How we moved churches with our autistic children
As a family we've moved churches twice. I imagine families with typical children, would research and make sure they are happy with what the potential church has to offer and then just turn up on Sunday and expect to put their children into the kids work, if that is what they wanted for them. When you have children with additional needs - its just not that simple. We've moved twice with autistic children at different ages so thought I would share our experience.
Wondering why you can't just rock up with a child/ren with additional needs?
Its not because of acceptance, its the practicality and safety. The volunteers are usually parents of children that attend the church. I would expect them to be DBS checked and have safe guarding training from the church. The level of child care experience would vary from person to person. The whole team would be headed up by a trained children's worker for the church. However, special education or additional needs training will vary from church to church, from children's leader down to the volunteer - if offered at all.
Additional needs covers a wide variety of conditions (very wide) and to expect every volunteer and children's worker to know and apply all of this would be too much. Expecting a child to just transition smoothly into a new place, with no support or guidance is not wise.
Personally, My child has to have transition plans for him to move up a year group at the same school, with the same 3 classmates. This is well thought out, planned by professionals who know him and yet it still doesn't always run smoothly. This is because my son finds change extremely difficult.
Each church, even from the same denomination will lead their services in a different way and sometimes a different order, from week to week. Volunteers run on a rota, so the child has to also get used to different adults leading the sessions. Sometimes church for children can be loud and shouty, a sensory fest of noise and movement - all of this together can be an autistic child's nightmare.
Our First Church Move
The first time we moved churches, we stayed in the same denomination. We prayed, we researched and we found out feedback from other people we knew who had been/visited the church. We had heard good things about the church and the fact it was headed by a lead elder with an autistic child, made me feel much more relaxed. I emailed the church, informing them that we would like to visit and when we were planning too. I informed them of my sons diagnosis and age, what his triggers were and if they could accommodate him in their children's work. I also asked what we could expect to happen at the service.
The reply was amazing. They organised for a trained in autism 1-1, they gave him his own calm down spot and a detailed plan of the building/service. They were very honest with us and told us the service never starts on time, we were warned the worship music was loud and to bring his ear defenders. As the church met in a school, we were told in detail about the walk and what the potential distractions could be on the way.
When we decided to relocate and make this our church, they were again very mindful of his needs. He didn't have a 1-1 each week but he did have his area, he wasn't forced - I mean strongly encouraged - to join in but he was accepted as he is. The leaders took heed of what we said and acted upon it.
Our Second Church Move
The second time we moved church, we moved denomination. We weren't sure what to expect and we weren't sure if this was going to be the right church for us at all. We felt called to a local church. This was our closest church. We prayed, we researched, asked others who had attended previously or had known the church and kept an open mind to the Holy Spirit.
We now had teenagers, rather than children and its just different. Our son was older and had disengaged from youth work at our old church. He sat with us during the service and didn't go to youth work. It wasn't anything wrong with the youth, he liked the other children but his development is different and he didn't have anything in common with his peers. He attends a specialist school and his experiences of life as a teenager were just very different. We were happy with him to be in the main service as he was happy to listen and ultimately we want our children to be part of the main service.
As he felt safe sitting with us, it allowed us to visit the new church for a few times before we made the decision to make this church, our new home. Once we had decided to make this our new church, I had a meeting with the youth worker. I wrote out a profile detailing all his needs/interests and trigger points. We discussed this in detail and what could help him to transition into youth.
He, however, was having none of it but he does sit with us and listen through the service. He does have his friends at school and as social/relationships are difficult for him, we are happy to accept where he is and not to push him to join in with the others. We didn't want this to become a barrier for him going to church. His brain works differently and he is happy with the social relationships he has, he see's no need for more. He is also now at the stage where his peers are in the main service. This means they would now meet socially and for small group study during the week. This is just too big a step for him. He is not like other teenagers his age and would find it difficult to engage/relate.
Our second son, was diagnosed as having autism for our second church move too. He was also at the beginning youth age. I informed the youth leaders that he had autism and that he would just observe the group from the back. They were happy to accept that and knew where we were sitting. I knew he would need time to observe and process the changes.
He does attend the youth work on Sunday and now he attends the social mid week. I did discuss his needs with the youth worker. He didn't want to engage in the work, simply because its change and he wanted to go back to the old church, which is what he knew. We had to make it clear to him that we disagreed with our previous church on theology and that it was not negotiable. That the kids work he was used to, was not the same as the youth programme he would have to attend, as he was now of age and if we had remained in the previous church, it would still be different. Its taken patience, perseverance and reassurance, whilst he has grieved and processed the move.
This was not something we had to do the first time around. When they were younger it was about meeting their needs, keeping them safe and integration with the other children. Now they were older, it was meeting their needs on a different level - less about what we want for them but how they feel ready to engage in church. I had to accept and grieve it is a different experience compared to their peers of the same age, but it doesn't mean that their relationship with God is less/not important or their contribution to church is not as valid because it looks different.
During the summer holidays, we visited another church and son 2 actually started to appreciate what he had in this church. I think this is an ongoing journey and it will take time for him to build relationships. I think he is now at a place of acceptance and ready to move on. I have even seen him join in and enjoy himself on occasions. It wasn't something I could make a plan for because grief and acceptance is not a known set period of time (for anyone).
Wouldn't it be lovely if I could give you a story where it was all easy and some simple steps to lead to transition perfectly... That my autistic children were now leading from the front etc, etc. Unfortunately life's not like that but its worth putting in the hard work and going to church. I value my faith and the relationships church brings, I value the encouragement and support church offers but above all I want my children to see Jesus, that pursuing this relationship is of ultimate importance. We will all die and face Gods judgement - do we know His son and what did we do with this knowledge? I accept that it is God who chooses who He gives the gift of salvation too, its not about my will. I want to direct my children to Him, to use the knowledge I have been given through the gift of salvation and hope/pray that they will walk in relationship with Him throughout their lives. Their walk will look different and that's okay, Gods kingdom is made from all different people.
Church is not perfect and all churches will have their strengths and weaknesses. Some churches will be more helpful than others when it comes to dealing with children who are different. Prayer, Perseverance and Patience have been the key for our transitions. Knowing why you are doing this, helps you hold on through the difficult days.
If you want to know why we moved churches then please read below;
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