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I remember sitting in church as a child every Sunday alongside my family. My brother and I would often doodle on the bulletin or I would play with little toys I carefully chose to fit in my sparkly purse. Occasionally we would become giggly and my dad would give us the glare that didn’t need words to interpret and we would attempt to settle down. It was a challenge though; the service always lasted three times longer than my ability to sit still!

Looking back though, I wouldn’t trade that time in church with my family for anything. The sense of togetherness, the values instilled in me, and the foundation of my spiritual journey began in those pews.

Many of us desire to attend church and to pass on our faith to our children. But some of us have been forced to conclude that while church is challenging for all kids, it can seem impossible with kids with sensory processing disorders or other disabilities. I was never more discouraged than when the director of our church’s nursery told me they couldn’t handle our 18 month-old foster son who had Cerebral Palsy. After that, we gave up on attending church for a couple of years and even felt a little rejected by the church as a whole. Since that experience, I have done all I can to reach out to those families who require support to be able to attend and enjoy church services.

Four Survival Tips 

  1. Call around and check with area churches to see if they offer support services for kids with special needs. More and more churches are offering a variety of services to meet this critical need.
  2. If the church of your choice doesn’t have a program in place for kids with special needs, consider starting one. I have found that many teens and college age kids are willing to volunteer in this capacity and will be one-on-one assistants to attend the child’s age-appropriate Sunday School class with them. In my current church, we do not have enough space to offer a devoted room for kids who need support but we are able to meet their needs in this way. It’s a great experience for teens who are considering careers in health care or special education.
  3. If your church doesn’t have enough kids to need a formal program, you can still post a request in the bulletin for a volunteer to support your own child in his/her Sunday School class while you attend the service. Or check with the children’s pastor to see if they know of anyone who might be willing to help out.
  4. If you would rather have your child attend the service with you, consider packing a “Church Bag.” Make this bag special – your child should only have access to this bag on Sundays during church. As soon as you return home, hang it on a high hook or put it on the top shelf of the closet. The bag should include highly preferred sensory items that will engage your child. This is even a good place to put those toys that he or she might tend to “stim” on and that you typically want to limit access to.

Items to Consider
Spinning light toys, pocket electronic games (Nintendo DS, etc.), iPod Touch or iPad with games (don’t forget the headphones!), oral motor toys like the little pipes with colorful strings that blow up and around, chewy toys, squish balls, scented pencils or markers and paper, Tangles, and theraputty. With toys like these, it is probably best to sit near the back or in an aisle seat to avoid being a distraction to others.

“Getting Something Out of It”
I’ve heard many parents lament that although they would like to attend church, their child isn’t able to get anything out of it so they don’t go. I always encourage these parents that even if their child isn’t “tuning in” to the service or cannot verbally tell you what he or she learns, they are still getting plenty out of it. They are still able to experience that sense of togetherness that comes from attending church as a family and they are benefiting from the value you are placing on worship. Our kids always benefit when our own spiritual needs are being met. This gives us the strength and joy to be able to continue to meet their needs effectively. Merry Christmas!