5 Tips for Worshipping with a Special Needs Child—A Mother’s Perspective

FINAL 5 Tips for Worshipping with Special Needs Kids

 

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.

 

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14 comments
Rebecca Williams
Rebecca Williams

Everything the author describes is valid and does help. We have an autistic son and endured many years of not being able to go to church, having to leave early, etc. because of his behavior. However, the goal is not to just get through a church service. The goal is to lead our children, even those with special needs, into a personal relationship with Jesus. Worshipping as a family at home regularly. When he's having a challenging day due to sensory overload and not wanting to do his therapy, we encourage him to pray and ask God to help him, and he experiences God's grace. He even has his time with the Lord each day when he spends 15 min in his room by himself making up his own worship songs and loudly praising God.

Rebecca Williams
Rebecca Williams

What's in the Bible? We have the full What's in the Bible series and we do subscribe to Jelly Telly. You've been a tremendous blessing to our family. ❤️

What's in the Bible?
What's in the Bible?

Rebecca Williams - thank you for sharing your story with us. He sounds like an amazing young man and I bet those are the most beautiful worship songs to the heavens! Peace and grace to you and your family. We hear from families like yours who enjoy JellyTelly - our digital product in that it helps kids and parents enjoy Christian shows for education and entertainment in their own homes. Just wanted you to be aware of that. Thank you again for your post. Blessings to you!

charlotte gracer
charlotte gracer

What a wonderful post. I have a boy with ADHD and a son with ADHD and ASD. And a sassy 6 year old daughter. I write an article for a newsletter and my family celebrates Passover so your post gave me great tips to write for my readers who celebrate Easter.

Melissa
Melissa

Our family also faces many problems attending church. We fortunately have an amazing church that is acepting and understanding of our unique famile. My special needs child has MPS3a, which omes with a broad spectrum of symptoms. He needs to be sucyioned frequently and his trach makes him sound very loud when he does. We step out a lot to suction and there's almost awys someone available to open the door and let us make our exit with little interuption to others. He also has a tendency to laugh abrubtly in the middle of service (he seems to think our pastor is very humorous) and no one seems to mind. The big problem we have, that drives me nuts, it the limmited wheelchair accesable seeting we have, and the people who take said seats who do not need them and then when my family arrives contunues to sit there. I can't remember the last time my family was able to sit together for a service, and extra seats were added next to the one whelchair accesable pew to make it possible for us to sit together. I find myself very anoyed with these individuals. Handicap seating is the same as handicap parking spaces in my opinion and should be reserved for those who require them. One of many challenges we face with our so, and honestly one that bothers me terribly. Thank you for his post, it's nice to know all special needs families face their own unique challenges with everyday activities that others take for granted.

Allison Belue
Allison Belue

I have a wonderful son who is almost one with Cerebral Palsy. I rarely go to service now because it is the desire of the Pastor that all babies go to the nursery. Given his special needs, I do not feel comfortable taking him to the nursery where there are several other babies and toddlers. I keep him with me when we go, but I feel uncomfortable doing so. In my ministry if a baby makes a peep, the ushers are ready to escort you and your little one to the nursery. Rattles and noise makers that would keep him quiet cannot be used during the service as this would distract other congregants. I usually end up spending nearly the entire service in the foyer with my baby, so while I miss fellowshipping and worshipping with others, I generally just stay at home.

Nina Ornt
Nina Ornt

I have a son with cerebral palsy. A problem I found is it is very hard for families like mine to find a place where we can all worship together. I spoke to my pastor about the problem of so many special needs families not having a place they can worship together. I explained how a lot of couples either take turns going to church themselves or just give up. A mother of a child with autism who is a member of our church but rarely attends also spoke with her. We ended up getting our pastor, her assistant, our program director, myself, and an occupational therapist who is a member of our church together. With God's guidance we put together our first special needs families service a year ago at Christmas time. We have had 5 services so far. We simplify a story (the story of Baby Jesus's birth at Christmas) and the regular Sunday school children put on a pageant. I am a special education teacher and I created picture symbol schedules that showed the children step by step what we were doing as we went along during the service. The other mom created wonderful social stories on video and paper that were e-mailed to the families ahead of time. The children could see in advance things they would see at the service and hear songs we would be singing which cut down on anxiety. Our O.T. set up a take a break room with sensory toys for those that might need a break during the service. She also made gluten free cookies for those on special diets for the reception after the service. We prayed simple prayers, and shook our shaker eggs and rang our bells while singing songs. We had Santa at the Christmas reception and the Easter Bunny and a live bunny at the Easter reception. We have had wonderful feedback from the families. For some it was the for time their family could worship God altogether. The church was filled with love and acceptance. It is a place where ALL of God's children are welcome.

Anna
Anna

As a mom with 3 ASD (10, 12, 14) kids I really appreciate this article! We've been in a couple of churches that were accepting of us but none lately. It's so hard to keep going when people stare, make rude comments, kick the kids out of Sunday School or worse-pretend we don't exist. Soon, we will be moving to a new city and the church we will attend there has aids that will be in Sunday School with my kids. I'm so excited! Over the years I've found two of my kids do really well if they can read a book or draw during the service and my youngest does well if he can play with clay or a quiet car. I like the idea of an electronic game - I may give that a try too! One thing that has made a difference in our home lately is the "What's in the Bible" DVD's. My kids are information junkies and they LOVE the information in these episodes! So, on Sundays when we don't make it to church they usually pick one of these DVD's. It's a comfort to me to know they can learn the Bible this way. Thanks Phil, team and all of you who wrote on this blog. You've encouraged this mom today and I'm determined to give "going to church" a harder try.

Hugh Boorman
Hugh Boorman

Thanks for this. We have a 7 year old son on the Autistic Spectrum and who comes with his own challenges. I am the minister of the church so we have to go every Sunday and also regularly have meetings in our home. I agree with Linda that we need openess. When our son was diagnosed, my wife and I stood up the front and told the church that we didn't know what this would mean for us as a family or as a church but we invited them on the journey of discovery with us. I have to say that they have been great. We let our son use his Nintendo DS when things get too much fo him so that he is able to remain in the service but be able to focus on something else. He's still able to listen but somehow it helps him to filter out whatever is distressing him. In fact the church has been great in letting him be who he is. They let him wander and sit with whom he wants. And what I think we have all discovered is that he empowers each one of us to be who we are. This Palm Sunday, the leader of the service asked people to name somewhere that was a special place for them. The leader was looking for people to name towns or perhaps holiday resorts but our son decided that his special place was church and whispered to his mum, "because it's like Miracle Grow". If you haven't encountered it, I would highly recommend to anyoone who has or who works with children who on the Spectrum the book "Demystifying the Austic Experience" by William Stillman - utterly brilliant!

Laura
Laura

Thank you for this post. We recently adopted a 9.5 year old from foster care who presents with SID and also has RAD and other behavioral issues. We have struggled through many church services especially the one's when I am on the platform with the worship team. We have a lot of skills up our sleeves for helping our kiddo out and I so appreciate your suggestions and especially the part about "we know it is not a disciplinary thing" I am always so afraid people thing I am not doing a good job parenting. This has been a breath of fresh air for me to read and given me some useful tips. Thanks,

Michelle in Christchurch, New Zealand
Michelle in Christchurch, New Zealand

Thanks for this post. We are a family with an 11yo ASD child and we haven't managed to get to church regularly for about 5 years now. Its so hard - you've outlined many of the issues we face. I don't know how you find it, but we find, once we stop going to church, re-creating the habit of going is a long and hard road. I was discussing with my dh that church really needs to happen on Sat night - when we have some energy left! Weekends with special kids can be the most demanding times of the week. I am encouraged by your post though, to keep making an effort to find a solution for our family. Bless you.

Brett Belleque
Brett Belleque

Yes, it's been a long journey with a son with autism who is now 20 years old. Many stories could be told! I am thankful for three loving churches that supported us through times of joy and times of pain.

Linda
Linda

I appreciate this discussion. As a long-time children's ministry worker, I have to say that the more information that parents are willing to relay about working with any child with special needs - the easier it is on the workers. It has helped us tremendously to know how to react to a child that bursts into tears 3 times each morning, or what to do to help a child who can never remember the instructions they are given. When we know who needs a little extra one-on-one, and in what area, it makes it so much easier for us (and for your child too)!

Shannon
Shannon

Great post! I coordinate our special needs ministry program at my church, and this perspective is so helpful to me (and I know it will be to others as well). In addition to serving at my church, I also write a special needs ministry blog, The Works of God Displayed. It's only been around a month or so, but I hope it serves as a resource for others who want to make their church a welcoming place!