Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

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I am writing a post about including autistic adults in church but had to put it aside as I prepare for a talk I am doing with one of our Good News Group members next Saturday. We have been invited to do a workshop on supporting families with children with additional needs at our Diocese annual Children’s Work conference.

One of the things I wanted to do was tell the stories of families experiences and their advice to churches. I asked the good folk of the Additional Needs Alliance what advice they would give. I thought there would be wildly differing advice considering how different each child and family is.  However, there are some clear and key themes coming through as you can see below.  In thanks to their contributions, I have copied each quote here (anonymised).

The themes are

  1. Welcome – be welcoming, make the whole family feel welcome and ask them how you can make church a positive experience for all of them.
  2. Be aware of the struggles they have outside of church (usually trying to navigate the education system, many professionals involved with the child as well as daily life).
  3. Be kind.  Show your kindness in small and genuine ways.
  4. Love them, accept them and give each family member some one to connect to. That includes mums, dads and siblings.
  5. Enabling is better than ‘caring’.

Here are the quotes…

Try to understand the problems and don’t minimise the challenges faced by the family. Ask “ what can I do to help” ( if they are genuinely offering to support)

“…if they are genuinely offering to support ”  This is a crucial distinction because general offers of help in the “let us know if there’s anything we can do to help” line are often so empty and pointless. There’s nothing you can do with them.

Accept the child as they are. Children with additional needs often have lives filled with professionals all trying to change them and you may be one of the few people they meet who aren’t doing this. (This was one of the great things about the opportunity group we went to.)

For the children’s worker to ask regularly how they can pray for the family and to talk about God and his involvement in their lives, particularly the child’s – there are SO many professionals involved in these lives but most are secular. And don’t let the family miss more than one week before some kind of contact is made to show support and care.

We have recently joined a church who have got it soooo right.  Our children’s worker has offered to come and play so that my boys can get to know her. She has offered to make a quiet space for my diagnosed autie. She communicates clearly. She allows him to communicate through his dragon. She gives him the space to be quirky and find his place in his way.  My boys are loving the kids work and we even got a craft home last week! She also comes and finds me after the service and let’s me know how he got on which I love because neither of them process quickly enough to communicate what they did or if they found anything difficult.  What I love most is that my children aren’t viewed as problems or difficulties. They are valued exactly as they are and welcomed to be the people God created them to be.

Another hint, when they ask ‘how are you?’ don’t take fine for an answer because let’s face it, we are rarely actually fine. Did deeper, ask how the child has slept, have we managed to anything for ourselves this week etc.

While we are desperate for our children to be seen and loved, we also desperately need someone to truly see us. We have to be OK for everyone else. We have to have the answers for the medical people, the educators etc. We really want someone to see our pain and not call us superheros but bring us a cuppa and a hug.

Tell me the good things my child did during the session and see their strengths as well as the challenges. As me what works for my child, one approach does not work for all. I love the kids church my son goes to. They do the above. They are flexible for him but also when there can have been a week of what can feel like negative feedback of what has gone on at school to be tole my son’s strengths feels wonderful and lifts my spirits.

Ask me what my child needs and listen to my answer. Get to know her as a person. I loved when she had 1:1 support in Sunday school, the approach changed massively when they changed the role title from “1:1 support” to “carers” she didn’t need a carer, she needed support to engage with the activities. The title was symptomatic of the emerging problem for her.  We’ve changed churches and I’m involved in coordinating the kids work in the new one.

Just as a lot of folks have mentioned its the ‘ask’ – Just because you’ve experienced a child with condition X or Y before don’t assume that it affects this child/family the same, read about it. (most parents wont mind if you said ‘I’ve read that P and Q can be a challenge is that right for your child or is there a different challenge i need to be aware of?”. THe other is be honest – be honest if you don’t know, be honest if you aren’t sure if the group can support the child, be honest if you need help, be honest when you don’t understand and dont make promises you cant keep – we can only help you help our child if we know where we all stand.

Get to know the child and the family well enough to be able to babysit or take the child for a few hours’ respite in school holidays (especially if there are siblings). Occasionally drop round with a pie or casserole, and leave with the family’s laundry pile. Bring it back washed and ironed when you come back for your casserole dish!

Don’t tell me during a really quiet part of worship that it’s ok my child is being noisy. It just makes everyone turn round and notice the noise my child is making. I would hope this is isolated but I was once asked to keep my child in his wheelchair for a service as his behaviour was too challenging out of it.

Even my current church who are generally amazing didn’t listen the first week we were there. When I say he can’t go in his age appropriate group it’s not because I’m being difficult, ask me questions don’t just attempt it and see what happens because that’s when someone gets hurt.

Don’t quote Bible verses in a trite way. My daughter is now 35 and from this vantage-point I can affirm that God’s grace has always been sufficient. But when she was little, I did reach the point where the next person who quoted “His grace is sufficient for you” was going to get bashed round the ear with my Bible! However, the ones who demonstrated His grace in practical ways were very welcome.

…and “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” which isn’t even a Bible quote anyway!

Yeees! People only ever say that to me once 😂🙈awful, awful saying.

God doesn’t give us more than HE can handle!

Yes, as I understand the Gospel He gives everyone more than they can handle so they learn to rely on His strength!

Listen to parents. Particularly when child is little and parents haven’t got diagnosis. Lots of parents in this situation feel low and like this is their fault in some way. They don’t need someone telling them that. Make adjustments for child in children’s groups. Do not say “you ought to give her a good slap and then she’d behave herself” (Yes this was actually said to me by a member of the church when my daughter was being loud in church). Have someone in the church who can advise on additional needs – often someone with knowledge can suggest simple things to children’s church leaders which make all the difference and allow inclusion. Train your children’s church leaders in inclusion and types of additional needs. We had a new family come to church and I happened to be leading the children’s group that week. Mum very anxious and said child had selective mutism / social communication issues. As I knew about these, I was able to put her at ease that he would be included, I would give him quiet space if he needed etc. After the service, I went up to her and told her that we had been fine. When you are new to a setting, someone accepting and saying it is not a problem puts parents at ease.

Just care. Come alongside, communicate, ask questions, but let the parents know you want to help. Don’t leave them isolated and feeling alone, and as if they will never be able to truly belong to a church. It’s a painful place to be.

  1. Listen…
  2. …before even thinking of offering solutions or answers.    I could go on but you did say two pieces of advice 😉

Come and bring me a cup of tea when I am standing far away with my son in a quiet place – I will be feeling isolated when everyone is chatting happily after the service (about the sermon I’ve just missed…)

  1. Don’t separate them with a box of cars/crayons in the corner.
  2. Remember that outside appearances very rarely show the truth of the matter – ‘reaching out’, pah! Make friends.

Welcome the family as you would any other family. Come along side them and walk their journey with them. Whatever that may look like for the individual family. Don’t be afraid, we don’t have 2 heads or need anything too scary all we need is love and acceptance. Oh and don’t see us as a project.

Oh sorry one more don’t pray for healing that’s actually really insulting, God made my son this way, it wasn’t an accident we need to ask him to fix.xx

The most loved I ever felt was when a member of the congregation approached me mid melt down. She kept her distance but just asked whether there was anything she could do and whether I’d like tea or coffee. She knew there was nothing she could do but I was desperate to be loved in that moment when it was obvious that we were disrupting everything. That tea was the best I’ve ever had,  because it was made with so much love.

The first thing I’d say is remember that the happy smiley family that have just walked in have probably been through at least 1 melt down/sit in that morning

Secondly make everything BIG everyone prefers things larger but for a person who is sight impaired or severely sight impaired it might be the difference between them and their family feeling welcome and cared about.

I could write so much more as two of mine have really particular needs and so I have lots of thoughts but there’s lots here already!

Offer to babysit.

Don’t always assume that my child needs something special or separate – I want church to change to include him also sometimes parent can come across as angry – I have found myself to be a critique of the services supposed to be there to support us – often church people find this tricky.

I have not attended church only on a few occasions over about 5 years…when I stopped it was because I was drained and couldn’t cope with the amount of people there wanting to talk to me…I was grieving…the system I was trying to navigate was a bit abusive in nature… it has taken me 5 years to start to feel better.  When I do bump into church people they are always lovely and happy to see me but the last 5 years has been a very lonely time. The experience has made me think.  I am sad that although I went for years to a church, when the going got tough I didn’t have a Christian friend to help me through the difficult patch.  It’s as if there wasn’t anyone that I was really close enough to.

And my final words… Pray for your church to be the best it could possibly be. As I say so often….just start somewhere and keep listening and learning.  God will be with you and can enable all to be fully part of his church. 

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