Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

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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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Sensational 1: God made us sensory beings

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?!

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

 

Do churches hate disabled people?

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When people with disabilities go out into the community, they are patronised, ignored, abused verbally and physically.  They are treated appallingly.  My mother has recently broken her pelvis and had to use a wheelchair to go shopping. She commented on how people didn’t acknowledge her but only spoke to my sister who was pushing her.  We talked about how many of my friends who use wheelchairs or who have a learning disability face this on a daily basis… Discrimination and verbal abuse.  A friend who works in a primary school talked about popular playground insults at the moment being “diabetic” or “autistic”, as well as the old “retard” word that still surfaces.   The secondary school kids I work with often talk about autism being insulted and used as an insult.

You might think this only happens out there, in society.  But what about churches?  Would you say they hate disabled people?  I had a recent conversation with an autistic woman where her church told her she was demon possessed. My friend was told he wasn’t welcome in Sunday school because of his disabilities.  And many more families who are asked to leave churches, children who ‘can’t be coped with’ and so much more.  It’s no wonder that people with disabilities are one of the most unreached peoples with the Gospel in our country.

There’s a lot of variation in people’s abilities.

We are all born with differences, some of them mean a person needs more support or adjustments.  But also 83% of people with a disability were not born with that disability.  We are all just seconds away from being disabled, so a saying goes.  My mum fell off her bed.  Hopefully her difficulty with walking will be temporary, but it is likely to have a permanent impact.  Some people have needs that some churches feel they cannot support.  The problem we see in Christianity is there is still a view that illness, disability or impairment is the result of sin…or more specifically these days, the result of not having enough faith.  We forget that His power is made perfect in our weakness. Here, I am thinking about those who say they cannot support people with disabilities – their weakness is God’s chance to show His enabling.

It is the way we see disability and wholeness that is at stake here.  The world sees disability as a burden on society.  It sees disability as shame.  Something to hide away from the ‘normal’ people.  We see disability as a broken person, not normal or whole.  Really? Who is perfect among you?

But in church we need to remember that 2 Corinthians 12:9 says,

But he said to me, “My grace is all you need. My power is strongest when you are weak.” So I am very happy to brag about how weak I am. Then Christ’s power can rest on me. 

Paul had some condition that he called “a thorn in my side” and this reminded him that he was weak, so he could remember he needed Christ’s enabling power.  Jacob fought with an angel and was left with a permanent disability. I am not saying God gives people their disabilities (although in these cases he clearly did), but like Joni Erikson Tada, he allows people to live with disabilities so that He can bring the gospel to others through his strength and not ours.  Please do look up Joni’s story (link below).  After a riding accident she became quadriplegic and has since had an amazing ministry because of her disability.  God made it an ABILTY.

Often it isn’t the person with a disability that is weak….it is us!

As soon as we think another person is a problem we back off, make excuses, pray for their healing because that makes it easier for us.  We see disability as a curse, something to feel sorry for, something we wouldn’t wish upon ourselves or our enemies even.  We have so many rules towards ministry that disabled people are shut out, ignored and discriminated against.   I’d call this hating disabled people.  Maybe you feel that is too strong a word.  Maybe first you should hear the stories from people who have disabilities and the way they have been treated first.   As Christians, this isn’t facing up to the reality of what we are doing.

1 Corinithans 12:24-26, 27b  (NIRV)

But God has put together all the parts of the body. And he has given more honour to the parts that didn’t have any.  In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honoured, every part shares in its joy.   You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.

Who are we to say only verbal people can be prophets?  Who are we to say only physically able people can be apostles and preachers?

But what if we stop and challenge our world view of disability?

What if like Joni, we call it ABILITY instead.  What if, in our churches we make adjustments, change things and acknowledge all our weaknesses before a Holy and Capable God.  What if people with disabilities were honoured and given opportunities to minister to others and grow in their gifts…just as they are?  What if we came before God and repented of our sin of hatred towards disabled people?  What if we saw all of us as weak and inadequate?  What if we stopped measuring a person’s intelligence and physical ability before deciding if they are gifted to serve in the church?   We would be in a much better place to support and help disabled people with their own understanding of who they are in Christ and where their disability fitted into their concept of God’s love. If we stopped to examine our own views first, it could change lives and the church.   As soon as a disabled person thinks others see them as less, then they can easily feel that God loves them less than others because of their disability.

great banquet

Painting graphic courtesy of Hyatt Moore.

There are changes happening. But for me they are painfully slow. The Church of England have recently discussed disabilities in Synod and are writing guidelines on supporting and including people with Down’s Syndrome that will go out to church leaders.  There are already guidelines for supporting autistic people and lots of advice about including and enabling Christians of all kinds of ABILITIES.   All the congregation can learn from the disabled people in their congregations first and then there are now plenty of sources of information on the internet.  I’ve listed some below.

Can a church really learn and change?

Can they learn enough about all these different types of disability and make their services, community and activities accessible to all these different people?

Well, yes…with God’s help and power. With his grace, once we acknowledge we are all in the same state before him….

…Because what you do is learn together.  You put it on your agenda and acknowledge your ignorance to God. God loves our humility. He loves solving problems for us and showing us the way.  What’s more he loves showing up our weaknesses so that He can show his power.  We can be a church of mixed abilities, where strengths and weaknesses are acknowledged, where everyone has gifts that are used to serve each other.  I am so happy when I hear of churches doing this. And there are many.  I don’t want to give a wrong impression of Christianity.  God is gracious and in challenging us to learn about how His body (the church) is really meant to function, it’s totally the opposite of the way society functions.  And disability can be embraced in his grace and mercy, and make us all function as a body more like Christ than ever.

I want to thank Kay Morgan-Gurr writing this:  ‘For Disabled People experiencing hate the church offers little.’   And Mark Arnold for writing this:  ‘A candle in the hurricane of hate.’   Please read them if you haven’t done already, for more perspectives and hope in this topic.

What we see today are churches changing, taking on a different perspective and many willing to start the learning journey together with disabled people.  I have a lot of hope that Jesus will work through us and shine his light to make the church strong in the way it includes and enables ALL Christians.

Ephesians 4:11-13  (NIRV)

So Christ himself gave the gift of the apostles to the church. He gave the prophets and those who preach the good news. And he also gave the pastors and teachers as a gift to the church.  He gave all these people so that they might prepare God’s people to serve. Then the body of Christ will be built up.  That will continue until we all become one in the faith. We will also become one in the knowledge of God’s Son. Then we will be grown up in the faith. We will receive everything that Christ has for us.

Links and Further Help

https://www.joniandfriends.org

https://www.eauk.org/idea/church-deaf-perspectives.cfm

http://www.torchtrust.org

http://additionalneedsalliance.org.uk

https://www.urbansaints.org/allinclusive

https://www.throughtheroof.org

https://www.message.org.uk/category/enable/

https://www.inclusive-church.org

https://www.kaymorgangurr.com

https://www.counteveryonein.org.uk

Starting a new thing in Accessible Church ministry.

Are you interested in starting a new thing in your church or in your community? I have spoken to many people recently who have it on their hearts to make their churches more accessible and to possibly start a new accessible ministry with adults or children with additional needs.

I have written a lot on here about how to go about it. But for the first time I am going to need to take my own advice. We now feel settled enough in our new church to start exploring what God could want hubby and I to do. At this point I’m not even sure that it’s going to be additional needs ministry…. but then what else would I do!? The passion still burns in my heart, and I still feel like I would burst if I didn’t do this.

Psalm 37:4-7  (NIV)

Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun.

Be still before the Lord  and wait patiently for him;

This verse has always meant to me that God will put his desires in my heart. I know when he does, usually, because they are maybe not what I was thinking, or it is a simmering of excitement about something that I can feel is on God’s heart too. It’s always good to seek confirmation and first to look for that in God’s word. Then if needed, seek God’s guidance in talking it through with wise others, or just asking him to confirm it in a way at he knows will be clear to you.

I suppose we are at that point. Prayer has to be the start of it all, and I am such a fidgety person that being still long enough and not rushing ahead with all my ideas, is probably very good for me.

Psalm 37:7  (NIRV)

Be still and wait patiently for the Lord to act.

 

The image shows a coloured stained glass window with plain blue, purple and yellow panes of glass. A cross is in one pane near the top.

Reflecting on God’s grace and mercy.

I’ve always advised anyone thinking of starting an accessible ministry to pray first. Then to do some research so you know who is in your community and what their gifts and needs are.

As it’s now school holidays and I’m blessed with a few weeks break from my schools work, I can start to find these things out. But to get here It’s been a longer journey than it needed to be – and for that I am going to confess to you all something important.

Two years ago, when I was on the additional needs ministry team at the Keswick Convention,  God did give me a clear picture of what to pursue. But you know what, I went home and pursued the things he told me to put down. I spent a whole year of energy, stress and money, trying to get something going that wasn’t God’s plan. Then another whole year trying to get myself out of the mess I’d found myself in.  I was overwhelmed and finally surrendered everything to God….broken again.

So when he had given me the picture, and I saw what he wanted me to do…why did I disobey and do the other things instead?

I can only put it down to my human nature…and good old sin. I had a strong desire to see what could happen with the other ideas, hoping I’d be able to help lots of people who’s needs had been on my heart.  But in the end, all it did was cause me a LOT of stress and show me that I didn’t have the capacity to do it.  There have been consequences of course, one being that I’ve developed IBS through the stress and am now having to learn to manage that.

But I can sing God’s praises because never for one moment in the time of my disobedience did he leave me or forsake me.  I knew even in the darkest times that he was still there and one particularly difficult day I heard his voice reminding me that Jesus was the one I was trusting in.  God is infinitely kind and he has enabled me to learn some things that are going to be useful in the future, even from my mistakes.

There’s a lot said in churches about the consequences of sin, and I am realising that for myself.  BUT I know even more the depth of his mercy and love and how when you do confess your sins, he is faithful and just and remembers our sins no more.

So here I am, a bit older, and a bit wiser.  Last week I went to Keswick again to join the wonderful Pete and Christine Winmill from Count Everyone In.   God spoke to me again, in the same place and reminded me of his love for me and the job he’s given me to do.  He has helped me sort out the mess and now it feels like starting again, back to where I should have been and ready to do the things he’s prepared for me to do.  It’s very exciting and I want to dance with praise!

I hope I’ve learned to listen to God first time from now on.  I hope I can remember that even great ideas, that are kind, helpful and compassionate…may not be the right things for me to pursue.

I’m going back to prayer and those projects that God did say I should do two years ago.  God has wonderfully arranged for me to have some time available to start a new thing, and led us to a church where I feel I can grow, meet people who can join me and opportunities to be able to test things out.

First I’m going to start the ‘Sensory Bible Story project’.  I’d appreciate your prayers and if any of you would like to pass on any encouragement, words or pictures from God, they’d be most appreciated.

Advice to churches from parents of children with additional needs.

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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. 

5 ways to support autistic children in church

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1. Get to know them.

Every autistic child is different.  It’s really important that you spend time with the family and the child to watch and learn what you can about the child.  Look specifically for how they navigate the environment and the way they respond to sensory stimuli such as the crowds, music and lighting in your church. Organise a visit to the family’s home and just observe the child, responding to their approaches to you rather than enforcing your interactions on them.  Parents will tell you a lot, and it may be helpful to work together to build a profile of the child that can be useful in getting the support right.

  • How does the child communicate and what communication do they like from others?  This will be different for each child. Some autistic children don’t develop speech to much later than is typical, others can talk exceptionally well.However, communication also includes ‘reading’ other people and knowing how to respond to them. It is important that we find the right communication for each child and are careful not just to rely on verbal communication. This is why pictures and other visual ways of communicating are helpful for many.
  • How do they react to sensory stimuli?  What things might overwhelm them, or conversely, what things might they seek more of.  Some children avoid loud noises, smells, lights etc.  Some seek to be on the move all the time or want to chew things constantly or any kind of sensory seeking activity.
  • Do they have a processing delay? Do they need a pause to think and work out what is being communicated to them?  If so, make sure this is taken into account.  Also check if they do take things literally, so you can be careful and clear when you explain things.  (especially ‘spiritual’ language).
  • What are the child’s interests? If they have a specific interest then this is what will motivate them and bring them joy. It would be good to plan to join them in this interest, take seriously what they know and develop your Bible truths through something they understand well. For example, spending time looking at their favourite things shows them that Jesus is interested in their lives, that he loves to spend time with us.
  • What triggers the child’s anxieties or fears? It could be anything so listen to what he family and child has to say and work out what helps them feel calm and confident.
  • Putting together a one page profile such as these from ShefKids could help you give the key information to those who might be working with the child.  Be aware of data protection, the child’s and family’s wishes and positivity when sharing

2. Change the way you do things to suit this one child.

Now this might be controversial but remember the lost sheep.  Jesus went out of his way to make sure that sheep was safe and included.  If we change what we do so that one child can be included we benefit ALL children and teach them an amazing lesson about Jesus and his love.  For example, if a child uses sign language, all learn sign language.  If an autistic child needs sensory experiences to help him or her to connect with the teaching, do it for all.  If they need a slower pace, things explaining simply and logically, or visual communication. Do it.  Please.

3. Give the family love, acceptance and a break.

Can people offer babysitting or going along to an event with the family?  Could they walk around the church at coffee time with the child so that the child feels safe and the parents can get a coffee?  A buddy system, a group of people who just sit alongside and be with the child or the whole family can make a huge difference.  They can ask if help is needed and bring a brew to them if they can’t get to it.  If the child is finding the service difficult and needs to be taken out or home, you can follow them up, ask if they got home okay and offer to pass on any notes from the service or sermon.  Autistic children want a place where they feel safe and accepted.  Some may really want to be included in everything and be able to make lots of attempts to try to join in.  Some may want to be included and don’t know how to.  Some activities are too much for their senses or too long or wordy or just boring.  (I don’t want to join in those either.)  We need to support those attempts and be a role model to the other children so they know how to accept and include the autistic child.  If the child is reluctant to join in, doesn’t speak or doesn’t know how to join in, then make a way for other children to sit with them, play alongside and quietly build trust together.  (This is where I like activities such as Lego.)

4. Communicate visually.

As I said earlier, autistic children can benefit from visual communication.  One really helpful way is to communicate what is happening.  Many autistic children need to know what is happening so they can follow a routine that is predictable.  Change and unexpected events can cause so much anxiety and even meltdown or shutdown because they cannot work out how to make that change from what they were expecting.  A visual timetable (like those examples in this previous post), is a very useful tool, and again helps all children.  I would love to see all churches with one!  I have written more about visual communication here.

5. Have high expectations of God’s love, grace and power.

Autistic children are fully part of God’s kingdom.  There is nothing missing or damaged.  They are only broken in the same way that ALL of us are broken – in our relationship with God.  So, the gospel needs to be taught in a way that they can understand, it needs to be reinforced by love and grace.  We also need to be certain that God has a place for that child in his church.  They are part of the body and we must be praying for their spiritual growth and for God to reveal himself to them.  Don’t think God speaks to everyone in the same way.  Your testimony isn’t the same as mine, and every autistic child will have their own faith journey too.  God uses those the world thinks are weak to shame the strong.  Whatever messages the autistic child in your church is receiving from the world outside, make sure that the messages they are receiving from inside are good.

Whenever you think “but… we can’t do this, they can’t do, or I don’t know how to…”  stop….pause and instead pray.

Ask God to show you the way, look for the ways the child is showing you.

Mark 10:14

When Jesus saw this, he was angry. He said to his disciples, “Let the little children come to me. Don’t keep them away. God’s kingdom belongs to people like them.

Mark 10:15

What I’m about to tell you is true. Anyone who will not receive God’s kingdom like a little child will never enter it.”

 

Mission and People with Learning Disabilities

It’s been four months since I left the Good News Group and I’ve lamented on how hard I have found it and reflected on what God might me leading me to next. However, one gift God has given me is the opportunity to go back to GNG once a term to lead the teaching. I loved being with them at Christmas and this term the group are looking at mission, along with the rest of St Andrew’s church.

So I’m going back this Wednesday to introduce the topic, which has given me opportunity to pray and look at what place people with intellectual and other disabilities have in the mission of the church.

It is clear when we look at Mephibosheth in the Old Testament and the paralysed man who was brought to Jesus through the roof by his friends, (Luke 5 and Mark 2). as well as the parable of the great banquet (Matthew 22), that people with disabilities are meant to be in the kingdom of God. David brought Mephibosheth to the king’s table, despite him being previously banished and his own assessment of his life being “I’m nothing but a dead dog”. (2 Samuel 9:8) David treated Mephibosheth like a kings son. Jesus showed in his healings and actions, and specifically when healing Bartimaeus (Mark 10), that sin did not cause disability. Jesus showed great respect and inclusion of people with disabilities in his kingdom. Showing us all that we were all in the same state of judgement for sin and in need of rescue by God’s son who came to save us.

So starting with who needs salvation?

…the answer is all of us.

Who can be in God’s kingdom?

….anyone who believes Jesus is God’s son who came to pay for our sin.

My teaching is going to begin by reminding us all about this fact. We cannot be missionaries if we don’t know and believe what the message is!

I’m going to play two songs, and probably have my puppet sing it to the group. First ‘Mighty to Save’ by the Newsboys and then ‘Rescuer (Good News)’ by Rend Collective. I find that music is a great way to help reinforce the teaching and I want to use these two songs to remind us all that the gospel is an exciting thing to share, that it really is the good news.

Then we will look at the Holy Spirit and how before Pentecost, even those who had seen the risen Jesus were scared and hiding away. When God’s power came by the Holy Spirit they were bold, could communicate with people they couldn’t communicate with before, and had courage to go and tell everyone they met the good news about Jesus.

I know the members of the GNG who are passionate and sure of their faith in Jesus. I want to tell them that their communication, intellectual or physical barriers should not prevent them being missionaries. I’m thinking of One young woman who speaks through eye gaze technology forming sentences on a screen. What she has to say about the gospel is just as good as what Billy Graham had to say about the gospel. And the gospel doesn’t always need words. Signing, caring, inner joy are all ways to communicate the gospel about Jesus.

I know words aren’t always necessary. I became a Christian because of some believers actions. I saw Jesus shining out in the way they cared for, accepted and included me. At that time my life was a mess, I had too many wrong things going on and I was on the verge of a mental breakdown. These people did not judge, but showed me Jesus loved me through their actions towards me. They just made sure I knew Jesus was the reason they cared for me so much. A few months later I gave my life to Jesus and started on the best part of my life.

My friends who are seen as ‘less’ by society (and some in the church) because of their disabilities have so much to offer the churches mission. All of them who believe have the same access to the Holy Spirit as all believers. So, ‘what qualification do you need to be a missionary?’ The answer is to know who Jesus is and believe he is the saviour God has sent for all people.

Obviously mission starts where we are. Telling our friends, housemates, carers, families, neighbours, therapists, doctors and people we meet in the community about Jesus is mission. But it would be easy to assume that is all the mission people with disabilities can do.

There may be some difficulties in people with disabilities becoming full time or even short term missionaries on overseas or local mission events. But we need to give them every opportunity to be included. That may mean extra work to make it happen. For example, does your youth group get involved in a short term overseas mission? How could a disabled teenager be given the same opportunity? How can we help and make this happen?

One of the barriers we have found has been logistics. I have always wanted our GNG members to be given the opportunity to speak and share the gospel when we are invited to speak at events. But getting people there has been a real barrier. Time, safety, distance and medical needs have been a challenge. So whilst aiming for getting much better at this what we have done is start with what we can do. So we have tried to stay local, so I can pick people up and get them home in the same day. When I’ve been in Manchester and Liverpool lately, this allowed Cristina, Stefan and John to come and be part of our mission.

Another thing I tried was video. So when I went to London, I interviewed John and Chelsea who then were able to present what they had to say on screen. There’s a few opportunities coming up where we can have more GNG members involved in sharing the gospel, their stories and faith (God willing). We will continue to learn new ways of communicating that message…after all, that’s the ‘gift of tongues’ that we are asking for.

Communication might be in words, signs, pictures, music, actions. The Holy Spirit can use all of these, through any of us to let others know who Jesus is and how much they need him as their saviour.

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