Easter is this coming Sunday. Guest blogger Sherri Dacon will be celebrating the birth of Christ. Thanks to the 7 worship tips for kids with special needs, every member of her family will attend church and worship together.
Special Needs and Church: 7 Worship Tips for Kids with Special Needs
Church is important to our family. When our son was diagnosed with autism, we were committed to staying involved, but it hasn’t always been easy.
The top priority for us is attending worship services together. Learning to navigate worship with a special needs child is a challenge, but it’s not impossible.
Here are some helpful tips we’ve learned along the way.
1. Make church a regular part of the routine.
If you aren’t consistent about regularly attending services, church will be more of a struggle for your autistic child. Children on the spectrum thrive on routine and structure. Knowing what to expect helps them organize their thoughts and expectations in order to cope. If they get to stay home most weeks and play with Legos, they will be all the more resistant to going to church on random weeks. Work toward consistency as much as possible. Make church attendance the norm, not the exception.
2. Bring a busy bag.
Include activity books or small (quiet) toys, as well as sensory fidget items. My son loves Thinking Putty, double stick tape, and sticker books. Perhaps include special “Sunday only” items that your child will look forward to. Don’t include electronic items, as these will detract from worship for both autistic and neurotypical children.
3. Decide on rules for worship service ahead of time.
Write them down or create a visual reminder. Carry the rules with you to church, preferably with a copy in your child’s bag and one for you. When my son was younger, we brought a notebook of social stories with us to church every week. We read them on the way to church, and we always reviewed the rules for worship. Our rules are:
- Stand when most everyone stands
- Sit when most everyone sits.
- Always use a quiet voice.
- I can open my bag when the sermon begins.
Feel free to tailor your rules to suit your family and your local congregation. Our focus in creating rules was to ensure that our child would be engaged in worship, but also have coping strategies available during the “boring” or “quiet” part of the service.
4. Use non-verbal cues as reminders.
Non-verbal cues are great for reminding children of rules and expectations. I’ve often used the ASL signs for “stop” and “walking feet.” I also hold up one finger to remind him of rule #1, two fingers to remind him of rule #2 and so on. These are quick visual reminders for him when he gets antsy or overly excited.
5. Make your child a “This is too hard” sign.
Pack it in his bag so that if things get unbearable, he has a way to communicate without throwing a tantrum. Discuss the seriousness of the card, that it is only to be used in extreme discomfort, but when he does use it, take him out immediately for relief.
One year our family missed church on the last week of Advent. When we returned the following Sunday, the Advent Wreath had disappeared. This upset my child tremendously, but being able to use his sign prevented a meltdown and helped him cope with his disappointment in an acceptable way.
6. Provide a simple worship guide for your child.
On a sheet of paper, write out simple questions like,
- “What color is the pastor’s tie?”
- “What was your favorite song today?”
- “Name one thing you remember from the sermon.”
- Include a tally sheet for children to count how many times they hear a certain word, such as “grace” or “Jesus.”
Having something to focus on during worship can be extremely helpful. You will be surprised what your child actually hears, even though he seems to be engrossed in his comic book or sudoku.
7. Allow your child to be comfortable.
This may mean wearing different clothes than you would prefer, taking shoes off during service, or pulling arms inside a sweater. It may mean stimming during worship, or plugging her ears when things get loud. Unless these are extreme distractions, allow your child to do some of these things in order to increase her comfort level. Worship should always be a positive experience.
Going to church regularly has been a huge blessing for our entire family, even though it it continues to be a challenge for my autistic son. Still, we have learned ways to help make it an overall positive experience.
Don’t give up, parents.
Being a part of a welcoming faith community is worth the hard work and dedication.
With some preparation and tools under your belt, church can be a wonderful part of your child’s life.
What Works for You?
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