When you have a child with autism or other special needs, even the simple everyday tasks most take for granted can present their own set of unique challenges and issues. Trips to the grocery store, outings to the zoo...and yes, even church! Between the noises, the lights and the crowds, churches can be a lot for kids with sensory issues to handle.
For parents, this can be very isolating. We find ourselves feeling looked down upon in social situations when sensory issues lead to meltdowns and 'inappropriate' behaviors. Even in church, it's easy to feel a little unwelcome at times.
In an ideal world, every church would offer a sensory friendly service... a special service where families of those with sensory issues could come and worship without fear. Music would be turned down, there'd be no crazy lights, no booming speeches and moving around would be not only acceptable but even welcome. Or perhaps they'd offer a special room (like a cry room, seen in many larger churches) or even a special needs classroom available during the church services. All options would be ideal...but let's be honest, most churches simply do not have the resources available.
Which leads to the question: what can churches realistically do to make families of special needs children feel welcome?
One very simple way is by offering a sensory box to use during services to those that need them. This box would contain both sensory products aimed to help deal with sensory overload, as well as fun activities that can help children stay occupied. Here's a look at some ideas to include:
- Weighted Products. Weighted/compression vests, lap pads, etc can be a great for calming and helping kids to stay still.
- Noise Reducing Headphones. One of the big issues for kids in a church setting is the noise- be it the music, the blare of speakers or just the crowd in general. For my son, we have found noise reducing headphones to be essential in public places when it becomes too much. These are similar to what one would wear at a shooting range and does not block out all noise but rather filters out some of the background noise.
- Oral Sensory Toys. These would of course be specific to each child (to be stored with a plastic baggie with their name), but can also be a great addition to your sensory box. For my son, I've found that having something to chew on such as this can help him to focus...as well as keeping his mouth off of everything around him!
- Books. For the child that can read, books can be a great distraction! Fill with bright, vibrant books for various age levels. Consider Veggie Tales comics or fun Bible storybooks. I loved featuring a book called 'God Made Me Special' to remind those differently-abled children that God made them perfect just as they are.
- Art Supplies. Crayons, coloring books, pencils, etc can all again provide great busy work to make the wait a little easier. Color Wonder papers and markers can be ideal for younger kids or those with fine motor issues to prevent messes. Clay and/or playdoh when possible can also serve as a great sensory experience.
- Small Quiet Toys. Of course there is no better way to occupy a child's attention than with toys! For this box, the key thing you want to look for is toys that can be played with quietly! Plush toys, soft balls, etc are great options. For the sensory seeking kid, offer a variety of textures. Find toys that have colorful lights. Spinning parts are also popular among kids with sensory issues (gears, wheels, tops, etc). Inexpensive novelty toys are fantastic for this type of box...they can be replaced easily and inexpensively and because they are not played with every day still keep their appeal. (We used this types of toys often as reinforcements in therapy).
Randi Sampson is a Christian wife and autism mom. She blogs at A Modern Day Fairy Tale- sharing stories of motherhood, life, product reviews and everything in between.