Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

Posts tagged ‘#autism’

So I get to speak at a couple of conferences!

No Limits.jpg

This is unashamedly a plug for the Enabling Church “No Limits” conference happening in less than 2 weeks from today – in London – so if you can come PLEASE do.

The Churches for All organisation has been set up to bring together those Christian organisations that promote inclusion and speak out as people with disability under one umbrella organisation.  To pool resources and work together is the aim, and the conference is born out of this.   But it needs supporting, people need to come so I’m asking you to please try.  And if it is successful, I and others are going to see if we can get some support and a venue to put a similar conference on up in the north of England.

I’m doing 3 workshops at the No Limits conference this time.  I’m busy planning them this week!  (Only left it this late because the Puppet Festival was first – see below!).  But I am happy that I am doing one workshop about helping teens with disabilities grow and flourish in church as they develop into adults.  The second workshop will be showing people how to tell a sensory Bible story and it WILL be interactive!  Thirdly I will be looking at behaviour management in a children and young people’s group.  Some children with challenging behaviours have additional needs, some undiagnosed but I do have a few tips and approaches that just might help.  There are lots of other workshops too as well as the Key note speeches – so do take a look (and book).  Looking forward to seeing some of you there!

The European Puppet and Creative Arts Festival

This was run by One Way UK was last weekend and along with my daughter, we presented 4 workshops over the two days.  The first was simply an introduction to autism, with some tips about how to support children, families and adults with autism.

 

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The second was a practical session looking at different creative ways of communicating the Bible.  We split into two groups and used puppets and sensory stories to tell about Moses and the burning bush and about Jonah.

The third session was an introduction to Makaton and using signing to communicate faith words, in songs and in prayers and was enhanced by the arrival of a newly qualified Makaton tutor…thanks Linda so much for your help!!!

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Finally, I led a discussion session about how inclusive are our churches.  But this being a puppet festival, we used the puppets to show how diverse our congregations are and to act out different ways we exclude people.  It was lovely to finish this session with a prayer time – using our prayer tree and symbols to show how we try to include everyone in our group of adults with learning disabilities.

 

Thanks One Way Uk!  We appreciate the new puppet skills we also learned and I’m looking forward to seeing how we can develop some puppet activities in the Good News Group ministry.

An Overlooked Generation

One of the benefits of the Internet is interacting with people you never might have met otherwise. It has been wonderful to get to know some autistic adults who have quickly become my friends.  I love to hear about their experiences of church because I learn from those.  

My friend Hilary is a woman who was diagnosed as Asperger’s just a few years ago. She is a talented Astronomy lecturer, passionate about her subject and very able to communicate her passion to others. 

I asked Hilary about church and she spoke about all the capable autistic people that are in our churches that we are ignoring because of their social and sensory awkwardness.  Here is what she writes….

  

Image from : https://asdculture.wikispaces.com/Role+Models

An Overlooked Generation

A friend of mine once wrote a six page letter to the leadership of his church expressing his valid concerns about a topical news story that he felt needed discussing and responding to. The leadership did not read his letter. They collectively perceived this man to be intense, obsessive and too difficult to communicate with even to try. In truth my friend had a deep love for the Lord, was able to express himself with the written word but not as well verbally, and he had an insightful perception of pastoral issues. Why were his views dismissed?

If my friend had been diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, or having autistic traits, would he have been listened to? Would there have been a recognition that this was someone whose views were valuable, just as those are valued who have more obvious physical disabilities?

The social disability of able adults with Asperger’s who have not been diagnosed is quite simply often not recognised or realised. It is a largely overlooked generation of people. A group of people who are able to speak eloquently and publicly, hold animated discussions, teach, debate, write, have careers and jobs, and have solid friendships, relationships and marriages. The consequence of this ‘ableness’ is that our intensity of focus, not letting up on a particular issue till resolved, our social awkwardness, our difficulties of experiencing sudden changes – of leadership or of the pastor, the seats being arranged differently, the unexpected event in a service – the sensory overload and resulting exhaustion of the after service coffee/tea socialising, the absence from church social events, the disorienting experience of being in any group of people of more than three, the need to sit on the end of a row and at the back, are all seen to be simply odd and antisocial, not a disability. Our opinions and views are then often and perhaps even subconsciously, dismissed. This was often my experience before 2006 when I was assessed and diagnosed officially as ‘an Asperger’s adult’. I have seen many others being perceived and responded to in the same way before and since. 

There are likely to be such people in your church.

It is obviously and highly likely there were autistic people in Jesus’ day. Consider the apostle Paul! He was intense, academically brilliant, expressive in writing but not apparently so or as much in speech, and was totally and passionately focused. Of course, I’m not putting a case that he was, I am suggesting it is a possibility. If reading this provokes thoughts such as, “but Paul was an apostle, he couldn’t have been…” then that might reveal an interesting prejudice that has not come to the surface until now.

Church is a place where we all can strive to make one another welcome, accepted and loved, The best outreach is to have said about us, “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” John 13:35

  

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!

Letting God build the ministry.

In January 2014 I wrote this post “ASC What’s That?”  about starting up my own business in supporting children with Autism in schools.   Part of my motivation was to get out of a stifling education system that crushed my ideas and creativity and give myself space to get involved in disability ministry more and more.  I was crushed, but not defeated; demoralised, but not without hope. I stepped out from all the pressure and condemnation into a world where all I had was a lot of ideas, buckets of enthusiasm and a need to start earning a wage very quickly.

My company – Reachout ASC

I hit the ground running and have hardly stopped for breath since.  I have learned how to actually think like a business, had a website made and am supporting nearly 20 schools regularly with over 500 people having attended training that I have delivered.  Not only to schools but family support charities, churches and a children’s work conference in sunny Eastbourne.   I was so keen to bring my ministry and work life together so that I could feel fully ‘me’ in all that I do.

I have been really encouraged by a Lou Fellingham song Build this House (listen here).  It says  “Unless you build this house, I am building it in vain.  Unless the work is yours there is nothing to be gained.”  (C) Lou Fellingham.   In any kind of job and ministry that is starting something, or moving something on, we can only build what God has planned.

Although God seems to be pressing on with things!  As well as my business growing so that I am taking on two more autism specialist teachers so that we can support more schools, I am whizzing around the county talking to Head Teachers, SENCOs, Speech and Language Therapists and teachers about our service and hopefully helping a few more children with Autism and Asperger’s have a successful time in school.   I now have a Facebook page here, full of articles and ideas about autism;  am active in the Twitter education and SEN community; (Follow me here @ReachoutASC ) and I am writing a book about supporting pupils with ASC in secondary schools.   I LOVE MY JOB!

My website! Please have a look.

My website! Please have a look.

I have always had a love of learning.  And I am learning so much that I am able to convert into action in church too.  I have set up a churches tab on my website and will continue to add new resources.

The Good News Group

We continue to run our weekly meeting for the adults with learning disabilities in our community.  We are seeing spiritual growth in so many as we let God lead us in discipling them.  We’ve had a brilliant Puppet workshop from One Way UK and a revamp of our activities during our social time (I think we were all getting a bit bored of the same things) and have just sorted a load of boxes with activities suggested by our members.  We weren’t bothered about age appropriateness when they asked for sensory toys, playdough and duplo!  It’s going to be fun for all of us to play together as adults.  We’ve also got some picture Bible’s to read, Bible colouring and some more crafts, jigsaws and games.   The group is just like I would love church to be for everyone.  Full of joy, love and freindship whatever your abiliity.   However, we have all the issues and trauma’s as any other ministry group might have and have recently had a bereavement.    We are feeling really sad about it, but we have hope in knowing that a lovely, quiet man who loved the Good News Group and liked to pray, is now with our Saviour Jesus.

One Way UK Puppet workshop

One Way UK Puppet workshop

This lady is our jigsaw whizz!

This lady is our jigsaw whizz!

Lancashire Disability Network

The Lancashire Churches Disability Network went really well.  With the support of Tim Wood from Through the Roof, we had over 40 people at our first meeting.  The buzz and enthusiasm was fantastic and we are praying once again….God build this house, or we are building it in vain.  The next meeting is in a couple of weeks and already, one church is making plans to set up their own group for adults with learning disabilities.  People want to find things out, share experiences and learn together.  I AM REALLY EXCITED AND GRATEFUL.  This group has been two years in the praying, planning and waiting.  I have learned some patience…………
I am grateful too for you who have read, shared and supported this blog.  Keep on sharing, commenting and looking where God wants you to build his house.  

Being an Advocate in your church

I suppose you might be reading this because you have some interest in making your church more accessible for people with disabilties. I don’t know if you are disabled yourself, or are a parent or carer, or maybe you just see that there’s a part of God’s family missing in your church.  I don’t know what term you prefer, a label or none. I use different terms on purpose, but most of all, we are God’s children in Christ.  So welcome, brother or sister!


I asked the wonderful people in the Additional Needs Alliance what they thought made a good advocate.  Anyone speaking on the behalf of others is essentially an advocate.  It had me thinking about the nature of advocacy and how it might work.

  1. The first and most important point was to be a good listener.  To be able to speak on the behalf of others, you need to be able to know what they would say. BEWARE….this is where we face the ever present danger of ASSUMING.  We patronise people if we assume we know what they would want or say without really knowing.  Even if people cannot use words, there should be opportunity for them to make their thoughts known through other communication methods. Sometimes just being with them, seeing how they respond to different situations can give us all the clues we need to understand what a person likes or doesn’t.
  2. Relationship is at the heart of advocacy.  If we wish to speak on the behalf (or even better…alongside) people with disabilties, then we need to build friendships and give them our time.  If you want to suggest changes in church, set up a ministry or change attitudes then relationships give us the foundations for real action for real people.
  3.   Is it because they cannot speak for themselves?  Going back to point 2,  why are we taking on this role of advocate?  It is better that we open up the way for a person to speak for themselves, supporting and enabling them rather than speaking for them.  I would love to take some of our group to a PCC meeting and let them use symbols and Makaton to tell everyone there about their experience of church! (They’d all be up for that!)
  4. Knowlegde is useful too. We have an amazing resource in the Internet, social media, blogs and access to research at our finger tips. This too comes with a BEWARE warning…each article or blog is an individual experience and we need to take a wider view, bringing all aspects together.  For example, I have learned so much about what it is like to have autism from many fantastic articles and blogs,  that I now understand how faith develops and can be understood despite some of the differences in thinking and processing in autistic people. I know that some don’t mind being called autistic, that it is their identity.  I would really recommend the Oxford Diocese advice on supporting people with autism in churches. Written by an autistic person, the lovely Ann Memmott. http://www.oxford.anglican.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/autism_guidelines.pdf
  5. Be gracious. As soon as people start to feel threatened they get defensive and we end up in a cycle of bitterness. I have found small steps work best, especially if you are suggesting a change to a well established way of doing things.  Even if it seems like it is a long hard struggle, get people around you who will pray and remind you of grace.  In all things, Christ will be our greatest advocate.  And pray. And forgive. And pray.
  6. Be bold. Pray first. Speak up when something is clearly unjust and damaging to a person with additional needs. They often can’t or feel able to speak up for themselves, especially if they feel very hurt or excluded by the actions or attitudes of the church.  This bit scares me a lot.  But an important part of advocacy is not to let wrong things continue.
  7. If possible preach inclusion, preach the gospel in as many ways as all people can access it. Make discipling and enabling people with additonal needs part of what the church does.  Leaders who do this will be great advocates and role models for their congregation.
  8. There is another kind of advocacy I have come across more and more, that is speaking up for people  with additonal  needs in society. Since the general election there has been a lot of fear about how further cuts will affect vulnerable and disabled people. Christians are speaking up, organising protests and pleading with the government to look after, not make life harder for disabled people to access what the rest of us take for granted.  Look at the campaign by Compassionate Britain http://compassionatebritain.org.uk  if you are interested in this.

It seems that the key to advocating is definitely getting to know people with additional needs, and much of it is done by people who are family members. That places a great burden on them, having to advocate and care for their families. No wonder church becomes such a difficult place to be for them. There must be a better way. When I look at how Jesus cared for and welcomed people who were weary and had all kinds of needs, then coming to him was a gentle and wonderful experience. I am just thinking aloud here. so many of us want to see inclusive churches. Some are and we praise God for them. I am struggling to understand how people have been hurt, turned away and ignored in the one place they shouldn’t be. I am so glad for the wonderful pastors, vicars, youth leaders and other Christians who love all people and will do all they can to include them.  I’d recommend to all of you to look at becoming a Roofbreaker, with Through the Roof Charity.  Here is a structure and resources to help you become an effective advocate in your church.  http://www.throughtheroof.org/info-and-resources/be-a-roofbreaker/

But don’t forget….it begins with listening….

A great resource bank

website   Me and a friend explaining the Bible to adults with learning disabilities

Welcome to my website – please take a look.  The information and resources I share on my talks about adults and children with learning disabilities in church are there and lots of other resources for autism.  each week there will be something new… bookmark it and keep taking a look.     www.reachoutasc.com/churches

If you think of something that could be added – get in touch!     What do you think?

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