the congregation to interact, join in and have their Bible teaching in more manageable chunks.  We have used the NIrV Accessible Bible all week and the easy access language in this version has been easy to use and well received.

Keswick Convention are very supportive of the work we do.  Providing these sessions allows families with adults with learning disabilities to access the Convention as a family.  Some can come to our meetings on their own while their parents and carers are able to go to the main meeting.  Others need the continuing support from their parents and carers but they are able to join in something together…rather than feeling that they are having to ‘entertain’ their son or daughter in a meeting that is too complex for them to access.  (It’s not surprising they get bored in a long meeting they cannot understand so well – I do!)  What it does is allow families to feel that all their needs are met in one place, that they can holiday together at the Keswick Convention and feel that all are spiritually refreshed.  I think there may be more we can do to develop this in the future.  More support for the often elderly parents still caring for adult children might be helpful.  We do a lot of praying for and with the guests themselves and a lot of encouraging them to use their gifts in the sessions.  We come alongside them and talk with them, and often find we have a lot in common.  Our love of Jesus is the most amazing thing we share and the Holy Spirit moves amongst us in this week.  You can feel His presence even in the simplest conversations and things that we share together.  But after Keswick, many are going back to complex or difficult situations and it would be good to spend more time praying with and supporting them more individually.

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Another thing we do at the Keswick Convention is go up on main stage on the Wednesday evening meeting.  These seven minutes are a wonderful time for the group and a chance for the other visitors to the Convention to see what we do.  We usually interview one of our guests, giving their testimony.  This year a young woman called Lisa, who is from Glasgow talked about her faith in the wake of having 17 major operations in her life and another one soon to come.  She talked about how she loves working with the children in her church and we could see what a delight she is to her church and they to her.  We then led the congregation in singing one of the songs we had been learning all week “What can I do to be like Jesus?”.  Singing and signing so that everyone could join in.  I took Molly, my puppet up on stage and one of our guests also brought her puppet (Molly’s twin we reckon!) and her confidence as we sang and danced with our puppets together was wonderful.  Instead of being at the back of the group, hiding her face, she was at the front, sharing the limelight with her puppet!

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Being part of the mainstream, even for those seven minutes is important.  I thank the Keswick Convention because they see it as something very important to include in their programme.  Its not to ‘show us off’ or say ‘Arn’t we good to have this here?’ – but they see the Livability/Prospects sessions as an important part of the programme and a way to make the convention accessible for families with adult children with learning disabilities.  I’m looking forward to finding out more about their accessibility for children with additional needs as one of my daughter’s friends was a ‘buddy’ for a child with additional needs all week.  So I will report on that when I find out.  If you were there and want to tell me about your experiences, I’d be really grateful.

Also the Keswick Convention give us a slot to do a seminar on the Thursday morning. Andrew and I delivered a talk on making a sermon/talk accessible through using different forms of communication and visuals etc (based on one of my previous blog posts).  There were only a few people who turned up so I do think there is a lot we can do to advertise and organise this better.  I’d love to offer a whole week of seminars – we in the additional needs stream have a lot to say! From theology to practical tips – every church has something to learn about accessibility.

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The best acting award…

All week at Keswick we have used drama in our meetings.  The Bible passages that we were learning from were from Luke and were excerpts from Jesus’s life and interactions with people he met.

All you need is a simple script (but be willing for participants ad-libbing),  a few bits of costume and the odd prop or two.  We also used the Accessible NIrV Bible all week.

On Monday we did two drama’s looking at Jesus and the sinful woman at the home of Simon the Pharisee and the parable of the two debtors – Luke 7:36-53

On Tuesday we looked at The 10 lepers who were healed – Luke 17:11-17

On Wednesday we looked at Zacchaeus  – Luke 19:1-10

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Zaccheaus and Jesus.

On Thursday we looked at Jesus calls Peter – Luke 5:1-11

On Friday we looked at  The Disciples on the Emmaus Road – Luke 24:13-35

Drama has many advantages.  First it slows down the story so that those who take longer to process information can do so.  It breaks down the story into chunks and adds action to the dialogue.   We show that the events happened to real people and that Jesus came to meet with and help people who had needs just as we do.

Sitting in an hour and a half long session could be really difficult and very boring if all we did was talk.  Concentration and attention may be difficult for some of our guests (and the team!) and breaking up the session with drama, songs and puppets helps keep everyone’s attention and interest.

Participation can be a really good way to make people with learning disabilities feel valued.  We believe passionately that we are all church together and giving the guests the chance to share the story telling with us is important too.  Even those who don’t want to participate enjoy watching others who do.  We were so blessed by all those who acted and brought their own expression and interpretation of the drama to our story.  Three memorable moments for me were on Monday when a shy guest did a fabulous job of wiping Jesus’s feet with her hair (it was a wig!) and the joy as she joined in the drama nearly every day.  Then the deaf/ partically-sighted lady who brought humour into the telling of our ‘parable of the debtors’ story.  And the visitor from the Carlisle group on Thursday whose expression of shock, delight and excitement when Peter caught the whole net of fish in our makeshift boat.  Here are some of the best photos.

So much happened this week that I have another couple of posts to do but I’ll get to them next week.  I’m at home now and feel like I’m still there.  I thank God with all my heart for a week of such blessings.

All the room was full of people using puppets

What a great workshop we had. Everyone engrossed in activity.

Two years ago I introduced puppets to the Keswick Convention Prospects sessions and they were very popular.   Molly came to ask lots of questions and we held a puppeteering workshop on the Tuesday afternoon.  Here’s a reminder:  People, puppets and praise.

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These two ladies are very good puppeteers!

Last year my daughter and her friend, who both are on the team of our Good News Group,  took a similar workshop.

This year I wanted to move the puppet skills on and teach something more useful for those who had done puppets with us before.  We also had to make sure that the language and processing levels were right for the group too.  So this is what we did…

First we taught the whole group the basic puppet skills such as making the puppet look at the audience, how to use their wrist and arm for different kinds of movement, how to show expressions and character traits.  My daughter then taught us all some basic dance moves such as ‘the walk’,  ‘the slide’, the shimmy’ and ‘the bop’!

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We then split into two groups and I took my group to a classroom to learn how to have a conversation between two puppets…using ‘knock, knock’ jokes.  I was thrilled that this worked really well.  Participants were able to practice their lip-syncing and puppet eye-contact and taking turns in a simple conversation.  Followed by a hearty laugh at the end!

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My daughter taught the other group a simple co-ordinated dance to the song “Happy” by Pharrel Williams.  They worked in pairs to make their puppets dance together following the sequence she had devised.  Again, this worked really well.

Feedback.

  • Two years ago one woman loved the puppets so much that she got her mum to buy her a puppet just like Molly.  Since then she has been almost inseparable from her puppet, called Jessica, and she uses Jessica to be her communication and confidence support.  This young woman has grown in confidence a lot since she bought Jessica.
  • An older woman with dementia had come along with her family.  She held a teddy bear puppet all through the session and learned to make it dance.  When she came to our meeting this morning, she asked for the puppet again so she could sit with it.  It made her smile.
  • A woman from Malaysia visiting the Convention said she had been taught how to make puppets and had made many…but hadn’t been sure how to use them.  This session gave her lots of ideas and the confidence to develop some ways of using the puppets in her setting in that country.
  • The whole afternoon was such a delight.  Everyone who came was involved, engaged and was able to access the session.  Special thanks go to Karen, our signer, who enabled one of our deaf guests to access every part of the dance teaching session through using some very inventive and imaginative strategies!  She also made very good use of my signing puppet and named him “Hans”.

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Why use puppets?

Puppets seem to appeal universally to all ages and abilities.  We’ve always find that most adults with learning disabilities find them fascinating and enjoyable.  And they can be age appropriate by the actions and content you use with them.  For example, we often use our puppets to bring a Bible character to life.  Our puppets can also cover current affairs, discuss difficult issues and ask all the questions you often wish you could.  They also are a great source of humour and can easily be cheeky which often makes the listeners laugh and be on the puppets’ side.

Puppets can also be used for ‘singing’ along to a song or dancing to it.  This can enhance worship and sometimes provide a reflective visual performance for people to engage with.

Puppets can be the ‘voice’ of someone who is shy or finding it hard to communicate.  Like the young woman in our group, the puppet can build a character that they wish they were able to be, and in time, build their own confidence so that they can do things they wouldn’t have done before.  For example, that same young woman now sits with different people in church apart from her mother.  This is helping her learn to become more independent.

There are lots of other things too which I can write at another time.  I’m so tired today as we had a party after being on the main stage on Wednesday (I’ll write about that next!) and I didn’t get to bed till 1.00am.  I never stay up that late!!!

Oh, and my daughter and her boyfriend got engaged here in Keswick yesterday…. 😀

 

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