Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

The Story of Aslan

A little different post before we get going on more sensory posts.  I have loved following people who are engaged in accessible church ministries and like the Good News Group, making church work for children and adults with different needs.  Aslan is a church group for young people at Tonbridge Baptist Church and here is their story…

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‘I’ll help with the music, but I won’t have time to lead it’ –my initial reaction in 2013 when a few people in my church were wanting to set up a group to support an autistic boy of 14 who had been through Sunday School with a 1:1 helper, but now found it very difficult to join in with what was on offer for his age group.

I was enjoying being part of the music ministry and helping with Alpha courses.  I felt I had enough to do, having also recently been appointed an Elder.  In addition to those things I was the music teacher in a school for children with physical disabilities and complex medical needs. My life was full!

However, God had other ideas and as I started to get involved it was clear to me that He was putting all sorts of thoughts into my mind. For the first few weeks, it was fairly unstructured. James played with his vast collection of animals and we enjoyed seeing him make up stories about them. I played a few children’s worship songs that he seemed to engage with, but it didn’t seem enough. I knew, from my years of teaching in special education, that there was an expectation for any child of any ability to be able to learn. We had to do our best to find creative ways to tap into their potential.

With this in mind, I started to imagine how this ministry could develop. We could have focused, constructive sessions. Children with special needs could learn about God’s love and the Bible in a safe space, with dedicated people to help them.

As the ideas began to flow, I recognised God’s hand in gently guiding me to a place where I wanted to take a lead and develop this group. We still only had James, but it wasn’t long before others showed interest.

Two months later we heard about Joshua. He was 10 and the oldest of four boys. His parents wanted to attend church but one of them always had to stay behind as Josh was reluctant to come. He didn’t engage with church services and didn’t want to go into Sunday School. He came to our group and decided this was okay! Within a few months we had another two boys, bringing the number to four.

STRUCTURE

We then decided to settle on a routine for the morning. We started with free time – the boys could bring something that would interest them and for 10 minutes they could play on that activity. Then we came together for a prayer, Bible story and song. This was followed by a snack time – biscuit and drink, and then an activity linked to the Bible story. We finished the morning by allowing the boys free time until their parents came for them. This routine worked well and has continued to be the framework of the morning, as we found the predictability of the structure was very helpful. In addition to the structure of the session we wanted to underpin it all with prayer, so we made it a priority to gather to pray for 10 minutes before the start. It remains such a good way to focus on the reason for being there, to pray for every aspect of the morning, to pray for the families and to pray for each other.

NAME

As we became more established, we started to think of a name for the group. This was quite challenging and various suggestions were made but nothing seemed quite right! One day I sat down with a piece of paper and jotted down some of the words about us… special, loving, nurturing. I played around with the letters and soon had organised them into ‘Aslan’: All Special needs children LovedAnd Nurtured. I liked the idea of the individual letters meaning something but also loved the idea of using Aslan, the representation of Jesus from the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ as our symbol. We asked James, who inspired the vision, to draw a picture of a lion head which we still use in our logo.

LEADERS

We meet 3 times a month and have a rota of 3 teams. Over time it has become clear that partnering the children with the right leaders is an important part of the planning. Some of the best faith conversations go on during individual activity times and we are blessed with dedicated and gifted people.

RESOURCES

In the early days of Aslan, I scoured the internet for activities to support Bible stories but was surprised that it was so difficult to find suitable resources. There is a wide range of ability within the group and I wanted to find things that were engaging and meaningful for each one.  In the absence of anything ready-made, I prepared activities differentiated at 4 different levels of ability. This was a lot of work and I started to think that it might be helpful to others if I shared these resources online. I believe it was one of those God-planted thoughts! My son Dan was Youth Team Leader at my church at the time and was keen to help me set up a website. It was a long and sometimes arduous process, but it has now been running since April 2018 and has all the resources to enable anyone to run a 3-year Bible-based curriculum: http://aslan.tonbridgebaptist.church/

TODAY

We have now been running for 6 years and currently have 7 boys and 1 girl in the group, with all 4 levels of ability represented.

FACEBOOK

I love being part of this ministry and hope to encourage others to set up similar groups. Recently, I decided that it might be helpful to set up a facebook group,  Aslan | SENchurch,     to be able to interact more easily with anyone using the material. New members are always welcome!

With many thanks to Jackie Potter for writing and sharing this story with us.

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