Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

 

Here’s a tough subject.  It’s one that people don’t like talking about in church.  And yet it’s one that all the rest of society is talking about non-stop.

Sex is big business.  Sex is used to sell, to control, to exploit and to harm.  Sex in this society is used as a weapon to destroy lives.  And it’s happening on the internet.  Children, young people and adults are not safe from porn, abuse, manipulation, exploitation – anywhere.  If they are on the internet, they are vulnerable. If you doubt me – read this – please.  And if you don’t doubt it – read it too.  https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/until-you-see-someone-go-through-you-cant-connect-it

And if a child, young person or adult has learning disabilities, physical disabilities, autism or other condition – it is all too easy to think that they are naive and that their naivety will protect them. Of course it won’t, they are more vulnerable to being exploited or abused than most.  And more likely NOT to receive any teaching, support or help to understand what the dangers are.

Who in church can help?

Children’s workers, Youth Workers, groups like the Good News Group and those who preach – all have a platform to help and support families and people with disabilities in this area.  Parents may be so busy doing the day to day caring that they haven’t the time or energy to face this subject as well.  Their fears will be there, however.  I’ve spoken to many parents who fear sexual abuse towards their children and adults with disabilities.

Our fears also come with the fear of not knowing what to say.  Or where to even begin.  So here are my practical tips to get you started.  So first, pray….then…

  1. Don’t put it off. Don’t think someone else will do it or the person isn’t ready for this.  Urgency is key.  But take time to plan what you are going to do and don’t think a one off session will do the job.  Little and often for a long time – that’s the best way to get the messages across and build up knowledge and trust.  Work together with one or more in a team so you are not shouldering the burden of this yourself.  Of course – make sure all your team have done the relevant Safeguarding training and ask your Safeguarding officer for help with this too.

Pray.

  1. Read and be informed. Maybe you have come across porn or been approached for sexualised photos online.  Maybe you feel embarrassed to admit it.  However, if you realise almost EVERYONE has had this experience and that the internet is pushing these images, that people who want to abuse have little or no monitoring online, then honesty will lead you to wake up to the truth of what is happening.  Read reports like the TES one I’ve linked to above and other reports from Children’s charities such as the report https://www.barnardos.org.uk/news/media_centre/Children-with-learning-disabilities-at-risk-of-sexual-exploitation/press_releases.htm?ref=108399 

Pray about what you have learned and ask the Lord for wisdom about what you can do.

  1. Talk to parents, families and people with disabilities to ask about their experiences. Make sure you provide an open and supportive forum for people to share and assure them that together. Help families talk to their children about this.

Pray about this too.

  1. Read the Bible and books that show God’s positive gift of sex. Know what sex was planned to be.  It will be important that CYP and adults know that sex is a gift from God.  Be careful of putting strict rules around it – but instead talk about permanent, safe relationships, marriage and commitment, babies and mutual pleasure.   This is something to do with your church leaders and put together a simple picture of what sex is.

Pray for wisdom, grace and understanding.

  1. We cannot ignore that some people are LGBT and people with autism, learning disabilities and other disabilities can have the same feelings. (In fact, some suggest that 30% of autistic people are LBGT).  (This is an area I am researching and do not feel qualified to give advice right now – however, Jesus is the same for everyone – do not let that be changed).

Pray about this too.  If you feel underqualified to support someone who is LGBT, then ask God to give you wisdom, grace and understanding.  Find a Christian who is also LGBT and ask them for help and advice.

  1. Remember you will never feel ready to tackle this issue. But if you have done some research and lots of praying and asked others to join you in the prayer and planning, then you just have to get on with it.  Children are growing up fast.  The internet is developing faster than anyone can keep up with.  You may start with what is good about sex and then discuss why we put boundaries around that.  It’s about good relationships, respect and safety.  To help you please read this article I wrote about teaching puberty, sex and relationships to autistic children.  http://www.reachoutasc.com/attachments/article/46/17-21_Autism%20sex.pdf

Pray.

  1. Then we must talk about what happens on the internet and why that is unsafe, abusive and dangerous. Use real stories and be prepared for children to be frightened.  It IS frightening and not talking about it will make it even more so if they think that they are not allowed to talk about it.  If the CYP or adult has learning disabilities be careful about how you communicate.  Be factual and reassuring. Use visuals and map things out on large pieces of paper.   Use colour coding to decide what is safe and what might not be.  And make sure they know who they can tell if they see something that might be harmful.

Pray.

  1. Talk about people and what makes someone trustworthy. This is hard because most abuse is done by grooming.  When people build a ‘trusting’ relationship with someone to get them ready for abuse.  Being open, talking about relationships and giving examples can help.  Tell them anyone asking for private pictures should not be given them.
  2. Pray with them about relationships that the CYP or adult will have. They may need to have carers looking after them all their lives.  How can they be safe?  Knowing that there is a regular, open conversation is one of the things that can help.

And pray, and keep talking….and pray some more.

  1. Remember we have a God who is powerful, almighty and who answers our prayers. As Christians we can easily forget that he has conquered evil and death.  Jesus is the saviour of the world.  The best defence against evil is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and to ask HIM to protect you and keep you safe.  Children, young people and adults need to know Jesus is their saviour too.  That their relationship with Jesus is the one thing that they can trust and rely on.  If we teach the gospel, build their faith and prayer life and pray with them, we can do so much to protect them, and ourselves. There may be some who cannot communicate or access the information we’d like them to know.  We might think they are innocent and we don’t want to destroy that.  But vulnerability is vulnerability.  We can communicate somethings to help them be safe.  For example, learning about privacy and consent.

This is difficult to write about and difficult to cover all that needs to be said.  I am only scratching the surface here and would be happy for people to share their wisdom in the comments.  The message has to be – open your eyes to the dangers, pray and educate our CYP and adults with disabilities so they have a voice, can say no or speak to someone when they are scared by anything that happens to them.  The worse thing to do is to think that they don’t need this, and do nothing.

God Bless and be with you. Amen. 

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