5 Tips for Worshipping with a Special Needs Child--A Mother's Perspective
As the mother of a special needs child, I can honestly say that some things which seem quite ordinary and routine to others can be huge obstacles for us! Taking the whole family to the same church service can be one of those huge obstacles.
I thought there might be some interest in this topic from parents in our online community who desire a deeper church experience for their special needs child, but who may not know where to start. Spring is a time of rebirth; maybe this is a good weekend to begin this journey! Just remember one thing: you are not alone. Many of us have walked this path, and hopefully we can come together and learn from one another.
1. Take baby steps
I would advise any parent who is starting this weekly journey of going to church and worshipping with a child who may have behavioral or sensory issues to not look at this as an "All or Nothing" outcome. Baby steps are how to approach it. Sometimes a successful outing involves knowing when to take a break or when to simply leave the venue all together. Set small goals for your child in a worship service or Sunday school setting. Depending on their specific need maybe 15 -20 minutes is a great first-time goal. Then perhaps add 5 minutes to that goal each week.
2. Bring headphones/ear buds and fidget toys
If the worship music is too loud for their comfort, be willing to take them outside--not as a punishment, but rather as a coping mechanism for their sensory limitations. We have used regular ear buds with our son to buffer out some of the sound for his auditory sensitivity. Who cares if someone "thinks" he's listening to an iPod in church! We do what we must, and have learned to ignore the stares and the disapproving shaking heads.
For the little mover and shaker who just can't keep still, I'm a big fan of fidget toys. They can be a sanity-saver in a quiet /sit-still environment such as church! Even if your child goes on into a Sunday school classroom for part of the service, these fidget toys can really assist them in coping with anxieties that perhaps they can't vocalize to a teacher. I even bought a few for the children's ministry team to keep on hand. They came in VERY handy for several other children who would have otherwise been unable to focus during the Bible lesson.
3. Create short-term goals and rewards
Set short term rewards with your child. Long term rewards or goals which are too big may be unattainable, at least at first. Use small reinforcements as rewards and behavior controls, such as: stickers, crayons and paper, small picture books or a small favorite toy.
Don't get discouraged if there are some raised eyebrows in the pews surrounding you. Remember, you are your child's best advocate and nobody knows their needs better than you! If there's a meltdown, it's ok. You and I both know that this isn't a discipline issue. I've come to the realization that there will always be those well-meaning but ill-informed congregants. And yes, I remember sweating profusely during these meltdown sessions, wanting to literally crawl under my pew--so I'm the first one to admit, it takes time, patience and A LOT of prayer.
4. Encourage them
Remember to use positive reinforcement! I say this because I've made a lot of mistakes in this particular area. The trick is to encourage good behavior. Threatening them that you "will leave the service and take them home" may be exactly what they WANT you to do! See how that can backfire?! The alternative you set must be less pleasing to them than sitting through the service. Good alternatives for us have been: sitting in the car and saying our prayers, or sitting outside quietly (not playing) until the rest of the family has finished with the service. We struggle with ASD and ADHD, so sitting still without our fidget toys are not a pleasing alternative to sitting quietly in church WITH our rewards. Here's another little gem; while in the service, if you see their behaviors starting to ramp up, lovingly apply pressure to their shoulders /upper arms/ lower arms. This applied pressure may help calm many children down, and relieve anxiety. If you find this works well, check with your child's doctor about the possibility of a pressure vest, blanket or belt which they can use during the church service.
5. Set realistic expectations for your child and ministry leaders
Keep your expectations realistic. Each child with special needs is different. I have found so many wonderful children's ministry leaders who will do just about anything to help us with our child's needs. But it really is up to us to educate these ministry leaders as to our child's specific needs, behaviors, and triggers. I remember working in the classroom of the Special Stars at our previous church, thinking that as the mom of a child on the spectrum--I would know exactly what to do. Big mistake! I was slapped in the face the first 20 minutes of class by a very young child. I crossed his comfort zone and he acted out physically because he had no language to "tell me" of his discomfort. If I had taken the time to talk to the parents before class, I would have learned what his specific behavioral triggers were. I truly learned a valuable lesson that day! Every child is different!
For us it came down to the fact that church fellowship was extremely important for the whole family. We first had to find a church which fit our family. Before we enlisted some of these practices we made excuses for routinely missing church. Once we found a church that was open and accepting to our younger son's specific needs, our whole attitude changed. We found a place where we could enjoy fellowship, prayer and found friends who would hold us up both physically and spiritually when things did get overwhelming.
Proverbs 22:6 "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it."
If you have ever struggled with some of these issues, or if you have additional advice for parents who are part of this community, please share with us in the comment section.
Resources for Special Needs is a great online source of weblinks for parents. They are especially fantastic in the areas of advocacy, education (IEP and home school), curriculum, books and magazine articles/ archives.
To find fidget toys, oral chewies, pressure vests, etc. go to: The Therapy Shoppe.
You can follow Lisa on twitter @lisastrnad and she blogs regularly at talkinglikeagirl.