Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

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I’m writing this from the Hand in Hand Conference in Eastbourne where I’ve come to deliver two sessions about making the Bible accessible for children with learning disabilties and autism in churches.

Someone asked the question, “Do we keep all the children together even if they don’t seem to be accessing what we are doing, or should we set up a special class?”  Someone else asked, “What do we do if a child needs a lower level of teaching and would access what they do in the younger class? Do we keep them with their peers or let them stay down?”

My initial response is to say that inclusion means having the same opportunities as everyone else.  It is better for social inclusion for a child with learning disabilities to be with their peers.  It is also good for the peers of the child with learning disabilties to learn how to build friendship and include those who may see and experience the world differently to them. Relationship is two-way. Relationship is sometimes not easy. Relationship may take some effort.  But relationships that are two-way, where both learn ways of building that friendship can be wonderful.  Children with learning disabilties and with autism need peers that can include them, and adults need to facilitate that.  Especially in the church.

However, sometimes the needs of the child are causing them to be overwhelmed and going into the group can just not be working.  It is them that sometimes taking them out of the group, working with them 1:1 or in a much smaller group can be helpful.  There should always be a plan of how to work towards getting that child back into the group.  Sometimes that means changing how the group is organised and what they do.  In the work I have done with autistic children in churches there are some simple things that have been really effective…

1.  Talk to the parents, ask them what their child likes and what works for them. Find out all the things the child likes.

2. An hours training about what autism/ learning disabilty is for adults involved.  (A similar session aimed at the children can be done as well)  Parents or the child’s teacher might do this for you.

3.  Simple visual structure so that they child knows what is happening and in what order. (A visual timetable)   Include some of their favourite activities and if you can find Bible related versions of these, great.  E.g. Bible jigsaws, the brick Bible Lego pictures.

4.  Look at simplified versions of the main teaching session. Think of one sentence you could focus on.  Use visual pictures to sequence a story.  Let them take home one sentence or Bible verse to focus on.

There are lots more things you can do.  I have put my Eastbourne slides and resource list on my website (www.reachoutasc.com) so do take a look under the “churches” tab.

The aim should be to establish what does work and them move it into the main group – and the peers of the child themselves should be involved in the inclusion.

I have pondered the same question with our adult group too.  Why have we set up a separate group in our church?  One of the reasons is that Sunday Church has been inaccessible for a lot of our group.  For many of the reasons I have discussed on this blog, there are language, sensory, physical and cognitive barriers in the main church service.

Our aim IS to have fully inclusive church, but just as there are midweek groups for ladies, men, the more mature, children’s groups and so on, the Good News Group is a focussed group where people with learning disabilties can come and meet other people like them, they can have teaching and nurturing that is built around their needs and where the pace and communication is tailored totally to being as accessible as it can be.  I can say that the Good News Group is fully church to me too. We work as a congregation, serving one another, finding our gifts and developing them and knowing one another so well that we carry each other’s burdens, pray and praise together.

We run our ‘service’ part of the evening like a regular church service.  We do this because ultimately we want to draw our members into the main church and allow them to feel familiar, comfortable and that they understand some of it.  Our church will need to play its part and be supportive and welcoming.  It is.  Our ministers preach with pictures to illustrate their sermons a lot of the time. This makes Sunday church more accessible for our members.  We have a long way to go but we are not saying “we can’t”.  We might say “We don’t know how?” but I think God can work with that.

The same is with your children with learning disabilties.  Work with them and their families to make them feel safe at church.  Then work to include them.  Then work to disciple them and show them that with God there are no limits. Remember all the other children need to be part of the inclusion process.

If you think you don’t know how, then that’s okay.  Just don’t say “we can’t”.

Remember what I said in my talk… “If children can’t learn the way we teach, then let us teach the way they learn.”

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