Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

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 

I was going to write a ranty post about the implications of genetic screening (and it may still work out that way) but in the middle of composing it in my head, I got a message from a friend who is isolated from her church, her family and community because she is a single mother with a severely autistic child. Many Christians would talk about the value of life and speak up against abortion, but then sit in churches that exclude these ‘valuable lives’ because they are so inflexible and inaccessible to them. Changing things for the few is met with horror at the mere thought. So families and adults with disabilities are left out, excluded, not welcome.

Watch Sally Phillips documentary “World Without Downs”

I wanted to join in the throng of ‘all life is sacred’ with the many that have responded to Sally Phillip’s BBC documentary that I watched last night. I believe that is so true. But I also remembered that some weeks ago, God prompted me to write about forgiveness for those who had terminated a pregnancy. Especially for disability reasons.

The thing is, bringing up a child with severe disabilities is frightening. Most of you reading this may have no idea. You may agree that you couldn’t do it. It’s why we must have compassion on those who have gone through a termination. We can’t imagine the emotional strain that has put on them and their family. We can’t imagine their hidden pain and guilt about whether they did the right thing. Or guilt that they did think it was the right thing but daren’t say. And it’s why parents of children are often called special, or angels, because the rest of us are thinking “there’s no way I could do that.” These are just normal parents though. They aren’t angels. They struggle and worry and hate their lives at times. They love their children and wouldn’t be without them. They want the best for their disabled child but are terrified of their future in a world that sees them as a burden. They have to fight for supportive education, for the right to be included in society and are so often brushed aside, insulted, patronised and rejected that they are broken and defensive.

But it’s also why we need to listen to the people who have Downs Syndrome. The people who grow up and who are treated as a burden on society.  The people who are ridiculed, bullied, excluded, treated as sub-human.  Parents are fighting to give them a chance in life. People who can articulate their stories are fighting to be heard.  Like Karen Gaffney with DS who gave a TED talk “All lives matter.”  It’s why we need to speak up and come alongside people with disabilties and seek to change our society.  We cannot let this continue and be complicit by our silence.  If we do, then in the not so distant future, ‘screening out’ all society’s undesirable and burdensome children will be normal and accepted.

I worked with children with severe autism and learning disabilities for 10 years. I’ve seen how hard it is for them to live in a world that tortures them with rejection, sensory overload, lack of services and support and even reacting in horror when they go out into the community.. I’ve seen families at their wits end. Not because they don’t love their child, but because no-one will help them.

Anyone who has ever said, or thought that they have no disabled people in their church is either not looking properly, or goes to a very poor church. There are adults with Aspergers sitting on their own at the back. There are the elderly with early signs of dementia, there are people with mental illness, silently crying out to God whilst they pretend everything is ‘fine’ on the outside. There are families where the parents take turns to come with their non-disabled children while the other parent stays at home with their child who might disrupt or can’t sit long enough in the Sunday service. (NB. You should know by now that excluding a disabled child or adult because they might “disrupt the service” is something I very annoyed about.) there are even more families and adults with disabilities who sit at home felling that church isn’t a place for them.

Our churches should be places where everyone is welcome, accepted and included. Our churches are full of messed up, opinionated, imperfect people. That’s me. That’s you. But Jesus gave us very clear guidance on how to love one another. Forgiving one another, sharing one another’s burdens, lifting one another up, putting others before ourselves, standing up for one another, weeping with one another, praying for one another.

My challenge to you this week is to watch Sally’s documentary and listen to the value she gives to her son Olly and other people with Down’s Syndrome. The listen to the scientists and the value they give to people with DS. Then get praying.

Secondly, the challenge is for you to go and live that out and go and get to know someone in your congregation, community or network that is disabled, or a parent of a disabled child. Listen to them. Learn about their lives. Don’t think you have to wade in and solve all their problems. Just build a friendship and whatever God wants you both to do, will come out of that.

My week is always improved by a visit to a café with a friend. This week it was S, who has Downs Syndrome. To go out as friends, to share each other’s lives (and cake), to know about each other’s family and what we’ve been up to that week, to laugh and cry together. That’s the kind relationship Jesus intended. Please, take up the challenge and make positive, equal relationships. Go on then….

And maybe it’s better I didn’t rant!

Stop trying to work it all out.

Stop trying to make it like something else.

Stop trying to make it perfect.

Stop trying to be God. 

Be still. 

And know that I AM God. 

When there’s so much pressure to ‘do’ 

So much pressure to bring in the harvest.

So much need

So many burdens you want to carry

So many people you ache for. 

Be still.

And know that I AM God. 

If you do things before I AM ready,  

You’ll only exhaust yourself. 

You want it done NOW

I have a plan that spreads over all eternity. 

I know your heart. 

Be still. 

And know my heart. 

This post is dedicated to the leaders and ministers who I know personally and that I don’t, who have burned out,  crashed and fallen under the burden of doing ‘God’s work’.  May he protect you from those who criticise and only want to make you feel guilty about coming back and those who are trying to make you do things like they were done before. 

May the Lord heal, protect you, strengthen you and make you new.  

Let his light shine through your brokenness,  His grace and mercy spill out of your broken heart.   The gospel will be shared even in this,  perhaps more than you ever experienced before.  


This is a guest blog from Elizabeth Mellor who runs an Additional Needs Ministry called “Take 5 take5& Chat”.  I thought it would be good for us to look at what kinds of Additional Needs Ministries were out there and give you some ideas about what you could do too. 

Whitley Bay is a small seaside town in the Far North East of England (FNEofE) and is famous for many reasons. We have St Mary’s Lighthouse, the Ice Rink – and the town has been used as the setting for many films and music videos. Whitley Bay is also the first town to run a Take 5 & chat Café Drop-in, supporting families who have children with additional needs.

It is a sad fact that many churches struggle to be a truly welcoming place for families who have children with additional needs. I know that there are many success stories but I have heard of so many families who take turns to attend church, look after their own children in church settings, or give up and do something more family friendly on Sundays instead.

So I wondered what the church could bring to the lives of families in our communities who face extra challenges? I wondered what ‘church’ could look like.

I thought about being the parent at the school gate whose child isn’t meeting the same targets as others. Perhaps their child isn’t invited to parties. Perhaps the teacher often has stuff to report at the end of each day. Perhaps their child is excluded by physical reasons from taking part in everything. When the other parents chat about the weekend, the holidays, the classroom, the reading scheme, this parent feels isolated and alone.

What about setting up something that meant these parents, from different schools in the area, could meet together, as if at the school gate? What might this look like?

It’s a while since my children were at school and my next step had to be to see if this was still needed. So on 9th March 2015, after much prayer and planning, I launched a Facebook Page as a ‘place to just be’ for those caring for children with additional needs. The intention was to reflect a face-to-face Café Drop-in on a Facebook Page. It hit the ground running and I saw quickly that the need was still there.

We opened as a friendly, accessible café at Whitley Bay Baptist Church in June 2015 and the Drop-in now opens every other Tuesday afternoon, all year round. The parents asked that we stay open through the school holidays as most activities close.

We have hot drinks and homemade cakes. We have activities and some toys – and a play leader in the holidays, but the children remain in the care of their parents. We are a friendly café, not a play scheme.

Neither are we here to directly promote our faith or attendance at our church on Sundays. We open for the parents to have a safe place to be, “an oasis”, as one parent said. God walks amongst us whether or not we recognise him.

Once relationships were established and everyone felt safe together, a number of the parents asked if we could offer any parenting courses, which we could, and did. (I am a trained Facilitator for Care for the Family’s Time out for Parents… but maybe that’s another blog post!)

So now there are over 30 families who ‘drop in’ to a room at the side of our church. They have found support and encouragement. They come with friends, they make new friends, they share the names of helpful teachers at local schools and tell each other where to go for further support and advice. They keep in touch via a closed Facebook Group. Whenever our team is a bit stretched, these parents eagerly step up to help set up, serve at the ‘counter’, clear up or talk to new parents. Because Take 5and chat Café Drop-in is their place and they belong.


Most of the parents have never been involved in any kind of church before.

Some ‘sign in’ on Facebook at the church.

Many now describe our church as their church.

On Tuesdays. With cake… and a train set.

 Our Founder & Coordinator, Beth, is available to talk with your team, or to your church/faith group, about setting up a Café Drop-in for those parenting children with additional needs. Sometimes having someone from outside explaining it can really help! (Fee is dependent on time and distance, and is to cover costs, please ask.)

If you would like to run a ‘Take 5 & chat’ Café Drop-in, using our name and logo, there is a one-off License fee allowing use of our name and logo to named individuals. We send you digital copies and a certificate. You can use this for your closed Facebook group, on mugs & aprons. (There is a good supplier!)

If you choose your own name, then please acknowledge us if you use any of our general wording or ideas. We can still help you get started!


Website (coming soon)


Are you a leader?  Do you ever have doubts? Do you dare admit you have deep questions for God?  Do you believe but find it difficult to see what God is doing in this world? 

Yesterday was my first day of not going to the Good News Group…but of course, the wonderful people there have been on my mind all summer and yesterday I found myself fretting all day. Not because they can’t all manage without me, but because I wouldn’t be there to talk and fellowship with them. 

The thing about taking a sabbatical is that you are supposed to take time to think, reflect and listen to God without the distractions of busyness.  And what you forget when you haven’t done this in a while, is that it’s quite an uncomfortable and dangerous thing to do.  

I like to go to a special place not far from where I live.  It’s a small country park nestled in the midst of the motorways and residential areas.  There’s a bench in a wooded part of it, that is raised up and makes you feel that you are sitting in the trees themselves (see picture above). They put out bird feeders and food for squirrels and I sit and just watch the nature around me, doing its thing.  It helps me calm my hyperactive mind. And it’s a lot easier to listen to the Lord in that place.  

However, I have felt the Lord uncovering some big holes in my faith that I had carefully covered over.  My faith in who Jesus is and what he has done for the world is secure.  I know he loves us and has saved me.  But I’ve been trying not to think about things that underneath my veneer of trusting him for everything – I have no real foundations.  “Everything?  You trust me in everything?”  says the Spirit to my soul.  

And then I started to ask some questions…”Yes, but…”  I want to know if I can trust him  for the salvation of friends and family who I’ve prayed for constantly since I first became a Christian 27 years ago and who seem so far from him right now.  I want to know why people are disabled and some get healed and some don’t.  I want to know what he’s doing in this messed up,  stupid world where leaders are more concerned with their own reputations than actually doing things to help their people.  Where religion is used for an excuse to kill and enslave people…including Christianity.  And while we are on that…why DO churches exclude people because they  have a disability, are different or because they don’t fit a certain stereotype?  Why are so many people sharing with me that churches were places of pain and rejection for them because they or their children have a disability?  

It feels like I’ve opened a Pandora’s box!  My carefully constructed lids have been blown away!  And I’ve only just started, just a few little sessions sat watching the birds and trees and the Holy Spirit smacks me with this lot! Woah! My instinct is to stop this right now and put those lids right back on!!! 

But…..what if God wants to answer those questions?  What if he wants to teach me and show me what he is doing and can do?  

I believe it is good to ask our Heavenly Father those big questions.  I believe he is just waiting for us to ask them so he can begin to teach us new and wonderful things.  It makes us so vulnerable before him to admit we haven’t a clue where to start or how to figure it out.   It make take a lifetime to just learn some basics,  and a lifetime of continually asking him for more understanding.  We really won’t be able to grasp the answers because God and this world is far beyond what we can understand.  I know  we can learn to trust him better and that he can give us the gift of faith to do so.  I believe he can use our faith to make a difference to people’s lives and bring his love into the dark places.  And if you are a leader, I believe your greatest strength will be found in opening up your vulnerability before God  and asking him to build your trust and faith in Him.   He is active in so many ways we often can’t see,  but already I am being drawn to stories and testimonies where God is at work in this world, mostly in individual lives, transforming them into lives of faith.  

Leaders can think they have to have all the answers when really our job is to lead people to Jesus.  We shouldn’t be afraid of uncomfortable questions and times of desert or valley experiences.  I was thinking about Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones and Moses or Elijah in the wilderness and how much God taught them there.  They were places of meeting with God and places of miracles.  I’ve learned not to panic or try to avoid the difficult things through those stories. 

Leaders, take off those lids and expect God to teach you new things.  But be open to being surprised, challenged and even disciplined for the wrong assumptions you might have about things.  Its going to be worth it.  He has promised.  And those you lead will certainly benefit. 

And please remind me of my own advice when things get a bit challenging for me! 

A few years ago I went to speak about our Good News Group at a retreat for pastoral workers.  These people gave up their time to visit people in their homes who couldn’t get to church. Many were retired clergy and gave communion and company to the elderly and disabled.  One of the group said to me at the beginning…”Why do you bother teaching the Bible to people who have the minds of a 3 year old?”

Now, after choking on my tea, I introduced him to my friend S, who has Down’s Syndrome and who was there to deliver the talk with me.  I didn’t answer his question there and then but as we gave our presentation, it was clear that teaching the Bible to people with learning disabilities was very much worth it.  And in the end, his mind was changed.

But it’s that attitude…’the mind of a 3 year old’ that I come across in other people too.  (Firstly I think, how many 3 year olds do you know? They are lively,  curious, active, always learning) but it is wrong to give a mental age of a child to an adult. Really wrong. 

Yesterday I was at the funeral of one of our GNG members. It was so positive and full of hope because we all remembered his life and his faith.  But what struck me was that he was sent to a special school (which did him a lot of good) but nowadays he’d have coped well in a mainstream school.  He was intelligent, had brilliant knowledge about his favourite football teams and musicians, he wrote songs and knew so much about the Bible.  Despite his physical degenerative condition, he never complained, always made his carers laugh and loved his wife of almost 30 years openly and affectionately.  Yet, I just know there are people whose response to a death of someone with disabilties, who needed constant care (and the funding for that care) is to say it was a blessing, that he isn’t suffering anymore.

We devalue people with learning disabilities ALL the time. From my work in schools where the ‘special needs kids’ are seen as a problem to be solved, to our society that sees adults with learning and physical disabilties as a burden on the state.  

But there are different ways of being intelligent than passing GCSEs, there are different ways of contributing to this world than being economically independent.  The people with learning disabilties and with autism that I know enrich my life beyond measure. They are funny, intelligent, able,  have ideas and imagination.  Those who cannot speak can have a lot to say if you take the time to listen.  I could tell you every child, every adult I know who has a label of learning disability, Down’s Syndrome, Autism, Aspergers, Cerebral Palsy and anything else, and tell you about their personality, what they are good at and why they are great to know. In the GNG we have made getting to know and spend time with our members the priority. This has enabled us to see ABILITY not disability.  We have tried to enable each person to serve using their gifts.  S gives out the badges and taught herself to read everyone’s names.  J runs the computer desk,  and E gives out the instruments every week.  G is so observant she notices everything, she also does puppets for which she is learning all the puppet tricks we can teach her.  J, who doesn’t speak, sits humming and twiddling, has a way of looking at you out of the side of his eyes. He brings a gift of seeing the world through the sensory, as we share those experiences with him. 

None of these people function as a 3 year old.  None of these have stopped growing and learning.  All of them have personalities and gifts that are different.  They are adult people who should be respected as such. In church, especially.  We do the body of Christ a great disservice when we infantilise adults with disabilties. We should not patronise then, assume they cannot do things, speak about them over their heads, consider them a burden on their families, think it is a blessing if they die sooner.  This stuff happens. It is wrong.

Of course then there are changes we need to make.  From finding ways of including children in our Sunday Schools and Yourh work (not just by putting them in with the younger children) to finding them their rightful place in our adult churches. We may need to think hard and have a plan. We may need to do things completely differently. We should get some training and support. We should being seeing people with learning disabilties as having infinite potential…they’re not all going to be Paralympians (but do enjoy those games as they are brilliant!) but because I believe that’s how Jesus sees them.  And would you argue with him? 

Here’s a couple of training opportunities coming up soon…. Hope to meet you there! 

A picture of a nice wildflower spot in our garden. 

When deep inside your heart is raw, or broken, or full of fear or doubt….then the usual thing we do is get busy.  If we are busy we can pretend not to hear God’s voice.  We can tell ourselves, I’ll sit down in a while, then I can listen properly…but we never do. 

It’s easier to tackle the dirtiest oven,  or get swallowed up in running the kids here, there and everywhere.  And there’s that thing that needs fixing,  and I really need to do some exercise.  Oh and look how many emails, FB messages and Twitter notifications there are to answer.  We work full time and after all the other stuff, and don’t have time for anything else…or so we tell ourselves.  

Well, I do anyway.  And when I do sit down it’s to make myself a list of all the things I haven’t done and write out some plans to solve the problems I have,  or others around me have…because I like solving people’s problems, I do.  

I love Jesus. He saved me. He showed me the way I could be friends with God. All I had to do was believe in him and realise what he had done on the cross.  I rejoice that he is alive, interceding for me in heaven.  I know the Holy Spirit and have experienced his gentle, quiet voice and awesome power.  God loves me.  I am his child. 

Those  wild flowers in our garden are there for our sensory pleasure and for the bees.  They just get on with doing their thing, all lifting up to the light.  I like the fact that they are a bit untidy and a bit wild.  They don’t fit in with the rest of the carefully tended garden. I would like to be a bit like that…just concentrating on my God given purpose. 

But busyness tries to steal all that away from me.  Instead of remembering that God is kind, gentle, healing and life giving… I think if I sit down with God, he’s just going to give me another list of things I need to sort out.  And that makes me full of fear.  You see, there’s so many problems in my head, things I want to see get better – from within my own family to the plight of those caught up in war, slavery and the evil of this world,  that I would need to spend 10hours a day in prayer just to get through the all of it. I want to pray, I love prayer,  but there’s so much to pray for right now.  Don’t tell me to make lists and go through them systematically.  I’ve tried that.  I journal, I use the prayer mate app, and pray throughout my day.  If someone asks me to pray for them, I do it there and then. Because I care and want to help. 
Obviously I’m missing something.  I need to get rid of my fear of what my Heavenly Father wants to say to me.  How can I insult him to think he will add to my burdens?   And then this came.  In a rare moment I was listening to a Bible podcast the speaker read the Message version of a familiar passage….

““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 ‭MSG‬ 

For the real beginning of my sabbatical I wanted to do something grand and book an away day at a Chrisitan retreat centre, spend the day with someone who would pray things through with me and have a grand time just with me and my God.  But busyness came and took my time and opportunity away.  Work commitments are looming. 

But I’m clawing a little back.  Understanding that I don’t need to make excuses, that my Father, my Jesus and the Holy Spirit want to meet with me, strengthen and heal me and give me a lighter burden…has made me want to spend that time with him.

I can’t claw back a day…but I have arranged an afternoon walk just to a local park, with a friend who loves me and will pray with me, and together we will listen to our Lord.  I’m still scared of stopping,  everything might fall apart without me doing it….right?! (Not!) And maybe there are some deep things I need him to tell me, some healing to be be received and some changes I need to make.  We shall see.  

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