After writing about how to write sensory stories for young children, I now turn my attention to teenagers. This is a tricky post, because by the time they reach their teens, young people with additional needs, learning disabilities and/or autism are growing, developing and making the transition from childhood to adulthood… The same as any teenager. By this age, their personalities and abilities are becoming more established. They are unique, amazing and will not fit into a neat box. So we can’t say, “this is what you should do for teenagers with additional needs”, because each one will need a more personalised approach.
However, I’m going to share an example and some ideas. Starting with an autistic boy of 14 who I used to support in the Sunday children’s programme. He was autistic, verbal and wanted to be part of the group. He loved joining in the social activities and games (once they were explained in a way he could understand) and loved dramatising Bible stories. However, he was unable to access the Bible study part of the session for a number of reasons:
- They read from the Bible. He couldn’t read too well.
- They then spoke at length about the passage, it’s history and some quite in depth analysis of the passage.
- It was all done far too quickly for him. He just couldn’t keep up with the pace of one idea moving onto another.
For this boy, sensory stories enabled him to access the session alongside his peers, drawing from the same passage and learning one important thing about God each time. For any teenager that needs a simplified amount of language, we can provide that without talking down to them or babying them. We must respect their age. Some parents feel unable to even try teenage groups because the
The same principles of story telling are used.
- One sentence which is the main teaching point of the passage. It usually is a central truth about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit or the gospel. It is ok to repeat these points as we want our teens to really understand their faith in the Lord.
- Five to ten (ish) simple sentences that tell the story and move it through the main events. This is difficult as the writer needs to be able to ignore waffle and minor details to get to the point. If there are details that are essential to the meaning they need to be included. It is at this age we should be including a greater depth of Bible knowledge and not exclude parts of the Bible because we think they are too hard to understand. Here’s an example from 2 Kings when Elijah hands over to Elisha.
|1. Elijah knew it was time for him to leave the earth. Elisha was his disciple. He followed Elijah everywhere.
2. Elijah said… “Stay here”. But Elisha said “No, I will go with you.”
3. Elijah said again… “Stay here”. But Elisha said “No, I will go with you.”
4. Elijah said a third… “Stay here”. But Elisha said “No, I will go with you.”
5. Now they were by the river Jordan. Elijah put his staff (stick) into the river and the water separated. Now Elijah and Elisha could walk across.
6. God took Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. But first Elisha asked for one thing.
7. “Give me twice as much of God’s Spirit as you have.” He asked.
8. Elisha saw Elijah go to heaven. He picked up Elijah’s staff (stick) and put it into the Jordan river.
9. The water separated. Elisha knew God’s Spirit was with him.
10. The Bible says God’s Spirit is with us. We can pray and the Spirit will help us in many ways.
Pray for God’s Spirit to help you, teach you and show you all God’s love for you.
- The sensory experiences depend on the young persons needs at this point. With this boy, one for the whole story was enough to give him a sensory link to the story. So for this Elijah story we would maybe have a cloak or shawl to use a ac cloak as this is a central prop of the story. I might have added some water when each of them parted the Jordan too.
The main issue for young people with additional needs is often social inclusion. They go through puberty, identity formation, hopes and dreams for the future the same as other teenagers. Being put with younger children doesn’t help this at all.
It is we that have to be more creative and adaptable. There’s forever to study the Bible for our other teens. Learning how to come alongside and make the Bible accessible to someone with additional needs is a lesson of greater worth than gold. Then you have a peer group that don’t exclude but are able to communicate the Bible to someone else. It makes them think and consider the important points and what it really means. So, teach the other teens to write a story in this way now and again.
And with their permission – here are some comments from the Additional Needs Alliance Group. People who have children and groups with teens with additional needs…
Claire Webb For our daughter it’s been opportunity to be part of things! She very sociable and children and young people in a wide age group are very friendly towards her and don’t exclude her (especially young people who’ve grown up with her!) but adults find it harder to include in practice!
Rosie Thornton Thank you for asking this Lynn. My teenage daughter cannot really access discussion groups or events where activities are not tightly structured so we haven’t tried Christian youth groups.
Mark Arnold I suggest that the primary difficulty is that there is not a “one size fits all” answer to this. Every young person is different, their needs and abilities will be different, so an answer that works well for one young person will not necessarily work for another, even with two young people with the same additional needs. Forming an individual strategy for each young person, which they and their families help to create, and which draws on what is working well in other settings (e.g. school, home etc) and which all the leaders of the group understand, is a vital step towards successful inclusion. That plan needs to cover a range of areas including learning style and ability, understanding key triggers that cause difficulties e.g. loud noise, how to communicate most effectively (i.e. not just by speech) etc. Having said that, one common barrier to accessing church is simple acceptance by the other members of the congregation or group. It’s a hurdle that many young people and their families fall at due to negative reactions from others (including adults that should know better!)
Fiona Tyler My daughter will be 13 on Saturday! She is cognitively very able, but because she is non-verbal it is very difficult for her to join in discussions and keep up with her peers. Also socially, because she is in a wheelchair and looks different, her peers are very wary of her and don’t naturally relate to her – this has got harder as she has got older (little kids are much more accepting!). We are trying to raise awareness by openly talking about my daughter’s disabilities and also her similarities, but it is a slow process. I agree very much with what Mark says, it is probably a battle that is unique for each young person, and the teenage years can be very difficult as they try to come to terms with, and accept, their own disabilities and differences, when all they want to do is fit in with their peers and the rest of society.
Nancy Gedge Yes – the language base of much work with young people means that Sam can’t access it in several ways. 1. The concepts are difficult for him to grasp. 2. His communication difficulties mean that he finds it difficult to feel part of things (anything) with typically developing children. 3. Times – he is often tired in the evening. I often wonder if the way to witness to young people like him is through the ‘doing’ – how can he, who is so often helped – serve others? What creative opportunities are there for him? Could he be involved in an art/music project with other young people at church? How could technology be incorporated? How can he be made to feel less isolated? Less different? And, how can adults be encouraged not to baby him, or see the solution to his inclusion as a box of cars in the corner?
Highstreetmethodist Underfivesworker I know the child is not yet a teen but as a church whose Junior church starts off altogether and then simply meets in different parts of the same room we let the child decide which activity he wanted to do – regardless of whether it was his age group or not.
Ros Bayes – Ellen was always well supported in children’s ministry, but when she outgrew it there were really no appropriate youth activities she could participate in. The good thing about that was that it gave her sister somewhere to go without her at a time when she needed those breaks. The sad thing, for me, was that there were some real moves of the Holy Spirit among the young people, and they bypassed her.