Friday, April 28, 2017

Helping Special Needs Children During Church, Part 1 of 3 Part Series

My husband and I love to attend church to renew and prepare ourselves for the week.  We believe that a belief in something greater than ourselves has helped us raise the children we have been given. Therefore, it has been important that we attend church to seek guidance and worship as we believe. So each Sunday our family attends 3 hours of worship services.  The first hour is for everyone and we listen to people speak about the gospel of Christ.

Ready for church. Obviously this is a before shot.

During the second and third hours we separate into age groups and have Sunday School.  Over the years this equals a lot of hours in church.  It's hard enough to keep a wiggly 2 year old quiet during a meeting, but add special needs, sensory issues, and ADHD: WOW, do we have a party!

During the years we have come up with some strategies to help our children manage during this time so that we can worship.  


Sitting still for 3 hours was just not possible for my son with ADHD.  He needed movement! During the first hour of church he would come to my husband or I and be allowed to go for a walk with one of us.  We did laps around the church and took in the fresh air.  It didn't solve all his wiggles, but it definitely helped.  And giving him the freedom of being allowed to ask and go on a walk helped him feel in control of his situation.

We talked with our son's teachers too about how they could allow him some time to move.  Often times they would allow him frequent trips to the drinking fountain.  Other teachers had the whole class involved and would start with some dancing, jumping jacks, or other activities that involved movement.  Other teachers had all members of the class walk around the church before the lesson started.  Each solution was a bit different, but each helped our son get the movement he needed.


We never punished for meltdowns or bad behavior in church.  I didn't want to associate church with negativity.  So instead we set up a reward system with ice cream.  And who doesn't love ice cream? Each Sunday we all started off with the promise of 3 scoops of ice cream and all the toppings.  If the children were able to maintain good behavior they got the reward immediately upon returning home. (I know, not the healthiest lunch, but I needed to attend church for me, and this worked.)

If they had to be reminded 3 times to sit quietly or stop fighting, etc, they would be penalized 1 scoop of ice cream.  I don't think anyone every lost all 3 scoops of ice cream because ... well ice cream.

We did have to cut out any other ice cream moments during the week so that Sunday was special. And we had to maintain a pretty good ice cream supply in the refrigerator.  My kiddos responded great to this reward system.

Think of what your family loves.  Reward them for being able to sit through church.  It may be that in the beginning you reward simply for going to church.  Then a reward for sitting for part of the sermon.  Baby steps are the key.  Rewards do motivate and helped us improve our Sunday sanity.

Sitting in the Same Place

One of our sons is autistic and he craves routine.  He liked to sit in the same place at church each week.  Think Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory.

Now we never kicked anyone out of "OUR" pew if we arrived too late, but we started arriving early enough to claim "Sheldon's Spot" each week.  We often had to get there 30 minutes early to do this, but it helped our son be comfortable.

Arrive Early

Arriving before a lot of people were present helped my children enter the room more calmly. Entering into a room filled with people, music, talking, lights and movement can be overwhelming.  So we found that if we arrived when the chapel was almost empty, no music was playing yet, and things were calm, we could set up our family and have things go more smoothly.

Sitting in the Foyer 

Some children are overstimulated by the lights, people, singing, and noise.  It is difficult for them to sit with so much stimulation and not have a meltdown.  Sitting outside the worship hall in the foyer allows you to hear the sermon, but avoid the over-stimulation of so many people.  Or perhaps in your church they have a room you can sit in and still hear the sermon.  Talk with your eclesiatical leader to brainstorm some options that might be available to you.  

Sit near Support Groups

We liked to sit in church by people who were aware of our issues and were understanding of them.  If both of us had to leave with a child, the remaining children would be watched over by friends.  Or if one of the children had an outburst, those around us were understanding and would help us deal with the situation.

Ask friends to sit near you and explain what you might need in certain situations.  Help them understand when you might need help and when you would be able to handle the situation.  They may come up with some ideas that you haven't thought of.

Activities and Gum

During church we allowed the children to color and play quietly with toys.  When my sister sat with us she taught me to massage my children's hands.  This deep pressure helps calm a child and the bonding nature of touch helps create a positive experience.  Another deep pressure activity is simple: gum!  I have a friend who brings multiple packs of flavored gum and the children can chew one piece at a time, but have as many pieces of gum as they want to have.  Now with this idea, supervision is necessary so the gum doesn't end up under pews, on the floor, or in hair.  But chewing gum is a deep pressure activity that can help keep kids calm.  

Think outside the box

One of our children still disliked church after trying all of the above to accommodate his needs.  The florescent lights bothered him and the noise of singing was often too much.  One Sunday he spent the entire first hour in the inverted turtle position (on his back all four limbs flailing), screaming, crying, and refusing to enter the building.  I endured the stares of parents who didn't understand autism and sensory processing issues.  I could tell by their looks that they thought that poor parenting and a spoiled child were the reasons for this meltdown.  

We were ruining our relationship with our child.  We all dreaded Sundays and we did NOT feel refreshed after attending.  I felt more like I had gone 3 rounds with the heavy weight champion.

I had had enough. After church when we were all calmed down, I compromised with this child.  I told him I just wanted him at church for one hour.  That was all.  And he could pick the hour.  After this one hour, we would come home and watch movies about the scriptures and have our own lesson.  

The look on his face told me I had done the right thing.

I asked to be relieved of my church responsibilities of singing with the little children during hours two and three.  This allowed me to go home with our son while my husband stayed with our other children.

Our one hour of church went better after this.  It wasn't perfect.  But our son knew that he didn't have to endure 3 hours of church and that made it more manageable for him.  We continued to work with him to process what he was experiencing.  Things slowly improved.

After a few months of this we hired a respite worker for Sundays.  He came with us to worship services and if our son felt like staying for all 3 hours, they would stay.  If he felt like he needed to go home after one hour, they could.  This allowed my husband and I to attend our meeting and feel renewed.  And this allowed our son the ability to go home if church was too much for him.

Some Sunday's he stayed, but most Sunday's he went home. This continued for years.  And it wasn't until his mid-teen years that our son was able to consistently attend all of church.

Be patient. Pray.  Ask for guidance.

We still have rough Sunday's when I wonder why I am doing this.  I would love to hear what you do. If you have kids that struggle with church services, what have you done to make church easier for them? 

After church, Sam and Grace have had enough!

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