This is a guest post by Bec Severs. Views expressed in this article are the author’s.
Undoubtedly, your church will have neurodiversity, disabilities and other additional needs within its members and congregation. This is a good thing. Just like biodiversity, neurodiversity is essential for the growth and survival of the human race. Some of our greatest advancements have been made by people we now know to have been autistic, or had ADHD, or other differences. Sadly though, because we live in a broken world, being an SEND family can mean life is very difficult at times. And church is often no exception. The numbers of people, sensory extremes of very quiet times and then loud music and singing, unpredictability, a sermon that may be difficult to understand, the expectation to sit and concentrate for a long period of time, and the necessity of social interaction can all mean that church meetings can feel, or indeed be, inaccessible for many members of our church families. This is a dangerous situation when our kinds of families risk feeling incredibly isolated anyway, and are fighting spiritual battles constantly. Neurodiverse families need love, grace and understanding in spades, so here are 5 ways our churches can be more inclusive. Before reading this, please consider that many families with children who have additional needs will have a parent who is also neurodiverse, and these principles can apply to any age, not just children.
Bible centred church
Read the Bible and pray every day… it never gets old. The most fundamental need of an SEND family is spiritual food. Good Bible teaching is not only essential for a healthy diet to equip us for service within our families, but also to increase grace, love and understanding between all church members which will in turn help to support those who need it most. The more we see Christ in God’s word, the more the Holy Spirit transforms us, and the more we become a people who enjoy God, are actively reliant on God, and serve each other. The Acts 2 principles of the teaching of scripture, breaking of bread, prayer and fellowship are the underpinning framework of how to disciple anyone in our congregation and that includes SEND families too.
When teaching the Bible, it’s good to think about the accessibility of your illustrations and applications. Often these can be quite exclusive and assume that people will experience life in a way they never will. Try and include examples that are diverse and inclusive. Talking about a long haul flight to the Caribbean with your family immediately excludes someone on universal credit, and talking about going to a party as if it’s something everyone does may make an autistic person feel completely uncomfortable – especially if there are no other illustrations they can relate to.
Be honest about your own sin and struggles
One of the hardest things for families like ours is the constant feeling that you’re a mess compared to everyone else. It’s a life we never expected. We thought our kids would be sleeping through/dressing themselves/eating with a knife and fork/not having meltdowns by this point. We thought they would be attending school full time. We thought we’d be able to go on family outings together. We thought so many things that aren’t the case, and we can often feel like failures. Social media doesn’t help with this. And unfortunately at church meetings members can often look like a real life version of Instagram – great Sunday filter, nicely edited, with all the bad bits cropped out. Now I’m not suggesting we all start airing our dirty laundry at the lectern each week, but let’s be a bit more real with each other. We need you all to be honest about your lives too, because we know they aren’t perfect. Tell us what you need prayer for. Tell us YOUR parenting struggles! Tell us how your week has really been. One of the biggest blessings to SEND families (and I imagine most people) is feeling a sense of community and belonging and understanding. It thaws out all the cold feelings of isolation we experience frequently from medical professionals, parent peers and family members. And the most fundamental way we can feel we belong is by knowing we are the same as everyone else at church: sinful people saved by grace, and battling through this broken life with God’s strength.
Shape ministries around inclusivity
To be honest it’s not just SEND families who struggle with church – introverts, traumatised people, people in poverty, black and brown people, and non-English speakers, to name a few, can all feel alienated by the way the British middle class reformed church tends to do things. The first port of call is talk to your congregation. No two churches are the same and you will need to fully understand what needs there are to tailor ministry to them with any efficacy. What’s more, no two people are the same: there’s a saying that once you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. If you have neurodiverse or disabled adults that you know of in church, seek their wisdom (NB: might be best to do this via email or text initially as face to face communication can be very difficult for some people, especially in busy settings – there’s a miniature example of shaping our practices around inclusivity).
An excellent port of call would also be to get in touch with a Christian organisation that does this full time: an organisation such as the Additional Needs Alliance or a specialist such as Lynn McCann who can provide expert training to church members is invaluable. Just as we seek guidance on legal issues and safeguarding, this is one area where there are people who have far higher levels of expertise and we should make use of that if we can. It’s also part of our legal requirement not to discriminate against anyone with a disability and to provide reasonable adjustments wherever we can.
Children’s work is one obvious area where a good understanding and support system is in place for kids who have additional needs or disabilities. Having a quiet sensory area where kids can go to regulate would be a great idea. Having clear plans and programmes that families know about in advance, advising of any changes as soon as possible, and keeping to a regular pattern of activities for each week are all generally helpful. Not calling on children (or adults) to answer questions out of the blue, embracing different forms of communication to include non-verbal interaction for example, and keeping the environment calm are things that would all help many people. The great thing about adjustments that benefit our SEND communities is that they tend to benefit everyone – whereas conversely, trying to get SEND people to adjust to neurotypical norms can be incredibly damaging.
As a parent, I always appreciate it when services have a clear structure, preferably outlined on a piece of paper or slide, and when the sermon has a good powerpoint accompanying it. This is because we are often dipping in and out of concentration as we parent our children throughout the service. I’ve been to many Sunday mornings where I can’t actually remember a single thing that happened. Having a good structure means that you can find your bearings more easily when you do resurface from whatever crisis has just occurred, and be more likely to actually benefit from it.
Another significant way you can shape your ministries around inclusion is by considering what times of the day work for different people. Evenings can be impossible for many parents, whereas a lot of us can be flexible in the day time. Even if your child is not in school, you could bring them to a midday event with a screen to keep them occupied, for example, which isn’t doable in the evening when it’s bedtime. A lot of SEND parents can’t work due to their children’s needs and then can’t get out in the evening, so consider whether you could have a daytime homegroup for example.
The most difficult time in a service can be afterwards, when all the kids’ energy is let loose after keeping it pent up for 90 minutes of being forced to sit and be quiet. I often don’t get to talk to anyone after the service as I’m just trying to prevent my shrieking, sprinting offspring from breaking a £500 projector while clearing up the debris we’ve left behind us during the service. A great idea is to have some activities kids in your church would enjoy and that are supervised and safe so parents might get a chance to have some fellowship. We usually feel pretty drained after a service so sometimes it can be easier to escape, but it’s nice to have an option.
The most important thing you can do is pray for us, especially on a Sunday morning before church. Getting to church is one of the hardest times in our week, and sometimes we can’t make it. Your prayers are very much valued for that time when we are trying to get out of the house with our children’s mental health intact and our energy levels high enough to participate in a church service.
I recently blogged about this here (https://iamcomfortablymum.blogspot.com/2022/01/5-easy-and-not-so-easy-ways-to-support.html). There are plenty of practical ways to support SEND families, from bringing (the right brand of) chicken nuggets and chips round from the freezer, to befriending our kids, to doing our laundry.
There’s often a lot of emphasis placed on supporting mothers in parenting, and that’s good. A lot of SEND families are single parent families, and 90% of single parent families are mothers, so it’s important on many levels. But fathers can be extremely adversely affected by having children who have additional needs, especially when they may be neurodiverse themselves. My husband ended up being signed off work for several months last year, when the pressure of a stressful job, Covid, and coming home to a war zone when one of our daughters was in crisis finally got the better of him. We are blessed that he got sick pay, but the stress on fathers of needing to provide for their families can often mean their mental health suffers severely.
Dads are often not able to see friends in the day due to working hours, or too tired to see anyone in the evening, or both. Male culture can be less open about in-depth struggles so they can feel they don’t have anyone to talk to or who will understand. Men are also often the ones who are carrying significant ministries in church or doing the Bible teaching.
It’s absolutely paramount to support fathers as well as mothers in order for SEND families to survive and thrive. Ask them how the kids are (not just us mums). Meet up with them for coffee or lunch breaks if they want to. Pray for them. Take the pressure off in terms of ministries if appropriate. Our church very kindly helped us with the cost of counselling for my husband which has really helped him and in turn our whole family.
Overall, all of these things are part of showing grace and love to each other. We’re all walking through life in unique situations and we all need to show great understanding and compassion to one another – even if, especially if, we don’t understand what’s going on under the surface. The hardest thing a SEND parent or child can hear is a judgmental comment. The world has plenty of those, but the church is a place of grace. It’s a place where acceptance and love should be our hallmark because it is our Saviour’s. That doesn’t mean we don’t ever say hard things to each other, but it does mean we cultivate a loving relationship in which to say them. The veil was torn, the Gospel sent out to Jews and Gentiles alike because our God is a God who welcomes diversity. After all, he made us like this! Each human being reflects a unique part of God’s image and is wonderfully and perfectly knit together by our Father God. Let’s be vessels of his love to each other in all our beautiful difference.