Thursday, November 18, 2010

Church with the special needs child

Amanda Broadfoot recently linked an article she posted earlier this year in which she asked,
"If you attend some house of worship, I'd really love to know how it handles kids with special needs. If you don't know, could you do me a favor and ask someone? I have a couple of reasons for asking this favor: First of all, I'm curious about the various ways this is handled and looking for ideas. Secondly, I think that the more people ask this question, the more likely the issue is to be addressed."
I hadn't yet found her blog when she posted this, but I think it's worth discussing, and I promised to fill you in on how things were going with GL and his volunteers.

This is the first church that we've been in that expressed the sentiment, "We're all in this together. We need him as much as he needs us." rather than, "Hey, you! Straighten up your kid!" We keep coming back because our son is not only tolerated, but welcomed. Despite his challenges, they work with him so he can serve as an acolyte. When Children's Church wasn't working out for him, but he wasn't able to sit through the regular service, (He still isn't, most Sundays) several men in the church volunteered to take turns sitting with him during the service and taking him for a walk if he needed it, so we could have opportunities to worship. That's worked out remarkably well.

With two of us and three volunteers, everyone got a chance to worship, and we each took responsibility for GL about once a month. I tried to make a schedule for whose turn it was to sit with him, but it was difficult. Both of us and all three volunteers were already on the schedule as readers, ushers, Children's Church teachers, etc. I tried to work it out so no one had the job two Sundays in a row or when they were scheduled to serve in some other capacity, but it wasn't always possible, and there were always last-minute changes due to illness, travel, etc. Most weeks, we ended up checking the schedule a few minutes before service to see who, if anyone, was available. Sometimes he sits with us, and we agree in advance who will take him out if he needs it. Our church writes its serving schedule quarterly, so I think I will ask the scheduler if she can work this job into the weekly schedule.

We make sure GL gets his meds before church and provide him with a bag of snacks, including large quantities of Big Red. Chewing gum is calming for GL. So are strong flavors. He used to eat cumin straight from the jar. He sits toward the back. Yes, he's likely to be less of a distraction there, but it's also the easiest place for him to keep calm. The crowd is thinner, and most sounds are quieter and farther away. But what has made this work so well are the men themselves. I'll call them St. Luke, St. Stephen and St. Paul. Each has his own style.

St. Luke has three children of his own, all younger than GL and BB. One of his daughters has special needs, too. His son is two years old, and likes to climb on, under, over, and between the pews. All three children like to look at books, color, and have snacks during church. They have a very active pew, but usually keep it reasonably quiet. GL finds the children entertaining, especially when he gets bored with the service. He's not usually very affectionate, but he hugs St. Luke, and cuddles up next to him like a favorite uncle.

St. Stephen has two preteen sons and a teen daughter who usually sit with their friends. St. Stephen usually sits toward the front with his wife, (other family and friends usually sit with them) but on the weeks he sits with GL, they sit in the back, just the two of them. Other than occasionally teasing GL by asking if he can have all the snacks, he mostly focuses on the service, but walks around with GL if needed.

St. Paul, an electrician by trade, is quiet and unassuming.  He seems to be the best at entering GL's world, not talking down to him, but putting himself in GL's shoes. I later found out he had filled a similar role years earlier in another church for a young man with autism. The father had died, and the mother needed help, so he helped out wherever he could. GL sometimes models his quiet, calm demeanor. Other times, he just stretches out on the pew as if to take a nap.

The change of pace, style, and demeanor from week to week within the structure of the same time, place, and ritual seems to be working. He sits through more of the service more often and more quietly than he ever did before. If he leaves during the sermon, he insists on coming back in time for Communion. I know he finds the predictability reassuring. I believe he also recognizes that he is refreshed, restored, and strengthened by it in ways we don't fully understand.

So in turn, I ask you,
"If you attend some house of worship, I'd really love to know how it handles kids with special needs. If you don't know, could you do me a favor and ask someone? I have a couple of reasons for asking this favor: First of all, I'm curious about the various ways this is handled and looking for ideas. Secondly, I think that the more people ask this question, the more likely the issue is to be addressed."
Please pass this on to your friends, post it on your blog, Facebook, wherever, and report back the responses. I'd really like to hear the discussion. And read the Broadfoot family's continuing story, Can I use miles to pay for my spiritual journey?

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4 Comments:

Blogger JoyMama said...

Good question! We had the volunteers-thing going on at our congregation too, to help Joy through Sunday-school and nursery, since she's not at a point yet to sit for worship. It was wonderful to have so much help, but was becoming more challenging to fill the roster of volunteers (a different pair each week of the month, one for Sunday-school & one for nursery), not to mention coordinating and making sure they were all available for "their" week. This year we're trying something new, using a respite-care worker who comes every Sunday and provides more continuity.

Our congregation has also invited the families of children with disabilities to do presentations during adult Sunday-school, with background on our children's strengths and challenges, and how we suggested they could best be supported at church.

November 19, 2010 at 5:52 AM  
Blogger Jen said...

Our son can't tolerate the crowd and singing yet, but we will work on it:) Jen

November 19, 2010 at 7:44 AM  
OpenID whatsweetermusic said...

PB, I think this post should go up under the Reader's Favorites category.

December 3, 2010 at 8:27 PM  
Blogger Both Sides of the Coin- Christy said...

I'm glad I saw this post on the top of your page- we need all the help we can get in this department. Our son is 3 1/2, and so far stays in the church nursery. I'm not sure how much longer he'll be welcome there, especially since yesterday he escaped... I think we might have to work out something with volunteers like you did.

Thanks also for mentioning us on your post today! It's good to see the autism dads banding together. :)

April 18, 2011 at 2:34 PM  

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