There is a major problem that is flying under the radar of most American churches. Approximately one in 50 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and some sources say the number of children struggling with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is as high as one in 20. Many of these families report that they feel unable to attend church because it’s too stressful for their children and thus, for the parents as well. When I talk to parents about their experience, they tell heartbreaking stories of being kicked out of churches for being disruptive or "too much to handle." They feel lonely, isolated, bitter or hopeless. They want to be in church, but they feel unwelcome. Here are five things you can start with to immediately make your church more welcoming to families dealing with sensory challenges:
Educate your congregation.
Share your vision to reach this population with your congregation. Hand out a “Did you know?” type of flyer in your bulletin with a few facts about SPD and autism and so they can better understand the challenges. Recruit the special needs teachers in your congregation to help, or ask a parent to share their experiences. Show people pictures of common tools used by families like weighted lap blankets and chewy T necklaces, and explain stimming and self-soothing behaviors so that people understand and respond appropriately when they see them. Ask them to consider themselves ambassadors and servants to these families. This will take effort, but I promise that it only takes one grouchy person “shushing” someone’s struggling autistic child in a service for that family to never be seen in your church again.
Tell them they can come late.
For most families affected by SPD, the first 15 minutes of the service are the most challenging. Try to imagine entering church from the perspective of a person struggling with sensory challenges. If your brain can’t process touch, the press of people in the lobby is frightening because you may get bumped. If you find visual or auditory input difficult, all the people moving and chatting and laughing can be overwhelming. Then, you enter a sanctuary where people sit close together and often the lights change and the music is loud. By allowing (even inviting!) them to come late and skip the whole scene in the lobby and possibly even the opening music, you are setting them up to win because they are not already overwhelmed and struggling before they even get in there.
Save them a seat.
Reserve a section at the back specifically for these families. If they come late, there is nothing worse than hunting around for a seat – this alone may keep families away. In addition, the back is often so much easier for people with sensory challenges because it distances them a bit from the noise and movement on the platform, making them feel safer. It also gives parents an easy exit if their child really needs a break.
Give them tools to tone it down.
Most people with sensory challenges can handle a certain level of sensory stimulation. It’s when all the input adds up that they cross a line and become upset or overwhelmed, which may lead to a meltdown. Give them some tools to help them tone down the input. Have a couple of boxes by your sanctuary doors with ear plugs (or better, head phones if possible since many kids with SPD struggle with the feeling of ear plugs), sunglasses, and even squishy toys. The ear plugs and sunglasses reduce the audio and visual stimulation, and squishy toys are great for positive sensory input and anxiety calming. Yes, someone will have to wipe those down when they are returned, but that is a one minute job that can’t be compared to the welcoming and inclusive message you will be sending those families.
Start a buddy program.
Most families of autistic children are exhausted. They need church to be their place to recharge and be renewed by God, but more often it is stressful and difficult to be constantly vigilant. Ask your congregation if there are people who could see this as their personal ministry, and be trained to be buddies who could accompany children to Sunday school and let the parents worship and rest. You may have an occupational therapist, a child development specialist or a special needs teacher in your congregation who could help train the buddies. It may take a good bit of time for the child to get to know the buddy and trust them to go with them, especially depending on where the child falls on the spectrum. This should be considered a long-term mentoring friendship and an incredible opportunity for ministry.
Remember, even if no one ever takes the sunglasses or if they decline a buddy, just by having those resources available you are telling families with autistic children: “We want you here. We support you. You are welcome.” And that may be the difference between a family who is able to be in church and one who isn’t.
Jennifer Shaw is a Telly Award winning speaker, five-time Top 40 Billboard singer/songwriter, and author of the book “Life Not Typical: How Special Needs Parenting Changed my Faith and my Song,” an Autism Speaks resource. She is also mom to six biological and adopted children, some of whom have sensory struggles. For more information, please visit her at www.jennifershaw.com.