Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties


Psalm 131 (NIRV)

A song for those who go up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. A psalm of David.

Lord, my heart isn’t proud.
My eyes aren’t proud either.
I don’t concern myself with important matters.
I don’t concern myself with things that are too wonderful for me.
I have made myself calm and content
like a young child in its mother’s arms.
Deep down inside me, I am as content as a young child.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forever.

I’ve just come home after attending the funeral of one of our Good News Group members.  Angela had Down’s Syndrome and lived to be 61.  She lived with her family and was part of a church that loved and accepted her as she was.  She’d been at the GNG for many years but hadn’t been attending for almost a year due to being ill….but she is and always will be part of our family.  We will miss her very much.

You see Angela didn’t have very many words but those she did have she used to great effect.  She introduced herself to everyone – literally everyone – by going up to them with a huge smile on her face and greeting them with “Hello, my name is Angela” in a beautiful sing song voice.

Angela loved handbags, football and colouring in.  She loved music and singing worship songs and got so excited when we had puppets that we used to just get them out of the box and sit one next to her, just to share in her delight.  She had a twinkle in her eye that told us when she was joking or pulling our leg and Jesus shone in her and from her every pore. And Angela could say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” because that came from one of her favourite films.

Angela was never judgemental.  She had no regard for status or rank.  She treated everyone the same whether she liked you or you had done something that annoyed her (although she was never mad for long).   Angela lived each day just for that day and didn’t seem to worry about the future.  She did love and engage with everyone around her, no matter who you were.   The Queen would have had the same greeting as a pauper.

A bit like the Jesus I know.

I’m tired of people being excluded from church families because they are different, don’t fit the mould or are the wrong kind of person.  “Are you disabled? Well, you can’t do this or that.   Are you a woman…then, you can’t do this or that.  Are you LGBT?…then, you can’t do this or that.  Are you a foreigner?…well you can’t do this or that.  Can’t you keep you disabled child quiet?…then you can’t do this or that.  Are you mentally ill?…then you can’t do this or that.  We can’t have our churches run by these kinds of people.”  

 Did Jesus make up these categories…I don’t think so…

But these are the messages I hear from all kinds of Christians and church people.  We’re all shouting at each other and no-one seems to be listening.  (Except maybe the outside world who think what are they on about?!)

So, in my grief today I was reminded that Jesus came for all of mankind.  That no-one is excluded unless they think they don’t need him.   I want to be more like Angela and accept everyone, just as they are.  I am working it out as He teaches me what that looks like in practice.  I’m willing to be shown where I’ve got it wrong –  by the Spirit working in and through the people and situations I meet.   At the moment I don’t even know if I want to part of ‘the church’ in this country that’s doing a lot of shouting – but not about the gospel, only at each other.  But I expect God will sort my thoughts out about that eventually.

So will you join me in being more like Angela?  Angela’s name means “MESSENGER OF GOD” and here’s her message. It’s simple really.  Open up your arms and greet people in the name of Jesus.   No matter who they are.

Multi-Ethnic Group Of People Holding The Word Welcome

This doesn’t need to happen. Some thought and planning can avoid it.

The Additional Needs Blogfather

I received a message last Sunday that made my blood boil… Those of you that know me will appreciate that this doesn’t happen very often; I’m rather determined at times but rarely lose my temper. The message I received made me furious, absolutely mad as could be… Livid… I still am, and here’s why…

Some 2,000 years ago, Jesus is recorded as having said “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)  Now, whether you are a Christian or not, this speaks to me of acceptance, of inclusion, of belonging…

Jesus didn’t say “Let the little children come to me… except that one who can sometimes find things harder to follow and so needs extra support, can often struggle with lots of people and noise so needs help to cope, and can occasionally…

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Isaiah 58:6  (NIV)

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?”


In 2006 I started teaching my first class in a school for children with severe autism and learning difficulties.  A class of six teenage boys, with six teaching assistants, one for each.  One boy, let’s call him Gordon, often needed two TAs with him.  He would hit his own forehead with both fists unless the TAs sat hold his arms gently giving him reassurance that they were there.  At first, most days he would have what is called a ‘meltdown’ where he would become very distressed, arch his back, hit himself and be in danger of getting hurt by the furniture that he would fall against.  As a team we were well trained in safe holding techniques and were given extra support and training to keep him safe, reassure him and help him recover.  Neither the headteacher or us as a staff were happy that we had to do this but our prime concern was the safety of Gordon.  It was really horrible to see him become so distressed and not be able to tell us why.

Around then we had training about sensory integration therapy and the school employed a sensory therapist to assess the sensory needs of all the children in the school.  Understanding the sensory needs of children with autism was only just coming into our education system at that time.  As we put the therapy in place and I as teacher began to bring sensory work into all my lessons, we soon noticed that Gordon was calmer, more engaged with the lessons and his sense of humour began to emerge.  We also worked on understanding his communication and realised that he could take up to 5 minutes to process a visual piece of information, and if we left a symbol with him he would look at it intently until he’d processed it.  Then instead of needed adults to escort him everywhere, he would get up and take himself to the playground or wherever we were going.  By the end of that school year, Gordon was sitting at the group table, engaged in lessons, following the routines and loved our trips out in the minibus.  The meltdowns had decreased to almost nothing and he made us laugh with his humour and cheekiness when he did things and watched us to see if we would laugh.

But Gordon left the school the year after.  He was sent to a medical assessment facility for people with autism at the other side of the country.  I never saw him again.  He’ll be a man now.   I still pray for him because I could never forget him and was worried that other people wouldn’t take the time and effort to get to know him like we did.  I wanted to let them know what sensory activities he loved and what helped him stay calm.  I wanted to tell them how to give him processing time and that he would seek to make them laugh.  Gordon and the rest of those boys taught me so much about autism.  They taught me to get to know the person, to take the time to watch and listen to how a person communicates and to allow time for someone to process my communication to them.

I was thinking about Gordon when I watched the Channel 4 Dispatches programme “Under Lock and Key”  this week about a large secure hospital for people (often children with autism and complex needs.  It was classed as mental health issues but it seemed clear to me that their mental health issues were caused by not receiving the right therapy and support.  Families who were desperate to get help for their children were brushed off, patronised, seemingly blamed.  The children were isolated, locked up in ‘cells’, forced to have strong medications, physically abused with ‘handling’ techniques that are some of the most dangerous – and there were deaths. I wept through that programme…and prayed that Gordon never got taken to such a place.

It’s Lent and a group of us have challenged ourselves to read Isaiah 58 for the whole month of March.  It’s not hard to see how these verses relate to what I am saying about Gordon and the other young people in these hospitals.   There are a lot of children, young people and adults who are non-verbal and severely disabled by their autism – or to be more precise, severely disabled and frightened and anxious because they are not receiving the understanding, care and therapy that would give them a better quality of life and the ability to function in a safe and enriching environment.  There are these big ‘mental hospitals’ around the country, (some of them are expanding…urrrggh) and parents often have to travel miles and miles to even visit their child.

There was a move away from ‘shutting away’ people in large mental health institutions in the 1960s and 1970s which culminated in the Mental Health Act of 1983 to move people out of these institutions and into the community – 34 years later, why do we still have these places?

As Christians, Isaiah 58 is a wake up call to us now as much as it was to the Israelites all those years ago.  I am challenged to learn more about what facilities are in my area and to think about how we can reach out to those people with learning disabilities who do live in the community or with their families who either cannot access church or don’t think they would be welcome.  Every person with autism or learning disabilities has a right to have religious beliefs and practices.  Here is a useful document to read about that.   I know there are some chaplains that do visit the big hospitals.  But there is also the issue of how much they and us as Christians understand about autism or learning disabilities.  As I’ve said before in this post “Don’t infantalise adults with LD” some training and learning for all of us would really help.  But, like with Gordon, listening learning and respecting that person for who they are will make a huge difference.  We can share our faith once we loose those chains of injustice (speak out against these hospitals, campaign for better community care, come alongside parents and people with autism/ LD as they battle against PIP assessments by people who know nothing about their condition, speak up for inclusion in our church and seek to learn what we can to help).  In fact, isn’t that what sharing our faith should be…according to Isaiah 58…



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.


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:

Peter etc.png

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.

‘2017: A Faith Odyssey’

This is great news from Mark Arnold at Urban Saints. A commitment to inclusion.

The Additional Needs Blogfather

In 1968 ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, possibly the most iconic sci-fi movie of all-time, hit the cinema.  16 years later the sequel, ‘2010: The Year We Make Contact’ arrived.  Both are firm favourites of mine, but a clip from ‘2010’ has been going around in my head this week, a week that has been hugely significant for me and I hope will be significant for additional needs and disability ministry to children and young people… It’s a clip that fits well with what’s been going on with me…

In the clip, Dave Bowman (a character from the original film) appears to Astronaut Dr. Heywood Floyd and reveals to him some amazing news…

Dave Bowman: You see, something’s going to happen…
Heywood Floyd: What? What’s going to happen?
Dave Bowman: Something wonderful.
Heywood Floyd: What?
Dave Bowman: I understand how you feel…

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Carrying other’s burdens.

Numbers 11:14  “I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me.”

Galatians 6:2  “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.”

Psalm 55:22  “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken.”

Hebrews 4:15 “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.”


I’ve not blogged for a while.  I’m not sure if anyone missed me!

I finished my Sabbatical and rejoined the Good News Group with a wonderful welcome from everyone, and a renewed passion for discipling our members.  Seeing their growth and reaching out to others is still our mission.   I want to blog about what we are doing this term – we are focussing on developing our groups understanding of and willingness to have a prayer life all of their own.  I will do that soon.

However, just as I went back I heard some terrible news.   It wasn’t something that directly affected me – but emotionally, I was hit hard.   Then other people that I know were given really bad news.  Being caught up in someone else’s tragedy and feeling all the grief but being unable to do anything at all to help or relieve their grief was just awful.   It hangs like a shadow over my daily life and I find myself caught in desperate prayer in everyday, ordinary moments as the grief comes over me like a tide.  I know how hard things are for them and desperately want to see their pain taken away.

It’s in these moments, not knowing what will happen, or if the person involved has the faith to get through their situation, that I and others around them will need to stand alongside and carry their burdens with them.   Sometimes people won’t let you do anything practically, or you’re too far away, but the Bible tells us that prayer is our first response.

I hope people who are suffering, these people I care for, are able to see that comfort comes from Christ.  He knew what suffering was.  He grieved for his friends and for the lost.  He prayed and taught us how to pray.

Romans 8:26   “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”

So I pray for you, if you are reading this.  That anything that is causing you to grieve, despair or worry – then may our Lord Jesus Christ bring you hope, peace and love.  Amen.


Well, first of all, we don’t call them sermons, but I thought that might get your attention.  At the Good News Group we teach and communicate the Gospel and the Bible in ways that our congregation can understand.  We’ve learned over 10 years of trial and error, what works and what doesn’t and would like to share some of what we have learned with you.

There are certain things to keep in mind

  • The range of cognitive ability can be as wide in a group of people with learning disabilities than in any regular Sunday congregation.  We must not assume people who can’t read or write or speak or hear or see, are intellectually impaired.  However, it is right to spend time with them, get to know what they know and how they learn.
  • Often the problem in understanding is our laziness in using ‘spiritual language’ that is only ever used in churches and which people generally are not sure what it really means. Even people who have been in church all their lives might not understand terms such as “the redeeming nature of Christ”.
  • We talk far too much. We use long sentences and say in hundreds of words what can be said in two sentences. We waffle and digress just to use up the time. I’m a teacher, I’ve done this all my life and listened to enough preachers to know this is true. We just have to admit it!
  • The range within the spiritual lives and spiritual maturity of people with learning disabilities can be huge too. There will be people who haven’t made that decision to follow Jesus to those who have a deep and long standing faith that has brought them through many challenges. We should know more about each persons individual faith through getting to know them.
  • The Bible is for all.  It is our job to make all of it accessible.

So in writing a service for people with learning disabilities such as those we have at the Good News Group these issues need to be thought through first.  I would use the same principles in a whole church service too.  We plan a half term of teaching from the Bible so that each session links to the others and we have an overall theme.  We choose from the old and new testaments and link everything to the gospel of Jesus our Saviour.

  1. Once you have chosen your Bible section, then brainstorm the applications that you might be teaching from this.  Then reduce that to one overall theme, in one or two sentences.  For example, in our series on Judges, our theme was “The people can’t keep God’s law. They need a rescuer.”  This works if you are doing a series of talks or a one off talk.
  2. When writing what you are going to say here are some good strategies that usually help a lot.  Keep sentences short.  Explain difficult words simply.  Ask questions (not just rhetorical ones, in fact NEVER ask rhetorical questions) and wait for replies.  (I love doing atalk with the interaction we get from the congregation!)
  3. Think about communication.  How many different ways can you include to help people access your talk.  Signing or a loop system for deaf people is obvious.  But pictures or visual objects can help those who find processing verbal langauge really difficult. These can be a power point of key pictures to sequence the story, or objects lthat tie the story to real life examples.
  4. Drama and puppets can help. Drama involves people in acting out the story, is visual and makes people feel part of the story.  Puppets can be characters from the story or be people trying to figure out what it means.  They can say things you dare not! That can be really useful.
  5. Pace the talk slower but not too slow.  Have pauses (while you smile and give eye contact, or let people pass round an object).  Use tone of voice and expression but never ‘baby’ adults with learning difficulties.  Be aware that people with autism may not give eye contact to you but that doesn’t mean they aren’t listening.  Having a refrain – such a a key word and a response can help the listeners concentrate on what you are saying.
  6. Give chances for people with learning debilities to contribute to the talk.  This can be by reading a Bible verse, acting something out or telling part of their own testimony or training them up to write and deliver talks themselves.
  7. Start with the familiar so that the listeners know that the Bible is relevant to them.  You may use a story of your own, a testimony from one of your group or a general experience they would all be familiar with.  Don’t shy away from real life.  People with disabilities watch the news, have benefit problems and suffer discrimination, perhaps more than most people.
  8. Sensory engagement can be really helpful for those who have severe learning difficulties, who are blind, deaf or who have severe physical disabilities.  This involves punctuating your talk with a sensory experience that relates to the point of the story. For examples you could read my posts on writing sensory Bible stories for adults, for teens, for children.
  9. End with the key point you identified at the beginning.  It’s good if they can take home a visual picture, illustrated Bible memory verse or other reminder so that they can reflect on the teaching in their own time.
  10. Try to give those who want to know more a link to materials they can access on the subject.  Prospects produce some Personal Bible study materials we like to recommend and online sources such as Torch Teust podcasts can be accessed by many people with learning disabilities.  Check them out yourself before recommending though.

This isn’t a complete guide to writing Bible teaching talks for adults with learning disabilities but it is sharing what we have learned has worked over the years.  I will share more as this next year progresses but in he mean time, if any of you find this helpful, please feel free to share it and please let me know how you approach teaching the Bible too. Do you think these principles would help children’s talks too?

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