Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

An end and a beginning…

Well my sabbatical is coming to an end.  Although it has started me on a journey I’ve not yet completed.  I am determined to keep praying and seeking God for wisdom for the many issues that have come into my mind in these past months.  And my retreat day away at Scargill House was so amazing, I’m already looking for a date after Christmas when I can go again.  I really met with the Lord there and would run away and live there forever if I could have that experience every day….yes, I know, I can feel that close to God right where I am each day, but there really was something special about getting away from every day life…even for just one day….

I went along to the Good News Group Christmas service this week, and it was strange just watching and not organising! It was like I’d never been away and so lovely to see all my GNG family.  So many hugs!  I know now that I’ll be going back in January.  

But it’s going to be a new beginning.  I can’t just go back to how things were before.  One of the reasons I went on sabbatical was because I was feeling restless and knew God had plans for us, but I couldn’t hear him in all the busyness of being involved.  I’ve been away and looked outwards.  I’ve talked, met, presented, listened and prayed with many other people involved in ministry with people with additional needs and many people who have Additional Needs who are ministers themselves.  I have been changed by this wider view of what God is doing in our nation and beyond to include people with AN in his church.  

I’ve also received a copy of Matthew’s gospel that Biblica have produced in an easy read version.  They presented this at the No Limits conference I was at in London and since I came back, I have been reading it.  I’m so excited.  This is just what our group has needed.  I so want to try it out as our Bible study focus.  It’s written in clear language, shorter sentences and larger text.  It is in clear headed sections and uses less complex language without taking anything away from the meaning.  I know they are planning a spoken version for people who cannot see or cannot read.  There should be a version of this that everyone of our group can access.  I’m hoping we can use it in The Good News Group next year and then feed back to Biblica how we find it.  Here’s the link to Biblica’s website to get your copy! 

I want to thank everyone who reads this blog.  Includedbygrace has become a ‘thing’ in that people are recognising it and what it’s about.  I’m hoping to let God develop this next year…but how, well, that’s up to him! 

If I don’t get to blog again before Christmas…..have a very blessed time.  

I wrote this last night and I’m still not sure whether to post it, as I’m feeling challenged and really unsure about what to do with it.

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Our faith as Christians is meant to be shared.  We are called to preach the gospel…the good news that is Jesus our saviour…to the world.

I used to think the work of an evangelist was someone else’s job.  I was sure my job was ministry within the church, helping others find their way on this spiritual journey and travelling my own road of discipleship alongside them.

I’ve listened to some people like Roger Carswell and Glen Scrivenger lately.  They do evangelism as a job.  A good job they do too.  But me…I could never do anything like that.  I know the gospel,  I have my own testimony and have loved Jesus with all my heart since he saved me at the age of 21.  But I always felt that evangelism was something I just wasn’t gifted at.  I don’t mind talking to people about Jesus and telling them the gospel, if they ask, that is.  But evanagelism…well that’s someone else’s job.  I’m not gifted like they are.

It doesn’t take much to learn about people who are excluded.  You just need to look, and listen. Excluded from school, excluded from society, even excluded from church.  They don’t fit in, they behave differently and people don’t want that.  So they give them a label and say we can’t meet your needs here…so go somewhere else.  So we segregate them and then we don’t need to think about them.  And some end up in the worse places, the forgotten places. They are the kids in secure homes for behaviour challenged children,  the adults with autism who can’t get a job so they stay in their rooms all day because they aren’t included in society.  They are the young people with additional needs who end up refusing to go to school,  some are in prison or homeless because they were excluded from families, education and life.  They are the ones social services aren’t helping.  They might be refugees, trafficked children or modern day slaves.  They are the mentally ill in secure accommodation.  They are in our midst but we don’t see them.  They are the excluded.

Having your eyes opened to the excluded people around us is uncomfortable.  I want to run and hide.  I want to stay where it is cosy and ‘nice’ and minister to people who appreciate and respond to all my efforts.  But in the background are the excluded.  They are in need of a saviour.

But they’re unlikely to come to us. We open the church doors but some instinctively know they aren’t included. They aren’t welcome anywhere else, so why should a church building, filling up with its well dressed people, be any different. You’ll expect them to be quiet and follow the rules, when their lives cry out in confusion and pain.  They can’t stand another rejection.  Even though we want to love them as Jesus loves,  we try to tell them…but they won’t come to us.

So we need to go to them.

Will you or will I go and preach the gospel to the excluded?  Or shall I ring Roger or Glen and ask them to do it?   Oh Lord, I am so in awe of those who are doing this work, preaching your gospel to the excluded.

I’m not feeling comfortable.  I’m feeling convicted of God’s heart for the excluded.

Not sure what to do next.

More prayer needed.

Entirely Without Compassion

I’m reblogging this because every word is true and full of pain and compassion. This is the world we must pray for. This is the world hitting the most vulnerable, the poor and the disabled. Please pray for our education system. We need a new vision filled with inclusion and equality of opportunity. We need a miracle.

Love Learning....

I was too busy riding my bike through piles of leaves in the woods on the glorious day that was Sunday to see the apparently relentless, self congratulatory twitter campaign run by a little school in London. Thank goodness it didn’t rain. I’m not getting into the pros and cons of this one school. But I have some questions about the impact that the overall ethos of being “strict” has on other schools. And the title, before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, does not refer to this school. It refers to an accountability system which allows some people to be lauded for excluding children and others to be condemned for including them.

Any school that introduces a zero tolerance behaviour policy is creating a form of social engineering in which parents and children who will not or cannot comply will be excluded from the school. Some heads have…

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This is a version of the talk that I did at the No Limits conference for Churches for All on 12th November 2016.

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This is a picture I took and titled “Hope in the Darkness”. 

The reason I wanted to look at the needs and opportunities for teens with additional needs in the church has come from the work I do in high schools. Day by day I am learning first hand about the challenges and difficulties that teenagers with autism are dealing with. Also, talking to the young adults in the Good News Group at our church, I am learning about the needs they have in being supported into adulthood.  Including the lack of services and resources available to enable them to do this.
The picture is quite alarming. The year 10s I work with are beginning to realise that the structured (even though very stressful) environment of school life will be ending and they will leave an institution that has supported them, or not, most of their lives. Where I’d love to say that this has been to their advantage, those that have survived school and will be able to feel that it was a good experience for them are probably less in number than those who feel let down, unprepared for life and that they have failed and been failed. Their needs have changed and developed, but most have life long conditions that are not going to end at the age of 16 or 18. My research so far has uncovered the following facts (all came with statistics but I haven’t quoted them here).

Teenagers with additional needs have:

  • Less chance of gaining good qualifications
  • Less chance of getting a job or apprenticeship
  • Less chance of being able to live independently
  • More chance of being the victim of a hate crime
  • More chance of ending up homeless or in prison
  • More chance of being sexually abused or exploited
  • Less likely to have a supportive friendship circle
  • Most likely to need support of some kind throughout their lives
  • Less opportunities to be able to use their gifts and talents

The other aspect that got my notice was being asked if I wanted to work with my local prisons. When I looked into this and found that the estimated prison population who have autism, learning disabilities or other additional needs was at around 36%. (Gov statistics 2012) I am seriously worried about some of the young people I work with. Their autism and other needs make them vulnerable to being taken advantage of by others, to being led into drugs or crime and to being involved in criminal activity because they have no other opportunities in their lives. There’s also the research that is uncovering high levels of sexual exploitation and abuse amongst autistic women (and I am sure men too.)

There is not one parent of a child with additional needs that doesn’t fear their child growing up.  Added to that fact, they often lose the right to advocate for their child as they enter adulthood (due to the law that is supposed to enable the person with additional needs to guide their own decisions – I do think this is good in theory, by the way, but it doesn’t take much research to see that the implementation of this can be good or bad.)  The biggest fear for many is what will happen when they are no longer there.  Who will protect their adults with additional needs.  We need to have an answer.  The church family has to step up to this.

This is not aimed at scaring anybody but to bring out into the open the issues that our young people, their families and ultimately our churches need to be aware of.  If we know what the enemy is throwing at us we are better equipped to fight it!  I will be blogging about this more but here are the three main challenges I have uncovered.  (And thanks to Chelsea, aged 14 and John aged 29 for helping me with these.)

Challenge 1 – Growing Up

  • Talk to the young person with AN & get to know their strengths and ambitions – talk to parents / support the family.  (We talked about having dreams as being part of their future hope.)
  • Understand how they will grow and change physically. (This may be different than typical YP if they have certain conditions.)
  • Transition from Youth groups into young adult. Maybe developing a leader/helper role. (Or any role in the church that includes them and enables them to be part of the family.)
  • Teaching about teen issues – drink, drugs, risks, sex, exploitation, respect, consent, Baptism, marriage, faith, suffereing… etc. Communicating in an appropriate way for them. (We talked about the need not to ignore these issues with young people with AN – they need equipping with Bible truth and power.)
  • Develop a habit of Bible learning and prayer. (In a way that is accessible for them.  They need that personal relationship with Jesus and DO NOT infantilise them!)

Chelsea’s main points:

  • Talk to the person themselves.  Listen and respect what they have to say.
  • Ask them what they want, or what their problems are.
  • Help them be friends with others and use their talents in the church.

Chelsea was baptised last year and also organised a whole church talent show to raise money for a charity when one of her friends passed away.  She’s a talented actress and singer too.

Challenge 2 – Social Inclusion

  • Ask the young person what they want. (It’s amazing how many young people are not consulted about what they want to do, what their dreams are and what they can offer the church family.)
  • Keeping them with their peers rather than younger children?  (Teaching their peers to include them and see them as equals is vital to their development too.)
  • Encouraging and enabling social invitations. (Even fit the social activities around the interests of the young person with AN. Really!)
  • Encouraging interdependence between all the kids the same age (Do group projects for example so that they are working and serving together. )
  • Supporting a ‘buddy’ group for those with learning disabilities or severe needs. (It can benefit everyone and prevents social isolation.  However, make plans for when the buddies are naturally going to move on, such as university and build up other buddies who are still around to fill in the gaps.)

Challenge 3 – Spiritual Development

  • Find ways of accessing the whole Bible (eg. Lego Bible, Graphic Bible, Interactive Websites, specialist resources from Prospects etc.)
  • Make a plan with the young person and parents to move through a set of Bible books or topics in a year or set time.
  • Make or find resources – I searched – there’s a few out there.  Or ask me and we’ll search together.  Some online communities may be suitable for some.
  • Teach them how to pray. Use creative prayer ideas such as our Prayer Trees for those who may be non-verbal.
  • Involve them in contributing to church life.
  • Make church life accessible.
  • Develop true friendships with all ages.
  • Have high expectations of their ability to access God’s word and the Holy Spirit’s ability to teach them!

John’s main points:

  • John has been to church since he was a baby.  His first word was “Halelujah!”
  • Although his church groups were well led and used lots of inclusive practice,  John’s mum says he never was invited to any other child’s parties.
  • John has a real gift for computing and operates the SongPro system at his church.
  • John likes the way we use the Easy English Bible which he can understand better.
  • He likes being able to pass on his computer knowledge and train others to use the program.
  • John would still like friends he could meet outside church, and would love to meet a nice woman he could marry.

So what shall we do?

If you are a vicar, a youth worker, a Sunday School teacher, or anyone who goes to church – please don’t leave all this stuff in the heads of the parents.  They need to have a church who will walk with them through the teenage and adult years, not just the childhood years (in fact which is likely to last longer?).  And if currently you don’t have any teenagers or families with children with additional needs – I’d be asking “why not?”.  And I promise you if you read this and start praying…God will bring some along for you to minister to and with.  Make your church ready for the ones outside.

My final thought today is this verse from the Message that God gave to me when I went on a retreat day last week.  I don’t know where this is going…but I can follow Him.  We all can.

I will blog some more when the Lord teaches me some more about these issues.   A handout about this can be found on my website www.reachoutasc.com.

 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest.  Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.  Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Matthew 11:28-30 The Message Bible

I saw want to shout hurray to Nancy Gedge. Articulating these thoughts is a difficult and brave thing and I am so glad she has taken the time to do so. Yesterday, at the Churches For All, No Limits conference, some of these issues were discussed, mentioned and sometimes fearfully hinted at. Wherever we are, we should ask God to give us courage to stand up against those who want to silence truth and life. I’m scared…but with people like you and like Nancy around me, I feel a bit braver indeed.

The Diary of a Not So Ordinary Boy

Image taken from Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, illustrated by Raymond Briggs. Image taken from Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, illustrated by Raymond Briggs.

It’s been a funny old six weeks or so.  Actually, scratch that.  It’s been a funny old few months.  Since the summer really, and the political landscape in Europe was thrown into turmoil by a vote by the British to leave the European Union.  Since that day, the world feels as if it has changed.  The Tory and the Labour Parties convulsed in a sort of headless chicken state of shock.  People on trains in central London talked to each other.  And now, like some sort of seismic through-the-looking-glass aftershock, we have a reality TV star poised to enter the White House as President of the United States of America, and a former Chancellor of the Exchequer storming to victory as the Nation’s Sweetheart by dancing on live TV.  It’s all gone a bit…

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This is unashamedly a plug for the Enabling Church “No Limits” conference happening in less than 2 weeks from today – in London – so if you can come PLEASE do.

The Churches for All organisation has been set up to bring together those Christian organisations that promote inclusion and speak out as people with disability under one umbrella organisation.  To pool resources and work together is the aim, and the conference is born out of this.   But it needs supporting, people need to come so I’m asking you to please try.  And if it is successful, I and others are going to see if we can get some support and a venue to put a similar conference on up in the north of England.

I’m doing 3 workshops at the No Limits conference this time.  I’m busy planning them this week!  (Only left it this late because the Puppet Festival was first – see below!).  But I am happy that I am doing one workshop about helping teens with disabilities grow and flourish in church as they develop into adults.  The second workshop will be showing people how to tell a sensory Bible story and it WILL be interactive!  Thirdly I will be looking at behaviour management in a children and young people’s group.  Some children with challenging behaviours have additional needs, some undiagnosed but I do have a few tips and approaches that just might help.  There are lots of other workshops too as well as the Key note speeches – so do take a look (and book).  Looking forward to seeing some of you there!

The European Puppet and Creative Arts Festival

This was run by One Way UK was last weekend and along with my daughter, we presented 4 workshops over the two days.  The first was simply an introduction to autism, with some tips about how to support children, families and adults with autism.

 

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The second was a practical session looking at different creative ways of communicating the Bible.  We split into two groups and used puppets and sensory stories to tell about Moses and the burning bush and about Jonah.

The third session was an introduction to Makaton and using signing to communicate faith words, in songs and in prayers and was enhanced by the arrival of a newly qualified Makaton tutor…thanks Linda so much for your help!!!

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Finally, I led a discussion session about how inclusive are our churches.  But this being a puppet festival, we used the puppets to show how diverse our congregations are and to act out different ways we exclude people.  It was lovely to finish this session with a prayer time – using our prayer tree and symbols to show how we try to include everyone in our group of adults with learning disabilities.

 

Thanks One Way Uk!  We appreciate the new puppet skills we also learned and I’m looking forward to seeing how we can develop some puppet activities in the Good News Group ministry.


Two things have made me want to write this post. First Nancy Gedge wrote about how discouraging it is to realise how little many teachers really know and understand about teaching children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. 

 My heart sank with hers. What is so obvious to me, and has been since my school days as a pupil volunteering at our nearby special school, is just not even considered by large groups of teachers or church congregations.  It’s why so many children are struggling in schools.  Teaching SEND children is given so little attention in teacher training that so many teachers are ill-equipped to support them in their classes.  It’s not that teachers don’t want to, but they need adequate training to do so.  Children and adults with disabilities are around 20% of our society.  Yes, many of those disabilties are hidden, not obvious, such as ASD or ADHD, or dyslexia or dyspraxia. And so many are not diagnosed and so teachers don’t know what their needs are and they are labelled as ‘naughty’ instead.   But we judge and we judge and we make people’s lives much much harder than the need to be because on top of dealing with a disability, they are having to fight for recognition, support and understanding. They are dealing with judgement and verbal or social abuse on a daily bases.  

I need to be fair. There are lots of issues in this world for which I am ignorant about.  I am learning every day and trying to put what I learn about people into practice. However, knowing what’s ‘their fault’ seems to be our national obsession.  Our media wants to guide our judgements, whether it’s on politicians or warring factions, or our judgements about people with disabilities.  Currently they are either ‘heros’ (paralympians etc) or scroungers (defrauding the welfare state). Grrrrrrrr, we cannot let those extremes guide our judgements.  Both those views make people with disabilities have to ‘prove’ their worth.  

We have to change our attitudes and recognise that children and adults with disabilities are people – with worth as they are, with feelings, with hopes and fears and searching for faith and meaning in this world alongside everyone else. 

Second, I read this from Huffington Post about other people being the biggest problem parents of children with additional needs face.   This is the truth reality I hear from most of the parents I work with and who are my friends.  Other people are so insensitive, so cruel at times just by the patronising things they say or the way they ‘tut’ (or suggest that all the child needs is a good hiding!). Being fearful of disability has no place in our society but it’s there. The adults with learning disabilities I know, face daily verbal abuse, just walking around our sleepy little town. Being called ‘idiot’ ‘mong’ or ‘retard’ isn’t unusual.  

So, as this blog is a message to churches (oh! I so hope someone is listening – like Nancy, it feels like an echo chamber sometimes)  PLEASE read this out to your congregations! Please recognise the judgements and abuse children, families and adults with disabilities face every day and work hard to first open your own eyes.  Learn about disability,  listen to people who can tell you what it’s really like.  Make people with disability feel welcome and respected in your church. DO something differently and don’t use ignorance as your excuse. Face the fears and prejudices we have and repent.  Start a new ministry that includes everyone and welcomes everyone.  Be challenged and stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.  Walk with those who face trouble, judgement, abuse and rejection every day. Fill your church with people of all abilities and let their faith and gifts be recognised and used in your ministries.  

To my friends who have children with disabilities, who face the judgements of others every day, and to my friends with disabilities who have known this since their own childhood. May you forgive us and may God give you a rightful place in his church family.  I love you lots. Xxxx 

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