Parents of children with special needs often fear being judged by others. It is hoped that the church will be an accepting environment; however, the reality is that the majority of church members with children who have special needs do not attend church regularly. Church holds great importance to many families, yet the thought of a sensory meltdown causes many to stay home. Why? Traditionally, churches are reserved and have times of quiet prayer and reflection. Unexpected noises and movements from the congregation may cause distraction and elicit stares from others. While church should be a place of grace and forgiveness, we are often fearful that our children’s behavior may be frowned upon.
It’s critical to remember that Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is beyond a child’s conscious control. In fact, many sensory responses are due to chemical reactions. When a child experiences a fight or flight reaction, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released. The goal for the child at that point is safety. Sensory information is taken in from touch, smell, vision, hearing, taste, vestibular, internal organ, and proprioceptive receptors. Vestibular receptors are responsible for detecting changes in position, whether it be in space, balance, or movement. Proprioceptive receptors provide information about body awareness, position, and posture. Interoception involves the internal regulation responses in our body, such as hunger, thirst, blood pressure, and even toileting urges. Many times, unexpected stimuli cause panic reactions.
Here are some tried and true tips to help both your child and your church family:
1. Explain what Sensory Processing Disorder means
We often hide our child’s disability due to fear of being judged. It’s our hope, though, that fellow church members will offer kindness and grace. Explain what SPD means and offer some common scenarios in which your child may experience fear or a meltdown. Offer a helpful website, or print out common symptoms children with SPD demonstrate. Explain what your child’s meltdown entails and teach a few techniques that usually help him to relax.
2. Find a church buddy
Many churches offer a buddy system. This is a free program that can be easily implemented in your church. If you don’t have a buddy program, start one! It’s easy and FREE. Find an older student or kind church member who would be willing to be your child’s buddy for church time. Let them get to know each other prior to the service and make sure that the buddy is familiar with SPD and your child’s ‘safety’ plan.
3. Ease transitions with visuals
Add visual schedules and transition warnings to the Sunday school program. We all utilize schedule books and planners to organize our time. A simple schedule of activities written on the chalkboard or a piece of paper can help to ease transitions. Knowing what is coming up next is critical in order to help children who are often fearful of the unexpected. Allow children to hold a ‘transition item’ or a familiar item when moving to the next location or place. Something familiar often helps to comfort children with SPD.
4. Create a social story
Social stories and ‘about me’ books always provide children with self-awareness and build confidence. Take photos of the church and the rooms your child will visit. If you’re unable to visit the actual building, go to the church’s website for a virtual tour. Print out photos to create a book about church. Parents are often surprised at their child’s creativity. Include common prayers and hymns as well as musical instruments often heard in the service.
5. Make a safety plan for escape or meltdown
As with any situation, an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure. Prepare a ‘safe’ place or room and practice walking to the room when your child is feeling safe. Show him/her what the room looks like and create an ‘I need a break card’ to show church staff or teachers when he/she starts to feel upset.
6. Make a special ‘church box’
Reserve a special ‘church box’ with fidgets and items of high interest for your child. ONLY use this box at church so that it remains novel and exciting. Absence truly does make the heart grow fonder, and knowing what’s in the box allows children to look forward to playing with it.
7. Make special adaptations for your child
Knowing how to make accommodations and adaptations for students with SPDs makes for the difference between a good day and a day filled with paralyzing anxiety. Try a weighted lap pad or a stuffed animal with poly pellets sewed into its paws. Weighted items can comfort children. Add a calming scent such as lavender or vanilla if your child prefers scents.
8. Allow your child to eat or chew
Snacks such as dehydrated fruit or bagels give heavy work input to the oral (mouth) muscles. Allow children to eat chewy snacks or wear chewable jewelry, such as Chewigems or Chewelry. Many products are beautiful as well as safe for children who place items into the mouth. There are even dog tags available for boys!
9. Add a movement break prior to church
“Brain breaks” release excess energy. Focusing for long periods of time can cause a build-up of energy. This is especially true for younger students or those who have difficulty attending to task. The build-up of energy can cause anxiety. Fidgeting results and, oftentimes, children are told to be still. The brain can actually move into “overload” and may cause periods of zoning out.
Remember that church can be a safe place for children with special needs. Oftentimes, church members confuse bad behavior with SPD, so information about your child is a powerful tool to help with grace and understanding. With a little practice, everyone can help children to worship in a comfortable setting.
Cara Koscinski obtained her Master’s Degree in occupational therapy in 1997. She is the parent of two children with autism and SPD. Cara is known as ‘The Pocket Occupational Therapist,’ has written four published books, and has created two CDs for children with a fear of loud noises. Additionally, she speaks at conferences and for Future Horizons, serves as an OT Advisor for Autism Asperger’s Digest, and teaches continuing education courses in the US and the UK. Information about Cara and her books is available at The Pocket Occupational Therapist website at: http://www.pocketot.com.
This article was featured in Issue 57 – Conquering A New Year