Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

Archive for the ‘communication’ Category

Living hopefully in the storm

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Some of you will have read a post I put up a few days ago called “Storm before the Calm.”  I have taken this down as I was embarrassed at how raw it was.  I was having a bad weekend emotionally but thanks to a lovely friend who helped me feel much better after a good chat,  I’m rewriting it as something that can stay on the blog.  (Thanks so much to those that already replied – I have all your comments and you are much appreciated).

Like a lot of people, I have been quite upset by things way beyond my control.  The main things that have ‘stormed’ into my life are:

  1. The news – terrorist attacks, tower block fires, the stupid election (my views are my own!) and just not knowing what the government are doing. I still don’t want Brexit and the process frightens me. It’s unsettling, hard to escape.  Two girls from my town died in the Manchester attack.  Everyone I know shares the worry and grief over all the incidents and events in our country these past months.

 

  1. A death happened. A young person took their own life.  I’m grieving for them and their family.  I have been researching mental health and young people and find that we are ignoring the risks and pressures that affect our young people.  It feels like we are sleepwalking into a crisis.  Many people think that’s already happening.  I’m praying and wondering what the church should be doing.

 

  1. For some time I’ve been wondering about how I can share much more of the resources we’ve built up over 10 years of our Good News Group. Particularly our Bible teaching materials but also sharing our story and training for churches.  I want so much to give our adults in the group, opportunity to speak for themselves and for others with learning disabilities to have access to good teaching materials.

 

And this is where I asked for help in my last post.  If you read includedbygrace regularly I’d like to hear from you.  If you’ve happened to read it by random google search, I want to hear from you.  I want to know what you think of includedbygrace and the information I share.  What it means to you and how it has helped you (or not).

If you want to say a pray for this please pray that God will make this what he wants it to be.  I have been blessed by a conversation with two web developers who are interested in designing an accessible website with me.  Maybe that’s a thing that includedbygrace can become.  I have no funding, only faith at this point in time.  But I believe in a God who funds his own projects.

My second idea is to build a team of trainers from our Good News Group who can tell churches how they can be better included.  I experimented with doing this by video when I went to London and this was one way of sharing their voice.  Locally I can take people to places we speak.

Thirdly, I’d love to reach out to special schools in our area.  Maybe with assemblies or sensory Bible stories.  I’d need a team of GNG members to help me…and again the logistics are huge.  But not for God!

In my mind are a lot of other random ideas.  I only want to go in the direction God has prepared and not waste time on things that won’t work.  The aim is to spread the gospel and disciple children, teens and adults with learning disabilities, giving them accessible Bible teaching and resources.  Also, it is to equip churches to do this work too.  We are a small team…living hopefully in the storms…

Can we have an accessible Bible please? 



Actually, Biblica has answered this call and produced the first gospel of a new accessible Bible.  Matthew’s Gospel in the New International Readers Accessible Version was launched at the No Limits conference in November.  Excitedly I picked up a few copies to bring home with me and gave one to each of our Good News Group Leaders.  We all agreed that for those of our group who could read, it was a fantastic resource.  The sentences are short,  the text is large print and the paragraphs are spaced with clear breaks.  The language is simpler but faithful to the original.  The occasional illustration breaks up the text visually and makes the whole gospel of Matthew accessible to people who couldn’t either understand the language or read the text because it was too small.

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We bought 20 copies from 10ofThose  and planned our teaching programme with texts and stories from Matthew’s gospel.  We are teaching about prayer and found our stories and Bible verses to explore different aspects of prayer each week.   As we always plan a multi-sensory approach – we’ve made a 3D prayer reminder from a wooden spoon and done drama and puppet sketches, used sensory experiences, Makaton and songs to support each session.

There are still many of our group that cannot read so I took the text we were using and produced symbol pictures using the Communicate in Print software we use.  I’ve put these in a folder so that they are becoming like a visual Bible story book.

Here’s an example:

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When we read the Bible passage now, we give out the Matthew Gospel books and the folders with the symbol sheets to each table that sits about 6-8 people.  Each group then reads the Bible together.  Taking it at the slowest reader’s pace, the members of the group who can read, read out loud together and those who can’t read follow the story on the pictures.  They can say the key names, places and words along with the Bible reading, whilst pointing to each picture to see the story unfold.

Here’s a photo of us all reading the Bible together!


From the first time it has been so wonderful.  Instead of one person reading the Bible from the front, we are reading it together and our members are learning that the Bible is accessible to them.   We’d love a audio version for our blind and non-reading members but we feel that the Matthew’s Gospel version has got off to a great start and we are really excited about more to come.

The accessible Bible has huge implications.  There are so many people with learning disabilities who can read but who find the complex sentences, complex language and small text in a regular Bible impossible to access.    I hope anyone wh reads this will buy some copies for their church and make them available to people in their congregation and community.  It has the potential to be life changing, faith changing and community changing.

People with learning disabilities are scared about the news too.

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This past month has been really difficult for me.  It was building up since before the Brexit vote, but that tipped the scales.  I’ve been worrying about even watching the news, wondering what horrible event will happen next.  I’ve been upset with the political situations in Britain, Turkey, America, and the middle east.  Upset about the violence, murder and persecution of people all around the world.  I’ve been trying to pray for those killed and hurt in attacks, not just in Europe, not just those splashed across the newspapers in our country, but the forgotten and ignored tragedies in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and other countries.

But I’m overwhelmed.  On top of the exhaustion that comes to every teacher at the end of the school year, I want to yell at God…”STOP THE WORLD…AND LET ME GET OFF!”  I’ve not been sure how to cope at all.

And it was in this state that I set up the ‘Day of Prayer for our Nation’ on Facebook. (Join me here if you still want to pray).  That did help a lot.  In searching the Bible for guidance and when a wonderful friend offered to help, we remembered our response to this world is to pray and to share God’s love.  Praying through those prayers as the day went on, really helped calm my troubled soul…and continue to do so.

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It is so important to include people with learning disabilities in our engagement with what is going on in the world. They worry too. They hear and are affected by what is going on, sometimes more directly than we are.  (Take the Government’s welfare reforms as an example). We can pray with them and give them access to praying with us if we help their communication.  The accessible prayers are just one example. Signing or pictures may help  some. I know L’Arche communities are wonderfully experienced in building the prayer lives of everyone in their communities.

On the Wednesday, at our usual Good News Group meeting we set aside some time to pray for our nation, using the accessible prayers that I had made for the Friday.  Each table had a set and the members and carers each chose a prayer to offer, in our usual ways of either reading it out themselves, a team member reading it for them or just by placing it in the centre of the table, showing that they are offering their prayers to God.

Everyone there took a prayer and offered it to the Lord. What really struck me was their real concerns and worries about Brexit and all that was happening.  People with learning disabilities hear things on the news and worry the same as the rest of us, we shouldn’t be surprised.  They too want to make sense of it all.  The comments I want to share with you show how much they care about this.

D, who isn’t a Christian but comes to the group every week, was really fascinated by the prayers we had set out on the table.  He said “I’m really glad you’ve put these out.  I don’t believe but I want you to pray about this…” and he passed a card to one of the team to pray. 

V said “I’ve been hearing about all this on the news. It’s terrible.  What’s going to happen, I don’t know.” and she chose a prayer for all the politicians. 

E said, “I’m worried about what will happen to my carer.  She’s not from this country.  I’m scared they are going to take her away, then who’s going to help me then? She’s lovely is my carer. I don’t want another one.” 

And all around the room, people with learning disabilities were joining in as prayer warriors for this nation.  Lord hear our prayers.  Lord have mercy.  Lord hear our prayers.

I’m hoping that others have joined us too.  I sent out the accessible prayers to a few people who asked for them, so if you were one of those, I’d love to hear how your prayer times went.

I feel that God has been sending me encouragement this week in two blogs I have read.  I am sharing them here and hope that if you feel overwhelmed and discouraged they will help you too.  Firstly Anthony Delany reminded me of the parable Jesus told us about how we should know that there is evil in this world. God is allowing the weeds and the wheat to grow in the ground together but he will protect his wheat and burn the weeds at the harvest.  It helped me.  And then Helen Murray encouraged me by reminding me of how Gideon felt when God asked him to fight the Midionites – and to go in the strength that we have because God is with us.  Thank you both.

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How to create multi-sensory Bible Stories for children with Additional Needs (Part 1)

I love story telling. We do much of our work with children and young people through telling the rich and varied stories of the Bible, helping them see God at work in all history and in all his world.  We use story to teach the Gospel and help children understand their need of a Saviour and ultimately, who that Saviour is.  We use story to explain what Jesus has done for us and what a wonderful gift of grace he offers us.

I’m going to write three posts covering sensory and interactive story telling for children (Part 1) , young people (Part 2)  and then adults (Part 3) with learning disabilities.  There are many different ways of telling Bible stories, this is only one and is specifically about using simple, clear language and sensory experiences that aim to bring understanding of that language.

What is a sensory story?

Sensory Stories are a way of telling stories simply, with added sensory experiences to help the listeners engage and experience the story. They are particularly used with children with profound and multiple disabilities, but are easily used with children with moderate learning difficulties, those with poor attention skills and children with autism.  They are used more and more with people who have dementia – but more of that in part 3.  You can find some great information and leaflets about Sensory Stories from Joanna Grace’s website Jo.element42.org   (Scroll down to the bottom of her page to find the free leaflets)

How to begin…

A Sensory story starts with choosing the words you are going to use to tell the story.  With young children and those who find it difficult to process lots of words, this stage is crucial.  You are looking for one sentence that is your main teaching point and then between 5 and 10 sentences that tell the story from beginning to end.  Lets have a go…

Jesus calms the storm

1. Jesus was tired.

2. He and his friends went out on a boat where it was nice and quiet.

3. A storm came. It was VERY windy, and VERY rainy. the Waves were enormous.

4. Jesus’s friends were frightened.  Jesus stayed sleeping.

5. The friends woke Jesus up. “We are going to drown” they shouted.

6. Jesus stood up, put out his hand and said “STOP” to the storm.

7. The friends were amazed. Only God has power to control the weather.

8. The friends knew that Jesus MUST be God. (Main teaching point) 

 

The next stage…chose your Sensory Experiences

Use colouring, scents and tactile activities.

Use colouring, scents and tactile activities.

For each of these sentences you can now choose a sensory experience that enhances the understanding of the story, rather than distracting the child from it.  The sensory experiences should come out one at a time and each one put aside when you are ready to say the next sentence of the story. You can put them in order behind you or somewhere just out of reach to help with sequencing, but the focus should be on each sensory experience alone.

It is at this stage you need to be mindful of any sensory sensitivities the children may have.  Be careful that you don’t distress them by using something that they cannot cope with.  Fortunately there are so many sensory experiences you could use that you can usually find something.  I often will put them in a box or bag with a symbol or picture of the story on the front so that the children can anticipate each thing that will come out of the same place. This also helps with your own organisation!

Here is the story with a few sensory ideas, chose only one or make up your own. Don’t forget to think about all your senses, generally we would use one or two at a time but throughout the story use a good variety.  Be creative but try to make the sensory experience enhance the meaning of the words.

Jesus calms the storm

Use a variety of things you have to hand or make your own.

Use a variety of things you have to hand or make your own.

1. Jesus was tired.  (Something soft to stroke or lay their heads on, or cover them like a blanket, I sometimes use a lavender mini pillow because of the lovely sensory smell.) 

2. He and his friends went out on a boat where it was nice and quiet.  (Boats rock, so you might want to do gentle rocking movements, or have a toy boat on a bowl of water to look at and move around, or maybe bubbles gently blowing around them.) 

3. A storm came. It was VERY windy, and VERY rainy. the Waves were enormous. (Wind can be from a hand held fan, hairdryer on cool setting, and can be accompanied by wind instrument noise if they can cope with that. Rain from a spray bottle of water, or water gun, accompanied by rain,asked sounds. Some may want to hide under an umbrella!)

Thunder tube or make your own

Thunder tube or make your own            

Pringle tubes make good thunder or rain sound makers

Pringle tubes make good thunder or rain sound makers.

4. Jesus’s friends were frightened. Jesus stayed sleeping.  (You could use a Makaton or BSL sign for ‘scared’ and show scared on your faces, looking at each other’s scared expressions, or have a ‘scared’ expression mask in your bag for the children to hold against their face.  They could mould a scared face from play dough.) 

5. The friends woke Jesus up. “We are going to drown” they shouted.  (You can have a yawn and stretch to show Jesus waking up. If children don’t like shouts, have a big card speech bubble with the words on that they can hold up.  The boat in the bowl can be swished about or the children can rock more strongly to link with sentence 2.) 

plastic bottles filled with fish, tiny boats or small beads for the sea can be swished around for the storm too.

plastic bottles filled with fish, tiny boats or small beads for the sea can be swished around for the storm too.

6. Jesus stood up, put out his hand and said “STOP” to the storm.  (The children can hold up their hands and say ‘stop’ or you could have a large foam hand (if you’ve got one handy! Sorry for the pun!) and again use a cardboard speech bubble if needed – they can be good for when you’ve to the children to sequence or go over the story again). 

7. The friends were amazed. Only God has power to control the weather.  (Again an ‘amazed’ Makaton or BSL sign with a mask, play dough or children’s own expressions can be used.) 

8. The friends knew that Jesus MUST be God.  (This is the teaching point of the story, put all the sensory things aside and have a simple visual/ pictures to show ‘Jesus = God’ ) 

Water beads are great fun. Find out about them

Water beads are great fun. Find out about them www.teachpreschool.org

Give it a go!

Obviously planning a Sensory Bible Story relies on someone telling you what story is going to be told in your Children’s session beforehand.  One of the greatest obstacles to supporting children with additional needs in churches, is communication between leaders and helpers.  Once you know and get used to telling stories in this way you will find it easier and easier to do.  My advice, identify your main teaching point in a sentence first and then don’t get bogged down in detail.  Children can listen to these stories in other ways and probably will throughout their childhood and so the layers of detail will build gradually.

Try it! And then post your story in the comments on here, or send it to me by email includedbygace@talktalk.net and we can share our ideas with each other.  Don’t forget to take pictures of your sensory experiences and have fun!

Creation story sensory stuff!

Creation story sensory stuff!

Autism and your church

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My day job is supporting autistic pupils in schools and I love it. Listening to and working with these children teaches me so much.  For ten years and with hundreds of pupils, I have developed a bank of strategies and ways of working that really work, and the understanding that at the centre of it all is a child who can communicate their likes, strengths, dislikes and needs … if you know how to listen.

Helping people with autism feel fully part of our church family and ministries (as receivers and givers using their gifts) can be approached in the same way.  I wrote about “being an advocate in your church” and “15 ways to include people with additional needs”. At the heart of it all are PEOPLE we can listen to, share the gospel with and disciple.  My blog this week is about sharing two excellent blog posts from others.   First; Ann Memmott is an autistic woman who has a great gift of communication…she can explain what being autistic is like and how she finds the responses she gets from church people.  What I like about Ann is that she doesn’t just explain, but she also suggests ways to overcome the barriers or issues, and I have learned a lot from her, just from listening.

Here is her post titled “Othering” from 11th July 2015

http://annsautism.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/othering.html

It’s sometimes tough stuff, trying to encourage churches to welcome all.
Some churches are fabulous.  Their leaders are enthusiastic about learning.  They enable their teams to get good training.  They fundraise and allocate budgets to ensure that everyone can get to a service and feel valued.  We know that such churches see their congregations…and finances…increase year after year.  I am fortunate to have found several like this.  But some others…well…I want to talk about feeling valued. What it is.  What it is not.  And about the ‘othering’ of people like me.  Born autistic.  Autism is a sensory processing and social communication disability, nothing to do with ‘bad behaviour’.

So often, disabled people or those who live with differences are tolerated.
‘Tolerate’ is what you do when you let someone sit next to you… whilst you feel uncomfortable and hope they sit somewhere else….but you smile at them in a false way.  The thinking behind this is, “I am such a good Christian for allowing you near me.  After all, someone like you being in my church spoils my experience of God.  You should be thankful to be allowed here”.  Had that happen a few times.
Now, the strange thing is that if it was done to them, other folk would immediately see that as intolerance.  As prejudice.  As falseness.  As fear or hate.  But it’s something that folk like me are often expected to be grateful for.  I think not.

Sometimes disabled folk and others who live with differences are the subject of ‘awareness raising’.  This means that we get to stand up in front of everyone and explain all the things we cannot do.  All the things that make us feel really small and really bad about ourselves.   And then, people are ‘inspired’ by us.  “You brave person, coming to church!”  “Wow, people like you can talk!”  “So do you live in a residential home?  Is that your carer with you?”  I’ve had it all over the years.  We are not friends.  We are not colleagues.  We are not equal.  We are exhibits.

Now, the strange thing is that if this was done to them,  other folk would feel really uncomfortable.  But it’s something that folk like me are expected to be grateful for.  After all, we’re talking about autism now, aren’t we.   Yes, yes we are.  In a way that demeans and uses me, and has no regard for the after-effects. Often I’m expected to do this for free.  As if it is a special treat for me to be allowed to talk to church people about embarrassing things and then go home feeling bad. That’s not brilliant.

Yes, people like me offer training to the outside world.  Training where we knowingly do stand up in front of many others and explain our ‘deficits’.  Our difficulties.  Training where we are an example to be assessed, a thing to be stared at.  And after each session, we go home to our families and friends and partners and children…and try to restore our sense of self-worth.  Important stuff, awareness-raising. But it’s nothing to do with valuing us.

What does valuing us look like?  What does it feel like?  What does it sound like?
It feels like we are seen as people, as colleagues, as friends.  It feels like people want us to sit next to them.  It feels like we’re offered the same chances as others to show our strengths.  It feels like we are enabled to feel safe and supported, of course – but in consensual ways that ask us.  In quiet, invisible, respectful ways.  Training like that happens in many places, and it’s always a joy to work with such groups.

It doesn’t look at us as a cost burden.  As a time-waste.  As a ‘danger’  (frankly we are no more likely to be dangerous than you are).   It doesn’t think that Church happens ‘elsewhere’ for us.  There are no churches for autistic people.  None.  It’s like a thing where Jesus got his team to hand round food to the 5000 and left all the autistic ones hungry and thirsty.   Do you think that’s what happened?  Me neither.

We are God’s loved children too. Valuing us doesn’t allocate the budget and team and support to everyone but us… and then claim no money, no spare time.  It doesn’t involve ignoring bullying of us, or blaming us for the bullying.  It doesn’t involve laughing at us or using us as some sort of freak show.  Or encouraging others not to help us.  Or encouraging others not to talk to us, by pretending we are a nuisance.  We’re not exhibits or dangers.  Truly we are not.

We are your friends.  We love Jesus and are Christians who want to share our love and care with others, just like you do.  We have families, just like you do.  We have passionate interests, just like you do.  The church should not get to pretend that we are ‘other’.  Not in front of God we’re not.

It’s our church too.  It belongs to God, and God says yes.    That’s a reality that every church already has to come to terms with.  Plenty of us are willing to help.  But know the cost, please.  And value the time and exhaustion and despair that it causes, especially when so often the response is ‘go away’, a budget-withholding, silence-enduring, “We don’t want your sort here”.

You are loved.  We are not your enemy.  Learn about our gifts to the church and to God.  Value us for who we are, God’s children, made in God’s image.

cd page - forgiveness through christ

Second, I came across this blog in my travels around the net and loved it’s positive suggestions for things to say to autism parents:

Read more: http://themighty.com/2015/04/12-great-things-to-say-to-parents-of-kids-with-autism/#ixzz3fsFhlINO

But now I realize that it wasn’t fair to tell everyone what NOT to say to a parent of a child with autism, if I don’t give some advice on what TO say.

Just like every child is affected differently by an autism diagnosis, each parent is also affected differently. A comment that I believe is kind and encouraging, another parent may see as rude and condescending. Needless to say, I can’t give you an exhaustive list since every situation is different, however, I have come up with a few things people have said to me over the years that clearly left a mark and not a scar. So, this is a list of things TO say to a parent loving a child with autism that made me smile and want to hug them rather than hit them or scratch their eyes out.

The one thing to remember, regardless of the child or the parent, is to always be accepting, be aware and be kind.

1. “Wow! I can’t believe how far he has come!”

Even if the distance from where he was to where he is seems miniscule to you, chances are it is a huge, expansive distance to my son and me. Commenting on progress is a beautiful thing to say, but only if you really see progress or change. We mothers are like dogs; we can smell your fear in an off-handed, don’t-know-what-else-to-say remark. So if you do believe it, then say it. And be prepared to be hugged.

2. “He is so good at… [insert anything here].”

Whether it’s a perfect Jim Carrey imitation, how long he can sit watching the same episode of “Thomas the Tank Engine” and recite every word perfectly, or his ability to memorize all the details of every earthquake in California’s history, point it out. Point out the positives. See the positives. We see it. We know it. We love when you do, too.

3. “My friend’s, sister’s, cousin’s, great aunt twice removed’s son has autism and he is in college now.”

Yeah, we know that your friend’s, sister’s, cousin’s, great aunt twice removed’s son is not our child, and we know that autism is a spectrum of strengths and struggles, but, hearing success, hearing good news and having you share that in a kind, accepting and compassionate way, makes us love you, even if we don’t know you. I hope you like hugging strangers, because this may get you an even bigger hug than #1.

4. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Asking this question in the middle of aisle six in the busy, loud grocery store where our child is currently having a huge sensory meltdown as we try to calm him down and discreetly scooch the glass shards from the spaghetti jar that just missed your head under our cart, rather than staring at what you believe may be an “undisciplined child” having a temper tantrum, may possibly make you the hero in a blog story that goes viral on social media three hours after you get home from the grocery store.

We know people are staring. We know people are judging. We know people don’t get it. That’s why those eight simple words from just one person are beautiful. Oh, and sorry about the spaghetti sauce on your new shoes.

5. “He feels so much, doesn’t he?”

This is a kind, compassionate and understanding way to say that when you see our child crying easily, melting down regularly, and being terribly inflexible, you are letting us know that you recognize that there may be more than meets the eye and that our child is not bad, and neither are we.

6. “He is fascinating.”

Not weird, not odd, not quirky. The way his mind works is fascinating and often has me in awe and wonder. I love knowing that you see his mind as extraordinary and not as something that is broken and needs to be “fixed.”

7. “He really loves you.”

Yes he does. There is such a misconception that children with autism don’t feel love, that their emotions are too bogged down by autism to “feel,” but, believe me, they feel love, they know love, they give love. And on days when it’s hard, on days where we have lost our patience, raised our voice and dried countless tears, we don’t feel very loveable, so it’s great when others see and feel that love, too. We know that our child loves us like no other and although that love may look “different,” it is never to be trivialized or minimized.
O.M.G. If you only know how many times a day I have wondered the VERY same thing. “If only I could get inside his head,” “If I only knew what he was feeling,” “If only he would let me in” has crossed every parent’s mind countless times. Knowing that you take the time to wonder, too, well, you have just gone up higher in rank on the Favorites list on my iPhone.8. “I wonder what he is thinking?”

9. “What is autism and why do they call it a spectrum?”

Yes, maybe we are tired of talking about The A Word, maybe we want people to see past autism and just see our child, but, we will never turn down an opportunity to educate someone about our child and debunk the “He doesn’t act like ‘Rain Man’” myth. So please, ask away.

10. “He has taught me so much!”

These kids see the world differently and if you take the time to get to know them, really get to know them, you will open your mind and your heart to their world and you will be better for it.

11. “I brought wine.”

Even though you might not fully understand what loving a child with autism is like, the fact that you are here, on our doorstep, holding a bottle of wine and trying to understand, well, there are no words to express our gratitude. We love that you feel like we are in this together, so grab two glasses while I get the bottle opener.

12. “I have Velveeta Shells and Cheese (or whatever the one and only type of food is that child will eat).”

You win. Game over.

When trying to decide what you should say, keep in mind that these children and adults with autism may have severe language deficits and they may not be able to say a word, but that does not mean they aren’t communicating with you. Take their lead. Maybe no words are necessary. Maybe you don’t have to SAY anything. Maybe it’s just a kind smile, a door held, making eye contact with us or a kind “hello” to our child.

However, if we initiate the conversation, if we say the words, “My son has autism,” just give us a knowing look, a kind smile and ask, “How is he doing?” We may say “fine” or we may break into a 10-minute long discussion about how far he has come and how far we know he will go. Whichever it is, trust me when I say, we will always remember that you asked.

I hope you have found these two blogs helpful.  I have!

15 ways to include children and adults with additional needs in church.

It is a privilege to be asked for advice on what a church should do to include people with additional needs. To make them feel welcome, to make them be able to come along each week and it be a place of refuge and strength for them.  The thing is, our church, like most others, are learners…we haven’t got all the answers or got everything right, so I turned to the lovely people of the Additonal Needs Alliance and asked them what advice they would give. This, along with a couple of blogs I have read recently, has helped me put together this post.  So thanks to Beth, Mark, Ruth, Barbara-Anne, Anita, Fiona, Liz, Rachel and Bea!

  1. Have a designated person to oversee and coordinate the support and overall vision of the church for inclusion and practical implementation of support for people with additional needs. This is like a school has a SENCO.  Mark Arnold from Urban Saints made this point.  I agree, all churches should have a SENCO.
  2. Understand what having a child or adult with additional needs in your family is like. It is 24/7.  It is an abundance of love for them standing alongside constant care, worry, sleepless nights and fear for their future. Every day is full on, no day is the same and parents and carers never switch off. They often don’t look after themselves too well (they don’t have time) and often give more of themselves to help others who are carers too.  Sometimes they feel grumpy and can be short of patience with small minded things.   Often they are sleep deprived and coming to church is not a break or a rest. It can be a minefield of fear, anxiety and stress.
  3. Listen to parents and carers.  They know their child best.  They may not yet be experts on the child’s condition, but they are learning.  However, do not tell them what you know; as often what we know is a generalisation;  but ask them if you can learn alongside them.  Even though I am an autism specialist teacher, I will always ask a parent how autism looks in their child, because each autistic person is uniquely autistic.
  4. Listen to the child or adult with additional needs. They know themselves best. They know what they like and don’t like. If they cannot speak, spend time watching them and learning how they communicate.  Think highly of what they can understand and achieve.  They have gifts that the church can be blessed with.  Jesus has a place in his body for them too and it cannot function well without them.

  5. Don’t let your congregation judge. Don’t even let one little “tut” come out of anyone’s mouth! Parents and carers of people with additional needs get plenty of that out there, in society.  It has no place in Jesus’ church.
  6. When you have listened you can ask some practical and patient questions. What works for you?  What works at their school or daycare centre? Is there any of these things that we could do to make church better and easier?
  7. Do….The things you can from the answers above. One small thing can make a huge difference to the child or adult with additional needs and to their family or carers. When you’ve done one thing, don’t think you have done it and can ignore them from then on…do another thing…and another.
  8. Consider getting good training for church leaders.  (Everyone who leads or volunteers for anything!) Have speakers who have additional needs.  Keep talking about diversity and learn together.  Prospects, Through the Roof, Liveability, Torch Trust, and others can be found on the Churches for All website.  Urban Saints do a great training course called All Inclusive and is highly recommended.  All these will provide or find training for you.  The local special school may have some Christian staff who would be willing to help or do some training for you.
  9. Keep reviewing how you are supporting the child/adult and their family or carer. Ask them how you are doing. Ask the people they talk to, just in case you get “I’m fine”. We all know “I’m fine” doesn’t mean everything is ok, it often means ” I don’t want to make a fuss”.  Encourage them and a friend of theirs to be more honest.
  10. Set up some special activities that are preferred by the child / adult with additonal needs and for once in a while, get other children or adults to come alongside them in THEIR comfort zone.  So whether it be a child who loves Lego, (have a Sunday School session based on Lego once a month) or an adult who uses Makaton (let them sigh the Lord’s Prayer in the service) bring their interests and strengths into how we do church.
  11. Teach the congregation about Jesus’ love for all people.  Send them out to serve in daycare centres, do assemblies in special schools, visit people with additional needs in their homes or talk to families with additional needs in the supermarkets.  Bring children up in the church to stand up for those who have additional needs at school.  Show them how to approach and be friendly, make sure they know the names of any children with additional needs who come to church, however infrequently.  Tell them to smile and say hello, when they see them, and not to stare when they make noises or behave unexpectedly.
  12. Have high expectations of God and his word.  Find ways to open up the wonderful riches of the Bible. It may mean you do your weekly services a bit different. It may mean your preaching takes on a different style completely.  You may need to use differnt forms of communication, like pictures, or signing rather than just talking for 20 minutes or more. Maybe all the church could learn some basic Makaton or BSL signs.
  13. Celebrate the diversity of God’s family.  Watch and listen to people with additional needs and let them show us how they connect with God.  I want to tell you about Becky who uses a special computer with eye-gaze technology to communicate. She drew this picture of the Easter story    Becky's picture        And another little girl who has autism, who danced around the cross on Easter Day, making people experience her joy and abandonment.  I want to tell you about our adults with learning disabilities who pray for us, serve in the church and love Jesus.                                                                                                        IMG_0237
  14. Know it is God’s work to save.  Then pray, be mouldable and trust him.  A willing heart can be used by God.  He can change us to be his family together. Be willing.
  15. Finally (for now!) is to remember that you don’t need any qualifications or even experience with additional needs to be a church who makes people welcome and part of their congregation.  All Jesus asks us is to follow him and do the things he did.  I don’t remember him ever “tutting” at someone trying to come to him….do you?

This is just a guide and summary of all the great advice people who have additional needs or who have children with additional needs have given me over time. We have put as much as we can into practice in our church and are still very much a work in progress….like we all are.  I hope you find this useful and encouraging….let’s all work together and let Jesus build his church for all.

Inclusion or separate provision?

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I’m writing this from the Hand in Hand Conference in Eastbourne where I’ve come to deliver two sessions about making the Bible accessible for children with learning disabilties and autism in churches.

Someone asked the question, “Do we keep all the children together even if they don’t seem to be accessing what we are doing, or should we set up a special class?”  Someone else asked, “What do we do if a child needs a lower level of teaching and would access what they do in the younger class? Do we keep them with their peers or let them stay down?”

My initial response is to say that inclusion means having the same opportunities as everyone else.  It is better for social inclusion for a child with learning disabilities to be with their peers.  It is also good for the peers of the child with learning disabilties to learn how to build friendship and include those who may see and experience the world differently to them. Relationship is two-way. Relationship is sometimes not easy. Relationship may take some effort.  But relationships that are two-way, where both learn ways of building that friendship can be wonderful.  Children with learning disabilties and with autism need peers that can include them, and adults need to facilitate that.  Especially in the church.

However, sometimes the needs of the child are causing them to be overwhelmed and going into the group can just not be working.  It is them that sometimes taking them out of the group, working with them 1:1 or in a much smaller group can be helpful.  There should always be a plan of how to work towards getting that child back into the group.  Sometimes that means changing how the group is organised and what they do.  In the work I have done with autistic children in churches there are some simple things that have been really effective…

1.  Talk to the parents, ask them what their child likes and what works for them. Find out all the things the child likes.

2. An hours training about what autism/ learning disabilty is for adults involved.  (A similar session aimed at the children can be done as well)  Parents or the child’s teacher might do this for you.

3.  Simple visual structure so that they child knows what is happening and in what order. (A visual timetable)   Include some of their favourite activities and if you can find Bible related versions of these, great.  E.g. Bible jigsaws, the brick Bible Lego pictures.

4.  Look at simplified versions of the main teaching session. Think of one sentence you could focus on.  Use visual pictures to sequence a story.  Let them take home one sentence or Bible verse to focus on.

There are lots more things you can do.  I have put my Eastbourne slides and resource list on my website (www.reachoutasc.com) so do take a look under the “churches” tab.

The aim should be to establish what does work and them move it into the main group – and the peers of the child themselves should be involved in the inclusion.

I have pondered the same question with our adult group too.  Why have we set up a separate group in our church?  One of the reasons is that Sunday Church has been inaccessible for a lot of our group.  For many of the reasons I have discussed on this blog, there are language, sensory, physical and cognitive barriers in the main church service.

Our aim IS to have fully inclusive church, but just as there are midweek groups for ladies, men, the more mature, children’s groups and so on, the Good News Group is a focussed group where people with learning disabilties can come and meet other people like them, they can have teaching and nurturing that is built around their needs and where the pace and communication is tailored totally to being as accessible as it can be.  I can say that the Good News Group is fully church to me too. We work as a congregation, serving one another, finding our gifts and developing them and knowing one another so well that we carry each other’s burdens, pray and praise together.

We run our ‘service’ part of the evening like a regular church service.  We do this because ultimately we want to draw our members into the main church and allow them to feel familiar, comfortable and that they understand some of it.  Our church will need to play its part and be supportive and welcoming.  It is.  Our ministers preach with pictures to illustrate their sermons a lot of the time. This makes Sunday church more accessible for our members.  We have a long way to go but we are not saying “we can’t”.  We might say “We don’t know how?” but I think God can work with that.

The same is with your children with learning disabilties.  Work with them and their families to make them feel safe at church.  Then work to include them.  Then work to disciple them and show them that with God there are no limits. Remember all the other children need to be part of the inclusion process.

If you think you don’t know how, then that’s okay.  Just don’t say “we can’t”.

Remember what I said in my talk… “If children can’t learn the way we teach, then let us teach the way they learn.”

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