Supporting Children and Families in Places of Worship

Recently, in preparation for creating this website and completing my occupational therapy capstone, I was speaking with a pastor about how he viewed disability and how disability impacted his church. He noted that while he has spent much of his career in ministry working with older adults with various health conditions, he emphasized to me that he saw a growing need for changes in children’s ministry to accommodate for children he referred to as “behaviorally challenged.” While listening to him speak, I recognized that he was aware of the growing prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the United States and how it is affecting the families that attend his church.

In my time as an OT student in a pediatric clinic, I saw many children with a wide array of developmental disabilities, including autistic children. While many of these children had a diagnosed developmental disability or were considered “neurodiverse*,” many of them attended private schools where there are no special education classrooms. In fact, many of the kids I was treating were in “advanced” of “gifted” classes. However, these kids still needed occupational therapy for their dyspraxia, their sensory processing disorders, or for other social and emotional delays that may have resulted in behaviors similar to those that the pastor I was talking to was familiar with. In a typical treatment session, I would work with children on skills to help them feel grounded in their bodies, regulate their emotions, and process the environment around them all within the context of the regular occupations (usually play!)

As I noted earlier, many of my children went to private schools, many of which were religiously-based. My kids would tell me about going to school church services, and having an interest in disability and religious participation, I would love hearing their stories about their experiences with faith. I was especially curious about how often my patients attended church related activities, considering a 2018 study that found that children with autism spectrum disorders are likely to never attend religious services. In the same study, children with other diagnoses were also likely to never have been to church, including children with ADHD, developmental delays, learning disabilities, oppositional defiant disorder, depression, anxiety, and speech problems.

As a Christian and as an occupational therapy student, these findings really trouble me, but after working closely with many children with the diagnoses listed above, I can understand why families may feel that churches and worship spaces are not friendly to their children. However, as a person who has attended both churches with rich traditional liturgies and modern churches with contemporary services, I can identify many resources already available in these churches that may be supportive to children with developmental disabilities or sensory and behavioral challenges.

Luckily, I think there are quite a few concrete steps places of worship can take to easily make their communities more welcoming to these children and their families. Here are a few examples of things I think would benefit children with developmental or learning disabilities in churches:

Offer multiple service times

It’s no surprise that often times families have a hard time getting out early in the morning, especially if their children have extra challenges with their morning routines. Offering multiple service times and even services that tend to go longer or shorter can be beneficial to children with developmental disabilities. If your church already does this, and you have noticed that certain services tend to run shorter due to changes in music or liturgical style of the service, make sure to list this on your website! Knowing how long a child will be expected to sit inside of a new environment and allowing for the opportunity to try out different service times gives a sense of predictability to the children and their family and can ease their hesitations about attending a service.

Give families concrete examples of what to expect.

Along the same lines as the last tip, predictability is extremely comforting and important to many autistic children and adults. You may assume that people know what to expect when attending church, but many times they don’t! I myself am Catholic, and one thing Catholics love to talk about is how our masses are “the same” everywhere you go in the world. However, in my five years of being Catholic, I have been to countless masses, and they is a great diversity in how mass is celebrated just in my own diocese! Some masses include rich sensory experiences: a loud organ, incense burning, bright lights, and visually stimulating environments with icons and stained glass lining the walls. Some masses I have been to are in simple white churches, with light piano or guitar. The sensory experiences of these two examples are vastly different, and can make a huge difference for a family.

My suggestion for a church would be to list some details on your church’s website about what each service is like. For example, if your 9 am service is usually loud with a full band playing modern songs or an organ and choir belting out traditional hymns, but your 11 am service is accompanied by a pianist or no music, list this on the website. I really like how this Lutheran church lists details about their services – noting that it is traditional, includes a multi-sensory experience, and gives the reader a vision of what the service may be like. This way, a parent of a child can determine if the church environment may work for their child, and if so, they can talk together about what to expect from the service. It also gives parents and idea of things they may want to bring with them to the service, like noise-cancelling headphones, a favorite toy, or time to listen to songs or readings that will be played or said at the service to prepare their child for the experience ahead.

If you’re like me and your church has a liturgy that is pretty consistent, think about making a social story like this one that children can keep with them before and during the service. Social stories, or descriptions of events and scenarios, usually with pictures and simple language, are easy to create and have been proven to be very helpful tools for children with processing delays. A similar tool to a social story that does not include written language can be found here, which could be immensely helpful for children and adults who are unable to read to help create meaning in going to church.

Continue to livestream!

While we all long for the days that the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us, livestreams have given us all an opportunity to watch a church service from the comfort of a familiar environment – our homes! When a child is given the opportunity to watch a service from their home, they can see exactly what a service would be like in person. It helps them feel in control – they can turn it off at any time. I have always noted how liturgy is so comforting to the nervous system – there is a rhythm to it that is predictable and comfortable. Knowing what to expect gives us all a sense of comfort and belonging that is really important for children who may feel different or left out in other environments.

Educate your children’s ministers on disability – and how to celebrate it!

Autistic people and individuals with neurological and developmental disabilities are part of the body of Christ. Their behaviors, thoughts, and actions should be celebrated as they continue to grow in their relationship with God and their church communities. As an OT, I am partial to looking at the whole person, and I think it’s important for myself to continue to learn about developmental disabilities and to get to know more individuals who consider themselves to be neurodiverse*. To do this, it is important to remember that many organizations, like Autism Speaks, which are not run by autistic individuals, have been criticized by individuals in the autism community for their characterizations of autism. To avoid further stigmatizing autistic people, it can be best to go straight to the source and listen to autistic individuals tell their own stories. One place I like to do this is checking the Autistic Self Advocacy Network website.

As you consider these tips to create a more inclusive experience for children at your place of worship when you begin to have in person services again, continue to ask people that attend your church what is working for their family and what could be improved upon. I hope that in reading this post, it can spark some ideas about how you can keep the traditions your church holds to be sacred alive while enriching the experience for children and youth. As always, feel free to contact me if you have any questions or would like to talk further about this topic.

*”Neurodiverse” is a term used by many individuals with autism, ADHD, and other neurological diagnoses and is not synonymous with Autism Spectrum Disorder. You can learn more about the use of the term here.

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