Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

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I sometimes wonder who is more rigid…the child with autism that I am supporting, or the school system (and people in that system) that I am trying to support them in?

In my work with autistic children in mainstream schools, I have found that those staff and schools who are most flexible, are better and more successful for those who have autism.

For  example, writing… Our whole education system is based on children being able and willing to write.  One aspect of autism is the need to see the point in what they are doing.  (A logical strength) However, the amount of writing demanded in every subject is enormous, and only increases with each school year as the demands of the curriculum get harder.  This is all well and good but what if writing and composing what you want to say is really hard?  What if you have trouble organising your thoughts and imagining what something might be like? What if you don’t understand the point of copying something out of a book, or writing things in whole sentences instead of giving the actual answer?

I have had some success with persuading teachers to be more flexible and allow pupils with ASC to write about things that are interesting and relevant to them.  Along with being allowed to type rather than hand write, for some.  Often this provides the motivation and relevance to write that the child needs and they usually develop more confidence, skills and academic progress.  To be honest, teachers are often relieved that I have given them permission to be more flexible and thrilled when it starts to engage the child in writing.  I once had a child writing about BeastQuest for the whole of year 5. By the end of the year he had progressed two levels and was more willing to have a go at other forms of writing. From writing almost nothing, by the end of the year he was writing full BeastQuest stories that he sent to the publishers!

I get cross that our education system has so stifled teachers creativity and flexibility that I have to give them permission, written out in a way that justifies what we are doing, just to allow a child to work within their interests for a while! Teachers feel under pressure to be seen to be doing the right thing, can be criticised for being creative while at the same time criticised for not being! It is the sad truth of our education and inspection system.

 However much I could go on about this (and it is based on experience not just opinion!) it is to churches I want to apply it. 

The Gymnast/Yoga: Back Arch/The Wheel/Chakrasana

Why do you do what you do? Is it because you’ve always done it that way? Will someone criticise you if you be a bit flexible or change things?

When including people with autism or any kind of disability we need to stretch ourselves and really think about being flexible.  I’m not criticising any one church but just drawing together my understanding of the experiences that people with disabilities have had in churches.  As with schools, the most successful are those who look at their members and adapt to their needs.  We don’t need to change the gospel message or the Bible to do this, but the way we communicate, illustrate and welcome people into God’s family can be very flexible.

It is quite realistic to suggest that there might be people who are on the autistic spectrum in your church. Many of them could be undiagnosed adults. There will be people who have hearing difficulties, sight or mobility problems. People who are dyslexic, colour blind or have mental illness.  All of these could impact on the way they access the rituals and teaching in your church. I’m not just talking about a ‘traditional’ church either.  I visited a lively church recently that insisted everyone stood up, danced and waved their arms about. The noise from the band was VERY loud and they played background music over EVERYTHING. Even the sermon.  I was completely overloaded, but many others were having a great time. Conversely, a quiet, traditional service can be really hard to follow with the antique language and unspoken ‘rules’ of when to sit, stand, kneel, respond.

So how do we be flexible in our churches?  One thing I love is that there are many different styles to choose from in most towns and cities.  In rural areas there may only be one small church for miles.  So for a person with additional needs, or a family with children with additional needs, it can take them some time and stress finding one that is suitable and comfortable for them. I know many who have given up after visiting one or two churches where they did not feel welcome.  The place and people expected them to fit in with their rituals and systems. They were rigid.  The families and individuals with additional needs were expected to be the flexible ones.

But the emphasis should be on us, in our churches, being flexible enough to change things.  Take communion for example. Do we have to go up to the front? Even taking it to someone in a wheelchair makes them different.  What if we took it to everyone where they are sat, so the wheelchair user feels part of it too?

We are challenged by this ourselves, in the Good News Group.  Our members needs are varied and wide and making them part of the church is something we work on together.  We are open to challenge and to change in our practices and we grow together in faith and as a church family as a result.  The only thing we don’t change is the Gospel Message and the Bible.  We have a routine, which is important, but even that is flexible too.

I hope schools and churches will be more flexible.  Don’t hold on to things “just because”.  Question and challenge yourself…WHY do we do this, in that way? Could it be more inclusive, and more meaningful?

I sincerely hope this helps you think about this.  Please do comment and tell me your experiences.  It’s an ongoing issues that we all are continually challenged by.  In schools, churches and society.

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds.”  Hebrews 10:23-24

And don’t forget to follow my new Facebook page, with lots of great autism and related articles  Reachout ASC – autism Support

And my website which is REALLY filling up with great stuff  www.reachoutasc.com  – like and share as much as you like!

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