Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

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


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

 “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


Comments on: "Teenagers with Additonal Needs in the Church – Needs and Opportunities." (4)

  1. Great talk and thanks for these notes. I will share them on my blog


  2. Comprehensive and informative, Lynn, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. An interesting and detailed post. Certainly a lot of the organisations offering support and assistance for autistic people (I am branch secretary of NAS West Norfolk, and autistic) only offer that support up to age 16 – and people do not stop being autistic and/or needing support just because they reach a certain age. PS I have tweeted a link to my followers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment Thomas. It worries me and a lot of parents and teachers about that black hole after the age of 16 or 18 when support has to transfer to adult services. Some areas are better than others but we must keep trying to make it better. Well done for the work you do too, I know the NAS branches are a great lifeline for many families.

      Liked by 1 person

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