It’s not expertise that’s most needed, but willingness to take time to understand.
Sunday morning, and there’s a little boy of five running wild in the church service. He’s everywhere, can’t sit still, noisy, and touching everything. At the harvest festival he handles then starts to taste the produce.
It makes it difficult for the rest of the congregation to concentrate. A toddler that breaks free during a service might receive a few indulgent smiles, a five-year-old not so much.
And everybody in the congregation senses that everybody else might silently be wondering why the mother – raising him on his own – doesn’t keep the situation under control.
Sensing the tension and having a little insight to the situation, the worship leader, who is also the church children and families worker, momentarily pauses the service, explains briefly about additional needs, and prays for the child and his mother.
The child has no formal diagnosis, but shows every sign of having a sensory processing disorder, which in his case means he needs a huge amount of stimulation – touch, taste, sound – to be able to function.
Taking a moment to acknowledge and pray for a member of the church who has different needs to the rest defuses tension, gives the congregation a chance to understand and accept unusual behaviour, and – not least – brings the mother to the centre of the church family rather than feel edged out by awkwardness.
Emma Malcolm, a trainer on LCM’s Practical Evangelism Training course on reaching people with additional needs, was the children and families worker leading worship that day. Others have opposite needs, she says: they are naturally prone to sensory overload, and services may be overwhelming, leading to a sense of panic. In addition, anxiety in children is rising fast, so church services may feel intimidating.
Here, a church can give children a way to retreat and regroup without excluding themselves from church altogether. It’s possible to find a quiet space in church for calming down, or use resources such as Doodle Through the Bible.
‘There’s no one size fits all’, she says. ‘Church is a family, not a service provider.’
Some people will need to leave a service for a while in order to regroup their thoughts and settle down. It does not mean that they are not engaged.
Churches can offer a huge amount if they are willing to be careful observers of how people respond, to be understanding and kind in welcoming people with additional needs, says Emma. ‘You don’t have to be an expert. It’s a question of getting to know the individual, getting to know their family or carers, and finding out what will help them belong.’
For more insight to the experience of families with additional needs in churches, see the additionalneedsalliance.org.uk