Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

Like most people I used to think there were just 5 senses but we now know there are at least 8 main sensory systems that allow our brains to take in information from the world around us and process what is going on, where we are, whether we are safe and how we might respond to that sensory information.    After this introduction, I am going to explore a different sense in each post and I have been particularly inspired by Dr Naomi Grahams book, “Love surpassing knowledge”.

Love Surpassing Knowledge

I highly recommend it.   She writes what I would have loved to, so in these posts I am going to mention what she says and add my own research, ideas and insights too.

Overview of the 8 key sensory systems.

  1. The Visual system – the eyes and the sights we see.  This is also the pictures created in our minds from our visual memory or imagination.
  2. The Hearing system – the ears and the sounds we hear.  This also connects to the vibrations that are detected through other sensory organs like the skin, muscles and bones.  A bit like when you block your ears and you can hear the blood pumping through your veins.
  3. The Olfactory system – this is our sense of smell but the channels from our noses are also connected to the back of the throat and our taste sensory system.
  4. The Taste system – the mouth, tongue and sense of smell are all connected to help us decide if a food or object is safe to eat.  Young children also use this sense to explore objects as the lips and tongue are extremely sensitive and can tell the brain a lot of information about the thing they are touching.
  5. The Touch system – not just our hands but our whole skin is an organ sensitive to touch.  Also our mouth and throat are touch sensitive on the inside (as we feel the texture of food as we swallow it, for example)
  6. The Vestibular system – thesis our sense of balance, in our inner ear.  Giving us a sense of movement, security between us and the ground and helping us know about speed, direction and how high or deep we might be.
  7. The Proprioceptive system – our central nervous system is connected to every bone joint and muscle to give our brains information as to where our body is in space.
  8. The Interoception system  – our central nervous system connected to our internal organs and systems.  This sense doesn’t just tell us when we are hungry or need the toilet, but is the major factor in connecting us with our emotions.  For example, you know you seem nervous because you have noticed that your tummy or your heart seems to be fluttering.

8 senses

You created the deepest parts of my being.
    You put me together inside my mother’s body.
How you made me is amazing and wonderful.
    I praise you for that.
What you have done is wonderful.
    I know that very well.
None of my bones was hidden from you
    when you made me inside my mother’s body.
    That place was as dark as the deepest parts of the earth.
When you were putting me together there,
your eyes saw my body even before it was formed.    Psalm 139: 13-16 NIrV 

We often read this passage and I don’t think that any of us really understand how complex and awesome a human body is.  Just reflecting on the complexity and wonder of those sensory systems is mind-blowing!  The senses enable us to experience life and creation in all its glory.  Even if one of those senses do not receive messages too well,  there are so many other ways the body can experience the wonder and majesty of what God has created for us.   Those senses keep us safe, it’s how we know to keep away from busy roads and hot fires.  The brain can work in an instant to pull us away from a fast moving car or sudden loud noise.  We often don’t have to think about our reactions, we just do.  Of course, the senses can sometimes need support. Sometimes brains may have difficulty managing all the sensations.  But for this post let us just consider the awesomeness of this body that God has designed for us.  Not only is it perfectly suited to help us interpret the world around us, it enables to experience wonder, joy and love.  Not just the basics…but so much extra that we didn’t need to survive…but as a gift to enable us to have the fullness of a relationship with God.

The Bible also tells us that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.  That we are to look after it but even more amazing – that the Holy Spirit will live in us.  That’s tricky if you can’t see him or wonder how someone else can live inside you!  But I’ve often thought about how I know the Holy Spirit is with me – and the thoughts and experiences that show this is true come through my senses.  I ‘feel’ his presence through an emotion or a picture he gives me in my mind.  Sometimes its an interpretation of a sensory experience he helps me with – ever had that sense that you need to go and phone someone in need…right now?  Some people talk about a ‘fragrance’ that is of God, or a touch, a sound or a voice.  I have heard God’s audible voice before.  Once I was in a terrible situation and his voice came to reassure me it would be okay.

When we rely on Bible teaching and discipleship based on words and discussion, we miss out on our sensory experiences.  Naomi Graham’s book gives lots of examples when God spoke to Biblical people through the different senses, or used their sensory systems to teach them something.  We are all sensory beings.  And when we read we are made in the image of God – it is logical to assume that God is a sensory being first.

And we are made to share sensory experiences, as a community.  We worship, pray and experience community together.  We touch, hug, sing, experience silence and engage in relationship and learning together…if we care to…if we take the time to create space and experiences to be able to do so.   We use touch to show we care and to be intimate.  We use shared meals to bond and spend time together. We make music and clap together.  We move together, standing up, sharing the peace, dancing, praying.  So many different sensory experiences are enriched when they are shared experiences.

When we do church with people who do not have good spoken language or who cannot read, or have a physical or sensory disability we can do so much more together by connecting with God through our different senses.  I was talking to a deaf person a while ago who hears God’s voice very clearly.  We needn’t put restrictions on people’s sensory experiences.  God is the author and creator of our bodies.  He knit them together in all their sensory wonderfulness.   It is a way to connect with people on a different level, through different experiences and in doing so, connect us to God through shared experiences.

I’m thinking – how awesome is that?!

Slide 5

Next…let’s look deeper at the Visual Sense…


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