Think of a 7-year-old autistic child who is overwhelmed when greeted by bright lights, a wall of noise, a crowded room and an overload of different smells. Or a 10-year-old with dyslexia who loves sung worship, but finds reading words on a screen impossible because of the background images. Or a 14-year-old who uses a wheelchair and feels left out when asked to “jump up and worship”.
Around 20 per cent of children and young people have long-term additional needs or disabilities of some kind. Many of them, along with their families, feel excluded from a wide range of social activities, including church. So how can we meet their needs?
It’s about providing a better way for that 7-year-old. Thinking about when, how and where they arrive, as well as looking at alternative lighting. It’s about providing screens with plain backgrounds and appropriate text fonts for that 10-year-old, and anyone else who might need it. It’s about changing what we say to include everyone. Perhaps saying “please rise in body or in spirit” or “you may stand” would make all the difference to that 14-year-old.
Inclusion doesn’t stop at wider doors, ramps and disabled loos. It’s about creating places of belonging and developing the faith of everyone.
Appoint an inclusion champion
The most important strategy a church can put in place is to appoint someone who ‘owns’ inclusion. Someone who will look critically at the things the church does through the lived experiences of the children and families you reach. What is hard for them to access? What modifications could easily be made to improve things?
Ideally, this role would be held by someone with a lived experience of additional needs or disability, either in their own lives or as a carer, to ensure inclusion is done with and not to anyone being supported. Inclusion champions provide a primary point of contact for those with additional needs, but the rest of the team must also be involved.
Build support strategies
Understanding what support strategies are in place in other areas of children’s lives (for example at school or home) and bringing them into church activities offers ready-made ideas, as well as providing consistency and continuity. Asking parents or carers how their child likes to be supported and helped, and what they enjoy doing, is likely to unlock useful and helpful conversations. Remember to ask children themselves about how they like to be supported. Inclusion should always involve the person being included.
You could make one-page profiles to help parents or carers and young people describe themselves. You could also use a visual timetable. This is a great tool to help children understand where they are in the programme, what is expected of them, and what is coming next (including when ‘snack time’ is!).
“Inclusion should always involve the person being included”
Recruit one-to-one support
Some young people with additional needs can become anxious if they are left to cope on their own. Providing one-to-one support can help them understand what is happening and what they are supposed to be doing.
People who may not see themselves leading children’s talks, songs or games may be happy to sit with and support a child. Seek people who are caring, empathic and nurturing. The grandparent generation can often be great at this. Sometimes other young people can fulfil this role as ‘buddies’, getting alongside their peers or younger children and supporting them (with suitable supervision). Ideally, this role should not be filled by parents or carers. They need to be spiritually fed themselves in church!
Sensory overload can be a common issue for children with a range of additional needs, so providing ways for them to manage and regulate this is essential. A sensory room or zone with calming lighting, relaxing sounds, beanbags and safe things for children to engage with and help them relax will be helpful.
If this isn’t possible, a pair of ear defenders can make the difference between someone enjoying the programme and being in physical pain because of the noise. Another useful addition is a ‘fiddles’ box, which contains items that can be, squeezed, clicked or simply fiddled with. The sensory stimulus this provides can aid focus and concentration.
We learn best when our learning is fun, engages us in activities we enjoy and meets our preferred learning style: watching, listening or, in most cases, doing. It’s no different for young people with additional needs. If they enjoy jigsaws or lego, get them to build a jigsaw or lego model of the theme you’re exploring. Did you know there is a (Lego) Brick Bible? You could also encourage them to build Bible scenes online in Minecraft. For more, click here.
Getting inclusion right makes our church a place of belonging for everyone; a place where people are missed for all the right reasons if they can’t come. There is plenty of support available, so you don’t have to do this on your own. To access training and other services, visit the ‘partners’ section of the Additional Needs Alliance website or join its Facebook group. Take the first step on your inclusion journey today, in prayer, and remember to come back to this column for tips, ideas and stories to help you as you travel.