Autism · Church · Grace

When Church Hurts

She came up to me, our first Sunday there, and said, “If your son needs to be in a more quiet place, he is welcome to hang out with me in the lobby. I have the church’s WiFi passcode and he can use it if he has a device. I know it must be hard not to go into the service with your husband, so this way, you guys can have the hour together.”

I was speechless. And grateful. And amazed.

No one tells you that church and sensory issues are like oil and water. They don’t mention it in occupational therapy, or when you get the diagnosis, or even in the books that talk about what to expect.

Yet every mom I know, who has a unique little one like mine, has experienced it.

Church for families of children with special needs - autism, adhd, SPD, anxiety disorder

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Many of you have written me and asked what we do about church. I know why you ask. It’s a loaded question.  It’s a question that I am sad to say I still have no real answer to.

It’s a question that we have wrestled with – for years.

When Church Hurts

For my son, the sensory experience of going to church is something similar to torture (I wish I was exaggerating to make a point).

He enters the crowded lobby with wall to wall people, everyone talking at the same time, various smells of babies and coffee and muffins and perfume, getting bumped here and there because it’s not time for the service to start, people  still talking and welcoming and trying to hang on to their children as they run for the donuts and other children .

When it is time to start, he has the choice to attend with us where the worship music that everyone else seems to enjoy is overwhelmingly loud and painful, the lighting is weird and makes his eyes hard to focus, and the pastor is talking into a microphone, which blurs the words into a series of loud or louder sounds that he can’t make out. It’s all just noise, painful and overstimulating.  But it is better than the Sunday school classroom, with even louder kids, confusing social situations, worse smells, a teacher that keeps asking him to read aloud, answer questions, engage in crafts. He can hear the other kid’s pencils and crayons as they move across the worksheet – the sound of a writing instrument on paper is more searing than the loudest noise all morning. It’s like a drilling noise, in his ear, constant and overwhelming.

No matter what he chooses, when church is over, he is exhausted and anxious. He makes his way back through the crowded lobby and the smells and the people touching him and the kids playing. Then he hears me say, “We should go out to lunch.” Knowing this means more smells, clanging kitchen noises, the constant buzz of conversations at other tables, and the horribly loud music they play in the background. He panics. The meltdown begins.

This. Every. Single. Sunday.

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I wish I knew five years ago. I wish I realized the extent of it even six months ago.

It saddens me to say that for years I forced – literally dragged him out the door on Sunday mornings. I thought I was doing the right thing. I love church. I thought he would too, eventually.

It makes me a little sick to think that I worried more about what other people thought about us missing a Sunday, or his behavior at church on a Sunday, than the pain he was feeling. I was concerned with others, more than his precious heart.

It angers me that when we finally made the decision to divide and conquer, with one of us staying home each Sunday, or worse yet when we both started staying home on Sunday mornings in an effort to figure out what God would have us do, we were met with judgment and accusation.

And, it delights me that when we took the painful part of learning about Jesus out of the conversation with my son, his heart began to soften. He began to not be so fearful and purposefully removed from our conversations about God, and instead relaxed, learning, listening, and even starting to engage.

I know we are not alone in making this type of decision. I know of one family that conducts “family church” at home together, every Sunday. They study the Bible and sing hymns and pray. It is the best they can do.

I know of another mother that, one Sunday, was asked to keep her child out of children’s church – because it was disrupting the other children and making it difficult for the teacher. This momma went home and cried all Sunday afternoon.

Kristine Barnett, in her book The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism, shares that people at church questioned her parenting ability and thought her autistic son was spoiled. She overheard a joke being made about him. One Sunday, she picked him up, walked out in the middle of the service, and didn’t come back to church for years.

Temple Grandin, a woman with autism, also addresses this in her book, The Way I See It.She talks about going to church as a child in the 1950’s when there was predominately organ music. She says she does not think she would ever be able to attend a modern church service now, with all the loud music and microphones.

We are not unusual, at least in the world of sensory dysfunction. But it feels like we are.

For now, we are taking each Sunday as it comes. We know another mom in a similar situation who is willing to trade-off with us – she goes to church one Sunday and we keep her son. Then we switch and she takes ours so we can attend. We also have the very gracious offer I shared from the gal in the lobby. We may take her up on it. She doesn’t know my son, but her heart is so genuine and her desire to serve so obvious, I think my son would love her.

For those of you who do not make this choice every Sunday, please have grace for those who do.

Anyone I have spoken with in this situation, does not make these decisions lightly. This is not a willful disregard for the Bible or the church. We love the church and genuinely want to serve and be a part of it. If you have an idea that you think may help, offer it. Please. We need the church. We need the body of Christ. We need our children to have a place at the table.

For those of you who share our circumstances, I want to encourage you to make the decision that you know to be right for your family. Seek counsel from wise friends, who understand your situation. Whatever you decide does not have to be permanent. Your child and your family are uniquely gifted to you by God. You may need a unique approach in this season, in order to serve and glorify Him.

Jesus

Image from The Jesus Storybook Bible.

He called a little child and had him stand among them.  And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” Matthew 18:2-6

You are not the only one. Your child is not the only one.

Sometimes, church hurts.


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When ChurchHurts

This post was originally featured on Not The Former Things in May of 2014.

164 thoughts on “When Church Hurts

  1. Church hurts sometimes. Thank you for your honesty to say it. The truth is, we all do it. We all judge. We all claim spiritual superiority over others. We all snuff out the candles of others to make our own burn brighter. Thank you for the reminder that God’s mission is one of Grace and mercy and entering the mess to save the lost – not lip service to God’s ideals from a sense of sanctimony. His is a mission of really, practically changing our lives to bring hope and joy to others. Good words, my love.

  2. Beautiful Shawna! Oh the plot twists in this journey… Lord help us pay attention. Your boys are so lucky to have a Mama like you that is paying attention and learning alongside them!

  3. Beautiful post, Shawna. Since we are one of those in a similar situation, I’ve been grateful that our children’s church volunteers are working on it. One of the leaders, who is in her 20’s, has volunteered to work on a mural on a wall with Max during children’s church time. Max is excited for it and I’m so glad that people are willing to think outside the box. Yesterday, they did an activity with water in buckets outside and then Max came back in with us and played Minecraft when they went inside. Of course, he proceeded to dump the buckets of water over his head after church. We’re all navigating this one step at a time. I saw a signed on a church the other day that said, “JUDGE LESS. LOVE MORE.” That’s my new motto.

    1. I love it. All of it! I think a volunteer to work one on one would really help in so many of our circumstances. I am so glad your church is coming along side you and Max. It’s beautiful.
      Love,
      Shawna

  4. This is our life with our newly home 12 year old son. Church is a nightmare. I long for the day for us to have some normalcy. I so appreciate this article.

    1. Oh my goodness, my heart goes out to you. I so understand that feeling…the longing for normalcy. Praying for you and your 12 year old guy!
      Love,
      Shawna

  5. We finally found a church where I don’t have to wear ear plugs or range muffs or sunglasses every week….especially since our new music minister with calmer music arrived. I had been thinking about attending a church of Christ even if I didn’t completely agree with their beliefs because – hey, at least there would be no instruments! A friend recently posted about the quietest room in the world driving people mad…the longest anyone has been able to stand it is 45 minutes. It sounds like heaven to me. It sounds like you have a wonderful support network….It’s not just you getting nasty comments, btw.

    1. My son read the same thing – about the quiet room – and said exactly the same thing. He said it sounds like the perfect place. Thank you so much for commenting and for sharing.
      Love,
      Shawna

  6. Oh I am inspired…we have quite a few children in our Childrens Church and Junior Youth who have ADHD and Autism, this week one of them rolled in a bean bag for the first time, we were speechless with delight (his mum and I) we strive to make ALL kids welcome and that our church is a place of rest for parents and kids with special needs! …Blogs like this give us as teachers and insight into your worlds…keep blogging and sharing you are being heard. We are currently looking at setting up a safe enclosed area for our kids to escape to as well, pray for us that we can make our church safe and welcoming! Hugs and love as you strive and nurture your babies. I salute you!! xxxxxx

    1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am so encouraged by your sweet comments and super excited that you are taking the time to read and consider how best to meet the needs of the children you serve. My hat is off to you. Volunteering with children is never easy, and it sounds like you are approaching it with enthusiasm and care.
      Love,
      Shawna

  7. Wow, this is such a brave and honest post. It sounds like you are doing the best that you can do with your circumstance and that is all that you can do. I don’t have kids with autism, but I do teach the kids at our churchl on Wednesday nights. Reading this may help me in the future if we get kids in that are autistic. Our church is small and there really aren’t a lot of kids, but you never know how things may change in the future!

    1. Thank you so much! I love your willingness to learn and serve the children you work with, no matter what their circumstances.

  8. Every parent has felt this to a certain extent, but my heart aches for those of you who are judged so harshly because of your children’s unique needs.

    I’ve worked with kids who have special needs before, but too many children’s church workers have no idea what to do or how to tweak their classroom to make it more accommodating.

    1. I think most parents are just happy when someone is willing to listen and loving towards their kids. Thank you so much for working with children and doing it in a way that is compassionate and understanding.
      Love,
      Shawna

  9. Our son is 34. We stopped making him go to church with us about eight years ago. Sunday mornings were a dreaded nightmare every week for all of us. We finally decided so much misery was enough. My husband is a staff pastor at a large lively church and our son can’t take it. We have a caregiver come in for services so I can attend and everyone is much happier. Gotta do what’s right for our kids and not worry what others think. I’m pretty sure God understands 🙂

    1. I am so grateful for your wisdom and experience. Thank you for sharing…and yes, I agree. I think God understands!
      Love,
      Shawna

  10. Saw your post linked on Twitter and am so glad to have read it. We have 2 kids: 15-yr-old daughter w Asperger’s and 11-yr-old son with a number of developmental/ASD issues. Yes, church can be very hard. So far both our kids love to go, and we make it work, but it’s never easy — e.g. son is scared in church gym, as per my post from last year http://prinsenhouse.blogspot.ca/2013/07/behaviour-is-communication.html
    so it is so hard to meet & connect with other parents — very isolating at times. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this important subject. That opening paragraph is very encouraging; it’s great to know there are churches & people who care.

    1. The isolation in all of this is so hard to explain, but so easy to understand when you are with another momma in the same situation. Thank you for the encouragement and support!
      Love,
      Shawna

  11. Shawna, thank you so much for writing this. We’re just so tired. Tired from not getting enough sleep and tired from church being a fight every week. We’re spiritually exhausted – we barely hear teaching, it’s hard to attend groups and we so easily distance ourselves from social activities because we’ve had enough battles to fight in a normal week that attempting a picnic or a soft play centre, etc. just seems like too much, especially if we have to leave early AGAIN.

    My soul is parched and your words have really revived me. xxx

    1. Oh, Alice. Thank you so much for this. I thought about just replying with Yes, Yes, Yes! You describe the reality of this unique life perfectly. I am grateful that the post revived and reassured you. “If you are tired, you have to be doing something right,” is what a friend of mine loves to tell me. I am saying the same thing to you!
      Love,
      Shawna

  12. You might ask your children’s minister to look into a curriculum or approach called “Godly Play” — it is about hearing one of God’s stories and then spending time responding in individual, quiet time ways for kids.

  13. I don’t much care for the “stadium” model, with mikes, light show, loudness, coffee hour, kids running all around, worship service myself. I go to a liturgical church where the services are calm, thoughtful, quiet, orderly, well-planned and electronica is not used. Nice.

    1. A few people have brought that up as an option. Although we have never been, it makes sense that a liturgical church would provide an environment that is easier to navigate for some. Thank you for sharing.
      Love,
      Shawna

  14. I can barely respond to this without tearing up. Because that’s me now.

    I’m 44, and my synaesthesia (for lack of a better term) is much milder than your son’s. But I haven’t been able to attend Sunday services in years, and one of the reasons is that there were so many sensory distractions that there was no way I could focus on God while the service was going on. For many years I would leave the sanctuary (now THERE is an ironic term!) to go someplace else to pray or worship – and often would be chased out of those.

    To this day I can’t stand the combination of the press of crowds, the perfume smells, the oddball lighting, and the noise … egads, the noise! Several years ago I happened to be standing by the sound booth at the back of a meeting room while they were doing the sound check, and saw the sound meter the worship leader had the sound guy using. Their goal was that at the back of the hall, the music would be at 95 decibels! 95 dB is the noise level of a jackhammer at 50 feet (about the distance from the sound booth to the stage in this place), or a hand drill. It’s also the level at which sustained exposure may result in hearing loss. (I spent almost 20 years in congregations similar to that one, and yes, I now have partially hearing loss.)

    And now I have a son who is severely disabled and can only communicate through moaning (over which his control is limited). I can’t imagine putting him in any “children’s church” or Sunday school class that I saw in two decades of institutional church attendance. I’ve looked for house churches, but the few I’ve found are a) replications of the institutions I had to leave and/or b) over 30 miles away. I’ve tried to do “family church,” but that satisfied nobody.

    So we stay home. I fellowship on Facebook and worship (usually without music) in my office. I worry about what my kids are learning or not learning, and try to raise them up as best I can. And whenever anyone asks me where I “go to church,” I have to tell them I don’t – and then listen to the lectures from people who don’t understand me or the Bible. I know He’s in charge, and that we belong to Him. But it gets lonely sometimes.

    1. Thank you for sharing such a personal, and very real example. I am praying for you and your son. I know Jesus can, and will meet you anywhere. And, I hope He brings community to you in a way that is helpful and loving.
      Love,
      Shawna

    2. I’m sure you’ve looked into everything that might help but just in case, have you tried neurofeedback? It’s helping me with my noise and movement sensitivities.

      1. I have heard of it and we may try it. I am encouraged to hear it is working for you!
        Thank you so much for sharing.
        Love,
        Shawna

  15. This is an answered prayer to see this posted on FB! I am an OT and have practiced in pediatrics for over 10 yrs. My passion and I believe my ministry is the empathy God has given me for families struggling with these similar issues especially sensory issues whatever the diagnosis might be. Our church has just created a “sensory retreat” I am helping design and create for this very purpose you are discussing. My biggest concern and need right now is hearing from parents and what would help improve their experience at church. I don’t want to “assume” I know because I don’t. Right now we are creating a retreat which is a room that its purpose is to be calming and a place a child can go too that the parents know they can feel calm, safe, not overwhelmed, etc. It has a swing in it, a quiet corner, noise reducing headphones, tactile station, crash pads, bean bags, etc. With this just starting my focus right now is to educate and get the word out to our church family. Educate them on why we need this room and the purpose of it and what these children and parents are dealing with. I am also
    Currently working on the structure of how we will do this each Sunday. I would love your input (or anyone elses) on this and if it is easier to email me that would be great. I have suggested possibly assigning a “buddy” or a “friend” for each child that would be permanent as much as possible. For example I would be your child’s buddy and I would interact with them one on one and become familiar with their needs, your needs, etc. That way there isn’t constant change for the child or the parent which hopefully would provide more peace and security for both. Thank you for sharing from your heart

    1. Oh my goodness, this sounds amazing. I would be happy to provide feedback for you on this. Please email me at nottheformerthings@gmail.com, or use the contact form, and I will respond directly.
      In the meantime, thank you so much for serving the children in your church in such a creative and individualized way!
      Love,
      Shawna

      1. Actually, she’s asking the question I have : what would an ideal at church solution look like for you and your son? We have some kids with similar issues at our church and I wonder what response we should be making. Your thoughts and those of many of your commenters would make an excellent follow up post for many of us.

        1. I am praying about a follow-up post, Erica. Thank you for the encouragement to write it!
          I think that most families, more than any church program changes or sweeping changes, would love to feel the support and encouragement of their church body in making the decisions that are best for them. The rest can be an ongoing conversation – starting with a complete lack of judgement and a genuine desire to understand and help is more than half the battle.
          Thank you so much for your heart to serve the families at your church well.
          Love,
          Shawna

  16. oh man .. do I know where you are coming from. My son and I have Asperger Syndrome. For me it’s not prominent for most of the time, but there are many things that will lock me up. Our church is going through change at the moment, and at the beginning of the process I remember the worship time. A spinning background behind the projected words and the energy level from the front felt like a mania. We left after 10 minutes or so. I refuse to feel guilty for this, but that day church hurt me. That experience for me was devoid of God and was an affront to my senses.

    I’m behind you every step as you try and help your son build his relationship with Jesus. He said, let the children come to me. Not make the children go to a church which separates them from me. I want to highlight one sentence in your article:

    “We need our children to have a place at the table.”

    I honestly believe that Jesus would say that your son’s place at the table is next to Him. I can see it.

    1. Thank you so much. I have tears reading the last line of your comment. I really appreciate your support and encouragement.
      Love,
      Shawna

      1. We suspect that both my oldest son and I have a tad of Asperger’s. We have not been to church for sometime but I promised him he could have earplugs if we go again. Sometimes I wonder how necessary the flashing lights and pumped up distorted volume really is. Like, what about epileptics? Do we really need stobes?

        One church I went to roped off the back to encourage everyone to move forward and I had to keep sitting in the back to give me distance from the sound and lights. I felt like a roped off bull from the cows, ha ha! I actually asked if they could unrope me, and they said no, bring some earplugs.

        1. Thank you so much for sharing Maryanne. I love hearing your first hand perspective, as my son stills struggles to adequately describe how it is for him sometimes.
          Love,
          Shawna

  17. wow, thank you so much for sharing this post, this is so similar to our experience since our son who is now 5 was born we have really struggled with church. Our son has ASD and SPD he has sensitive hearing and even wearing ear defenders only helps a little when in church.

    I am sorry its been so hard for you, but I’m glad that you were able to share your experience as it really helps us to feel less alone.

    I pray that God would surround you and your family with a wonderful network of friends and supporters and fellowship, the body of christ that doesn’t need to meet in a noisy room on a Sunday morning.

    Sarah x

  18. We have a wonderful family attending church…they don’t always come and I certainly understand why. I would be the same, I’m sure…it’s just sometimes too traumatic. It’s important to consider the effect on the autistic child. Their other two children are ADHD. The autistic son is eleven, very sweet and does fairly well. He carries his stuffed animal with him but he doesn’t like others to talk to it or ask him about it…it’s private and everyone respects that. We have A-Cappella singing and it doesn’t seem to upset him. Everyone is aware…very respectful and helpful when help seems to be wanted or needed. But his parents are exhausted…my heart goes out to them. They’re in a 24/7 stress mode.
    We all need to be aware and helpful; never, ever judgmental or crude. Children are special and Jesus loves all of them; they are pure and ever so sweet. We all need to remember that…love them no matter what.
    My husband was Director of a children’s school/hospital for children w/Cerebral Palsy and we know what it means to be treated rudely…talked about…laughed at. We also know what it means to be helped and loved…that’s the way to go!

  19. The point should be, don’t give up trying. You might not find “the right” church right away. It might take a month or two or 10 to find the one that meets you AND your child’s needs. We have been to everything from tiny churches, to mega churches, from ones with Special needs ministries, to actually starting our own ministry to reach out to those families who need a quieter space… They ARE out there. The problem becomes one of being so ‘hurt’ that you refuse to see that there are churches who will try to meet your needs, if you ask. When you walk out, and don’t let them know how they can help, who’s problem is it? I personally see it as an excuse when families say they can’t find a church where their child is welcome… I say you aren’t trying hard enough. And when you DO look harder, and you DO find “THAT” place… it’s a little piece of Heaven on earth!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Dori. Please don’t misunderstand. We do not feel hurt by the church, nor do we expect the church to change in order to accommodate our needs. I wrote this because of the struggle, and literal hurt my son feels in the environment at church, and the difficulties we have faced as a result. I agree with you – we would never, ever want to give up on church. Like you, we love it too much.
      Love,
      Shawna

  20. The church I belong to, Cedarcreek.tv has a live feed of their 5 services on their website every week. My daughter has ASD and ADHD so some weeks we connect the I-pad to our tv and watch the service from home. Check it out sometime!!

  21. Thank you for your insightful words. I have 6 kids, four have special needs, 3 have sensory issues as part of their special needs. I have cried many a Sunday afternoon. God did call us to Home church for 2 years, then to a deaf church and now we have finally found a church home that works so hard to meet the needs of all our kids! Praise the Lord! I have found much healing in seeing the Body reach out to our children, and who do not judge us as parents…those believers who do believe that “what so ever you do for the least of these, that you do for me” (Jesus) I am so thankful that I didn’t give up on the Body…all of this journey has given me compassion for anyone who is struggling to find their place at the table.

  22. What in the world is “OT”? You never defined it. Although I think the solution(s) you describe seem to be the best solutions, I couldn’t figure out what I was reading about through the whole first half of the article. You need to define things for us (who are not familiar with the different forms of autism) if you want us to understand. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know this was about an autistic child for quite a while.

    1. Thank you, Susan. I appreciate your honest feedback and I completely understand. I am so accustomed to all of these things now (in fact I wrote a post about it feeling like learning a new language recently so I should know better! http://nottheformerthings.com/2014/04/22/becoming-bilingual/) I need to remember that it is not second hand knowledge.
      OT is occupational therapy. It has benefited my son tremendously because it allows his sensory system to “synch up” through a series of exercises and some mindfulness techniques.
      Thank you for being willing to hang in there, despite the confusion.
      Love,
      Shawna

  23. ((((Hugs))))) I know how you feel. Although my son loved the loud, music filled services, at least superficially, it took us DAYS to reset from them. By that time… we’re back at church. It was a nightmare. We’ve been searching for over a year now for a church that would work for all of us (our 6 kids, only one is SN, but each have their own unique needs).

    One thing we finally decided to do was to attend a Liturgical service. It was new (and uncomfortable, at first) for me, but more comfortable for my husband. Even though in our church, we stand for the entire liturgy (2 hours!, although young children, the elderly, and the ill are welcome to sit), I found that because of the rhythm, the chanting, the music, even the new smells of the incense, they’re all so much more soothing and calm than the more contemporary churches, and my son has had a MUCH easier time adjusting. We also found a smaller church, so there was fewer people to deal with every week. My son (who is 11, and can articulate to me more what he needs now) says he is able to enjoy church a lot more now, and even asks to go to Matins and Vespers (morning and evening prayer services during the week). Because he can focus, he’s able to think better, and has the best questions during the week. 🙂 I know this solution won’t work for everyone, but I thought I’d throw it out there, in case it would for someone else. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Kristi. It really makes sense that a liturgical service might better meet our needs.
      Praying for you and your family – six blessings! (and I know you have your hands full…)
      Love,
      Shawna

  24. Wonder if a new ministry for kids with special needs would work…Not all churches could do this, but many can…There are many who have a heart for these kids and want to minister to them….Special room, small group…teacher equipped….

  25. Thank you for writing this kindly and truthfully. I am praying for wisdom and ways to help children and adults with these kind of issues and others be able to engage in meaningful Christian community without having to stay home or sit outside. I really appreciate you sharing your own experience as well as the comments of so many. Oh Lord help us to know how to welcome the little children who have trouble sitting still and being quiet and engaging with large amounts of people and loud chaotic environments. Show us how to show your love to them so that that is what they take away from it all. Amen

  26. “I know it must be hard not to go into the service with the your husband, so this way, you guys can have the hour together.” – In our journey raising 22 children, most with special needs, I wish someone had said this to us once. Just once. This blog is a breath of fresh air. It is part of the reason we wrote our book – so the community – and especially the church – could learn how to support families – families of birth, foster care, adoption or other ways of coming together but all are families and when families have members with special needs the church could be so much more . . . .

    1. Thank you so much, Sue. Please feel free to post the name of your book here. I would love to take a look and I am sure other parents visiting the blog would as well.
      Thank you for caring for and loving so many special children.
      Love,
      Shawna

  27. Thanks Shawan – Our book is called “Are We There Yet? The Ultimate Road Trip Adopting & Raising 22 Kids” and it is available on the usual outlets like Amazon or at my personal website if you want it autographed 🙂 (www.suebadeau.com )

  28. Thank you for sharing this. I know some folks at our church who have pushed their child to go in the attempts to make him be normal. It’s obvious that the things others find happy and joyful about church are just frustrating to him. And then he acts out or becomes extremely withdrawn.

    Parents need to consider the needs of their children- whether it’s sensory issues or anything else that causes distress about church. And we as a church need to make it easier for them by having accepting and helping attitudes like the gal that offered your son help. 🙂

    1. Thank you for your words. I totally agree with you. You bring up a good point – children feel distress about church, for whatever reason, we have to help them with that first, before we can expect them to learn and follow Jesus.
      Love,
      Shawna

  29. I have 2 sensory kids, one opposite ends of the sensory spectrum. I’ve had the glances and stares. I’ve had the child who cannot be still or makes the loud shrieking sound when she is still. I’ve had (still do sometimes) the child who tears clothes off in public because the feel of them against her skin is so offensive that she just cannot tolerate it any longer. Because I can relate and because my children are now a bit older (my sensory ones are 11 and 8), I’d like to share some of what has helped our family in public, including church. The key is to help our kids learn to cope with sensory processing disorder.

    First, if your son isn’t in occupational therapy to help him desensitize from the sensory issues, I strongly urge you to look into this. I understand if your insurance doesn’t cover it or if there isn’t a good facility near you. However, if you can arrange it, it will help your son learn lifelong skills to cope with a condition that he won’t outgrow. Couple OT with some behavioral therapy (through a counselor or psychologist) from someone skilled in dealing with sensory kids. I’m not being insulting, really. Sensory kids are overwhelmed and impulsive because they are overwhelmed. They don’t have the patience to deal with the over-stimulation happening to their bodies. This type of therapy helps them learn to identify triggers before or as they are happening and learn coping skills (such as excusing themselves BEFORE the meltdown starts, finding ways to productively or acceptably use the adrenaline surging inside them causing the fight-or-flight response, and simply being able to say, “Mom, it’s getting too loud/too bright/too smelly in here for me.”) We started our 11-year old in these therapies when she was 6 and it was the best thing we could do for her. We’ve taken that same experience to help our 8-year old.

    If you haven’t read “Sensational Kids” by Lucy Jane Miller, I encourage you to go today and order it from your library. You may want to buy it and have it as a point of reference, but start with your library. Miller is excellent at describing the various types of sensory processing disorder and sensory stress and then gives specific activities that help balance out that type of stress. You’ll want to incorporate those things into your sons daily activities. I’m not kidding. My 11-year old benefits from “heavy work” so she helps with laundry – carrying laundry baskets – and vacuuming. Miller also helps YOU look around to identify what the triggers might be in any given sensory situation. This helps you be proactive instead of reactive and having to deal with all the meltdowns. Moms of sensory kids often have PTSD from all the meltdowns and living re-actively. You don’t have to go through this. There are ways for you and your son to learn to live with SPD.

    Other things that we did that were easier and cheaper, but you may have some trial and error to find exactly what works for your family are:
    1. We gave my daughter a small wax tart to keep in her pocket. She picked out the scent so it wasn’t too strong or offensive to her. When we were places that had strong odors (a specific grocery store was a trigger for her), she could pull that out and smell it.
    2. I keep ear plugs and sunglasses in my vehicle. If we are somewhere that is too loud or too bright, we go get them. My daughter now can ask for them or I can anticipate when we might need them and put them in my purse.
    3. My daughter was comforted by soft things, so we made sure that I kept a strip of soft fabric in my purse that I could wrap around her wrist for times when she needed it, then she could give it back when she was done.
    4. Most sensory kids have a reset button – some activity or situation that will reset their sensory system. Because sensory stress is cumulative, it will only get worse until they can reset. It may take some work to find out what it is that completely calms your son down, but that’s his reset button. Use it. For my 11-year old, it is/was spinning. If she was in meltdown mode, we could take her to a safe place or outside and spin her around super fast. It would reset her nervous system so she could function more normally.
    5. The last thing that we incorporated, and this was specific to church, was *very* minty gum. That may not be the solution for you. It may be too strong. But it’s what worked for us to be able to keep her quiet when she needed to be. It took time and didn’t happen over night, but it was the tool that fit.

    I hope some of this is helpful to you or your readers. I am a firm believer now that God allowed me to have 2 sensory children so I can share our experiences and perhaps comfort others with the same comfort He has given me over the years. It hasn’t been easy and there have been a lot of tears, but He made these children and He doesn’t make mistakes. He has entrusted them to us and it’s our job to help them learn to get through life and love and serve Him.

    1. You are wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing all of this. I have learned so much in your words and am excited to try some of your suggestions with my son. What a gift to know what works for your child, and to be willing to share it so graciously.
      Love,
      Shawna

  30. Thank you so much for sharing this. I am married to someone who has a son with autism. His 1st wife passed away, and left him with 3 boys to raise. I was someone who constantly went to church, and wondered why my then boyfriend as a Christian didn’t ever go to church. Obviously as I got to know all of them, I figured out why it was so hard for him to go. I was so judgmental while we were dating. After 3 years of being married, I no longer go to church either. I feel it’s better for us to be together as a family on Sunday mornings. Fortunately, our oldest is now 17 and is to the point that he can stand going to youth group in a small setting. Sunday mornings are just too much for him, but I now feel comfortable knowing he can learn about Christ from me and through my actions. I still constantly get asked why we don’t go to church on Sundays, apparently most people are as judgmental as I was. This blog is much needed. Thank you.

    1. Oh my goodness – your story is similar to my husband’s. We have been married for three years. He graciously married “us” (me and the boys) knowing there would be some struggles, but he would also say that he was super judgmental about a lot. Now that he has lived with it for a while, he totally understands, just like you. It is amazing to see how God brings us together, and grows us in our faith, understanding and in having grace for others.
      I wish you and your family so many blessings!Thank you for sharing your story.
      Love,
      Shawna

  31. The church operated for nearly two millennia without loud music or patterned stage lights. Seeking a more intimate, worshipful setting for your family that brings your child into the presence of Jesus is absolutely the best thing to do. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You aren’t “forsaking the assembly.” You’re assembling in a different way. Bless you.

  32. Our daughter has Rett Syndrome (which is on the Autism Spectrum) and we have been at the same church since she was 5. She will soon be 21. Everyone was so gracious from the start. There was always someone who would hang out with her if she just wasn’t feeling like being in the class. She has been allowed to stay in classes with her younger brother (he is 3 years younger) when they were co-ed classes. She always enjoys hanging with him. Even today there is always someone to help get her to class and she is included in all parts of our church experience (as much or as little as she can handle on that day).

    Over the years we have had other families come into the church with children who could not sit through the music and/or the service. We set up a team to work with the families to help the child be comfortable. Sometimes they bring a movie and snacks for their child. Other times they have a device that they can play on. Sometimes it is just sitting with them while they have their headphones on looking through a book. Whatever it is – it helps the rest of the family have an hour to recharge while knowing their child is in a calm environment.

  33. Thank-you so much for sharing this. My son doesn’t have sensory issues but he has lots of physical disabilities and has been so welcomed at our church. We know it’s a “success” story and doesn’t happen everywhere but we’re grateful to be surrounded by willing hearts.

    Heather

    1. This is wonderful, Heather. I love the way you put it – “being surrounded by willing hearts”. So much grace and love in that!
      Love,
      Shawna

  34. Love this post! We didn’t realize that our son’s behavior was due to over stimulation. The children’s church workers would come get us to get him and talk to him. They consistently told me over and over again that if he doesn’t listen to them and do what they say then he is sinning and needs to be taught that. In a sensory issue I do not believe there is any sin connected. Our son was acting out because he couldn’t handle it. We just don’t go to church anymore. It’s too much for everyone involved.

    1. Shari,
      I completely understand. It is such a difficult position to be in, and impossible to explain if you haven’t been there. I pray that your son is finding Jesus in a way that is comfortable and engaging. I also pray that your family is still able to find fellowship and support, despite your need to step away from church for a while. Thank you so much for bravely sharing your experience.
      Love,
      Shawna

  35. Shawna, Thank you so much for your article. I can so relate. I have a son 9 years old with Down Syndrome although he is very high functioning, he has many sensory issues and dealing with sound is one. However, he loves music an will play it loud at home or in the car but he is in control and when it gets too much it can be shut off. He will not go into a theater, many birthday parties we have had to opt out on and then there is Church!!! We have gone to a few different Churches and in one he was thrown out of Sunday School as they did not have the patience to deal with him. When I went through the Sunday School administrator, she informed me (very rudely I might add) that they did not accept children with disabilities in Sunday School and that she has a daughter with special needs and she (the child) stays home. I was even lied to by one of the Sunday School teachers. After missing going to church for a while, we were told to try Calvary Church that the one in our area Calvary Church of Kendall (CCK) had a Special Needs Children’s Ministry during there services. We talked to Peter (my son) about it trying it and of course he asked “Is it going to be loud? Is it going to be dark?” and so forth…We tried it and it is the most fantastic program! It is run mostly by parents of children with Special Needs! There is not a child they won’t take!!!! Peter loves it there and they love him! I think every church that has parents with children who have special needs should let the parents create and serve in a Special Needs Children’s Ministry where children and young adults with Special Needs can go and learn the Word of God while their parents are doing the same. You can check out their Facebook page its called Calvary Kendall Special Needs Ministry! Wishing you lots of luck! We will be praying for you and others alike Shawna! God Bless!

    Carolyn

    1. Carolyn,
      Thank you so much for sharing. It is encouraging to hear about your family finding a such a wonderful, welcoming church home at Calvary Kendall.
      God Bless you and yours!
      Love,
      Shawna

  36. My daughter is blind, not autistic, but for a year after she came home, the noise in the sanctuary after service was distressing to her. We’d leave early. Happily our church is very laid-back and accepting. Nobody judged us. I’m pretty sure nobody would judge us if she needed to hang out by herself in a quiet room downstairs every Sunday.

    It makes me feel lucky to have our church and sad that other churches are not like that. God looks on the heart, not a tally of hours in church attendance.

    A friend of mine whose son is autistic participates in a home church with just a few families meeting in their houses. I’m sure it’s a lot easier for her son to not have to endure a big service. There are many ways to worship. 🙂

  37. My daughter is blind, not autistic, but for a year after she came home, the noise in the sanctuary after service was distressing to her. We’d leave early. Happily our church is very laid-back and accepting. Nobody judged us. I’m pretty sure nobody would judge us if she needed to hang out by herself in a quiet room downstairs every Sunday.

    It makes me feel lucky to have our church and sad that other churches are not like that. God looks on the heart, not a tally of hours in church attendance.

    A friend of mine whose son is autistic participates in a home church with just a few families meeting in their houses. I’m sure it’s a lot easier for her son to not have to endure a big service. There are many ways to worship. 🙂

  38. Thank you for sharing this with the church, it is a good reminder to love each other without making judgments, and to continue to seek ways to show that love to our neighbors.

    I wanted to let families who share this experience know about a program started in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut called Rhythms of Grace. They provide resources to help churches offer a more sensory-friendly worship experience.

    There are a number of churches around the country that are offering Rhythms of Grace worship, and they can be found on the website here: http://www.rhythms-of-grace.org/, where we can learn more about what the Rhythms of Grace experience is like. We can also find them on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Rhythms-of-Grace/109693922385217?fref=ts

    Thank you again for writing so movingly about your family’s experience. It’s something we in the church need to hear, so we can begin to meet families where they are and show them love.

    Please remember that Jesus loves you and your child, this I know. And for those who are overwhelmed, he’s happy to show up in a small, still voice.

  39. brought tears to my eyes. SPD is such a sneaky little thing and so hard to explain. You have captured the heartache and the victory beautifully. Thanks for letting us know we aren’t alone. 🙂

  40. Thank you so much for this. We just got a diagnose finally for a little one last week, but we have been trying for over a year now. When my husband was deployed this last year I stopped going to church because he had outgrown the nursery and was unable to be in the regular class and sitting through church was not an option. At a time when I needed the church so much I could not go. We have tried to return to church since my husband has returned, but it is so hard because I feel like we are disrupting others. We are considering doing church at home. Church has honestly been one the hardest social thing for all of us.

    1. I completely understand. I am so sorry you and your family are in a similar position to ours. I think you said it very well – “At A time when I needed the church so much I could not go”. It makes me tear up a little reading it because I think I have said it at least a dozen times.
      Praying and praying for you and yours.
      Love,
      Shawna

  41. You introduced me to an element of church I’ve never had to consider. And this. “Please. We need the church. We need the body of Christ. We need our children to have a place at the table.” I’m on the lookout now for those I can help make comfortable. For a whole new reason.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Traci. Thank you for your heart to serve families like mine. It matters so much more than you know.
      Love,
      Shawna

  42. As a pastor, I am always looking for ways we can meet unmet needs in our community. Would a special service that was aimed at participants and families with sensory difficulties be useful? If so, what would this look like to you? What things would you like to see in a worship of this type?

    1. Thank you for your questions. I am sending you a more detailed response personally, but I will reply here to briefly say that my primary request would be that the church foster an environment of support and encouragement first, before any real program changes. If you read through many of the comments here, the pain for most families comes from feeling judged, excluded, and somehow not as much a part of the body because of our unique needs, not necessarily a huge demand for sweeping changes.
      More to come and thank you so much for asking!
      Love,
      Shawna

      1. Thank you, Fusion is a new spiritual community. We are probably the most “unchurch” like church you will see. One of our mission goals is to meet needs as we find them. I also drive a school bus for the local school district. I do know this is a need in our community. We do not have a regular service at this time. Instead of an every Sunday service, we meet at times other than Sunday and usually around a theme for a specific time (We did Mondays during Advent). We may eventually have an every week service (won’t be on Sunday), or maybe we won’t. Depends on what is needed. We do other mission projects to meet needs in the community also. I have a soon to be 16 year old grandson who is autistic. Noah’s sensory issues have improved greatly as he has aged, but there are times he still becomes overwhelmed. I have a couple (that I know of) students that are autistic on my bus. I have made appoint of sitting them is a “safe” zone, around students who will actually stand up of them if needed, where is is quieter (quiet is relative). Both have had a great year on the bus. I am a long term sub, I’ve been on the route since the 3rd day of school. I did this route on and off last year, an know that it was a rough year for both of the boys.

        The advantage of a “calm/quiet” service is using appropriate music, and other worship aides. Making a calm setting for anyone who craves this type of atmosphere. I believe we can have many worship settings, not just one.

  43. As a parent, and a Christian Ed Director, I believe it is our job to set an example of acceptance and love by meeting families where they are, and accepting the uniqueness of every person. We have many children with differing needs and abilities at our church, and we make it a mission to be sure everyone feels they are welcome. A parent should never feel the need to apologize for doing what they feel is best for their child.

    1. Amen! I kinda want to put that on a t-shirt… “A parent should never have to apologize for doing what they feel is best for their child”.
      Thank you so much for your kind words.
      Love,
      Shawna

  44. My wife and I are staff pastors at a church in Massachusetts and the parents of 3 autistic children. We actually started a sensory children’s church called House of Hope. We have trampolines, crawl tunnels, a ball pit, rice tables, etc. They do sensory activities and circle time. The kids love it.

  45. Contemporary worship services drive me nuts. I have been told that it is because I am a dinosaur, but in reality, I am dyslexic and too much noise, lights, and sound short circuit my brain. I am going to a liturgical church now, complete with a pipe organ and the routine of the liturgy and the service is relaxing and meaningful to me. everyone needs to find a service that works for their situation and needs.

    1. I am certain that my son is too young to be a dinosaur and he would echo your same comments! 🙂
      Thank you so much for sharing your experience.
      Love,
      Shawna

  46. If you can find a Taizé service, that would be great! Taizé usually is very quiet and meditative and the songs are repeated many times to enter into meditation on the words. Most will have candles and quiet instruments (piano, guitar). Length varies — sometimes only 1/2 hour.

  47. Thank you for sharing! Just this week I was searching for posts like yours! I work with children in our church and we have several with special needs – way beyond our ability, but we are trying our best. I know that if it is a challenge for us, it must be so much more so for their parents. I need to read all these comments as soon as I have time.

  48. I relate to all you have said. It’s heartbreaking and we haven’t found a way yet. My son in nine. It may be time to contemplate a new service or a caregiver.

  49. Thank you SO much for sharing, it makes me cry, it hit a pain deep inside, tha pain pain about , having 3 children out of 5 who is not able to atend a Sunday service… We are trying our best living a visible life with Christ as center every day, and I am greatful it is him and not the churc who is the savoir – but still…. How should they ever be a physical part of the body of Christ ? HE knows, and all we can do is to pray and listen to his answers.
    Thanks again and God bless. From a Mom in Denmark.

    1. Wow. Thank you so much.
      I appreciate your desire to help kids and the attention you pay to their parents as well. What a gift!
      Love,
      Shawna

  50. I’m glad you’ve found some options. My son is in High School now and youth group and sensory issues don’t mix. But it didn’t really matter since the youth pastor was clear he didn’t have time to deal with my son. I’ve totally given up

    1. Oh my goodness, I am so sorry. I completely understand and have often wondered that this will be like when we hit the high school years. Please know, you are not alone. I can not believe the hundreds of families I have heard from as a result of this post. It is my prayer that you have support from family and friends apart from any church gathering.
      Love,
      Shawna

  51. We are looking into noise canceling ear phones for next yr when he goes out of preschool program and into kids church. We already usually skip days with no preschool class, and only made 1 night of VBS. Our church really, really goes all out for those with disabilities, but the noise and crowds and all the sensory pieces are beyond their control. Last summer at VBS he said he “hated the Holy Spirit because He was “the guy” that made it crowded and loud at my church with too many kids wanting God and not taking turns.” Sigh.

    1. Poor little guy. That really is the hard part – how do you encourage him to love, seek and follow Jesus when so much of his exposure to Him is painful and contrary to how he is made. Sigh. I am with you momma, and so are so many other families dealing with this exact thing.
      Praying for your heart and your little guy’s too.
      Love,
      Shawna

  52. Our adopted daughter has sensory issues and when we brought her home for her orphanage at 7, it was just terrible. There were many reasons that attending church with her was just impossible( food issues, trauma, attachment, control, sensory, you name it). We tried a few times at difference stages but we always had meltdowns and it was not helping her or us grow closer to each other. I knew God had ordained this adoption and he knew what all it would involve so he would know why we couldn’t attend. People didn’t get it. Our church has a buddy program but even that we couldn’t do for a very long time because it had to do with our daughter trusting someone else and our daughter being left with a stranger in a group of children( sound like an orphanage to anyone?). The buddy program usually switched every week also and that would have never worked for our daughter who constantly fought authority given the trauma she endured early in life. After a couple years our daughter had healed enough and got over ( and we figured out some) of her sensory issues and other triggers. We had a wonderful lady step up who said she could be there every week with our daughter. So her and her husband attend 2 services a week for us- one where they can see the message and the other to stay with out daughter so we can sit in church. We are forever grateful for this program( started by a mom with a special needs son) and for our daughter’s buddy. If it weren’t for her we couldn’t attend church.

    1. What a wonderful gift – I am so grateful you have someone helping and supporting your family. I am sure she has no idea how much her sacrifice of time means to all three of you.
      Love,
      Shawna

  53. Thanks so much for sharing your story. My husband and I can also relate, having a child with PDD and sensory issues and finding out at age 11 that he has had a mild hearing loss since birth and now has to wear hearing aids. So we can totally understand the sensory overload and the noise issue (cotton balls or hearing protection works great during worship). I have never had a bad experience at church with people but have also fallen to the worry of what other people think. My son is 12 now, he does attend service with us, but there are other services we do not attend together as a family such as a prayer service or worship night, small group meetings, also youth group has been a challenge. We have found a wonderful church that has leadership that seems to be very understanding and willing to help make him feel a part of things and for that we are grateful. I believe God knows what your child needs which is why he entrusted him to you two. Continue to live a life that is honoring to God and grasp those teachable moments with him. Sounds like you guys have made decisions that have fit your family’s needs and that’s all that matters! God bless your family!
    Love in Christ,
    Shelly

    1. Thank you so much for the encouragement and affirmation, Shelly. I am so grateful to hear others’ stories and feel a sense of support from so many mommas. Thank you for taking the time to share.
      Love,
      Shawna

  54. I’m curious how a child who deals with sensory issues like this would do in a church that eschews the popular, conventional worship style for a more liturgical, participatory style. One of our closest friends has a child who struggles with sensory reception and church has really been an issue for her. Her church, though, is very typical: rock/pop music, pastor prays a couple of times, and a sermon. It’s different every week and geared toward being hip, fresh and spontaneous. Our church, on the other hand, relishes ritual and repetition. We sing/say the Lord’s Prayer, the Sanctus, the Doxology, the beatitudes and the Niceian Creed every week – amongst other things. We take communion every week. We follow the same order every week. Every child is welcome and encouraged to participate, and because of the ritualistic nature (and the simpleness) of the service, they do. We only use a piano for music, not because we’re against anything else, but because we’re more interested in the beauty of the congregation singing together. We have two families in our church with autistic children who respond really well to this style of worship, but I don’t think they have the same issues with sensory reception like you or our friend’s children do. I wonder if this issue highlights the rather busy/entertainment focused nature of the evangelical church today and will help to encourage the church to rethink things. I go to a evangelical/Protestant church, btw, lest anyone think I was describing something else. Anyways, I’d be curious to know of anyone’s experience in this regard, as I’ve often thought about this issue with regards to our friend (who really loves her church, despite her frustrations, so I haven’t felt inviting her to our church would be appropriate…).

    1. I was wondering this too. I go to a church where we do much the same thing every week. Welcome, hymn, prayer, special music, offerings, sermon, hymn, prayer. No loud music, just the congregation singing. I would assume there are churches that still worship this way around the world. If you cut out the coffee, donuts, loud music, etc, you can still have an amazing worship experience and perhaps that setting would be easier for your child. Just might be something to try. 🙂

    2. We have been much happier in a church with a liturgical style as well. My children both have sensory processing issues but are not on the autism spectrum. It took me years to realize that my daughter was getting migraines from the Wednesday night kids’ program. For us it is a Missouri Synod Lutheran church..I mentioning the denomination because it might help someone else find a quieter, calmer church.

      1. Thank you so much for sharing. I think it will help those of us searching for the right answer for our children.
        Love,
        Shawna

    3. I was wondering the same thing. In the Reformed Baptist congregations we’ve worshiped with, people tend to come in very quietly and calmly, the service is predictable and music consists of congregational hymns. I wonder if a church like that might work better.

      I know in our current small church plant, we’d be glad to accommodate a family that needed to come late or leave early or do whatever they needed to to make it sensory-needs friendly. It broke my heart to hear some of these stories.

  55. Our family is fortunate. We had a number of people who work with special needs in different jobs. They use their skills to have a special needs Sunday School class. One side of the class has children and the other side has young adults. We were saddened that God had us leave our small church at first but couldn’t be happier the way it has turned out for us. We still pray for all those who cannot go to church together or have to stay at home. Our church just started a live streaming service so if our son is having a bad day, I know I can still be included at home. Praying for all of you.

  56. Thank you for such a well-written, transparent post from the heart! I have a 9 year old son with PDD, Bi-Polar, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. We have always brought our son with us to church because we felt that is what God was leading us to do, but it is NEVER easy! We’ve had struggles with Sunday School teachers as well as congregants who make negative comments and judgmental statements about our son and our parenting. If I ever hear “he just needs a good spanking!” one more time, I think I am going to blow a fuse. With more intense issues over the past year, we have begun bringing our wonderful TSS with us to church to help us with our son. That has been a huge help and blessing. My husband and I along with a good friend have also started a special needs ministry in the attempt to educate our church and help them to live in understanding with families of special needs and minister to each person in the family rather than hurt them with painful, ignorant comments. We also want to open doors for other families with special needs members to be able to bring those members to church, and if it is entirely impossible, provide a rotating group of people who could stay with the special needs family member so that the rest of the family could go to church.

  57. I love everything about this! Our son had a brain tumor at 12 weeks old and due to surgeries and meds he has sensory issues. We have been fortunate enough to have found a church that saw a need for serving families with kids who have special needs. Volunteers serve at each service sitting with and teaching these kids. The church recently built a room just for our kids with special needs too. I LOVE my church for being the hands and feet of Christ in this way to my family. We are at Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, AL and the class is called Highlands Haven.

    1. It is wonderful to hear what your church is doing to serve you and your son. I am sure it must have been so scary to have such a major event at only 12 weeks old! I am grateful you have found a place that works for him and his needs.
      Thank you for your kind words.
      Love,
      Shawna

  58. Thank you for sharing. My little guy has a disability. Sensory is not part of it, but I appreciate understanding the difficulties parents are faced when making decisions for their child. I feel like I second guess the decisions we make for our child over and over, making the focus my child’s needs and family’s needs and not worry about the opinion of others.

  59. We can totally relate! Our son, almost 10, has Down Syndrome and some sensory issues. We had to stop going to church because the church we attended was so small size & congregation-wise and the noise level so loud he couldn’t handle it. Other times he would get the giggles at inappropriate times. We hope when he’s older we can go back…however, there is no way for him to attend Sunday school or children’s church as there’s no help. We may have to look elsewhere.

  60. Two boys with autism, and understand the sensory stuff. My oldest loves worship (he is a sensory-seeker in some ways, gets overwhelmed in others) and the youngest likes it too, but often we have to leave afterwards. Church is fellowship with other believers not “going to church” we have found that we get the most “church-time” when we just have friends over for dinner.

    1. Oh my goodness, I completely understand. Sometimes, the best “church” moments” are not at all church at all, but with other believers in our every day lives.
      Thank you for sharing your experience.
      Love,
      Shawna

  61. We have a number of children with sensory issues, as a children’s pastor it amazes me when parents drop off their children and don’t have that very important conversation to help us help their children feel comfortable. What can we do to help parents be more open? We want to help every child feel welcomed, loved and accepted.

    1. I think you are already creating an environment that will help parents feel more comfortable just by being open and receptive to the conversation.
      Part of the difficulty for me as a mom is figuring out how to have the conversation, without making my child feel like he is being labeled. Maybe extending a specific offer to mail address as well as the invitation to speak on the phone if parent would like to make you or the teachers aware would help.
      Thank you for your heart to serve and love the families in your church!
      Love,
      Shawna

  62. Thank you thank you thank you. Church is hard for us too. I have battled with going and meltdowns and anxiety vs not going and family time and happy children. It is so consoling reading this.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Sarah. You are certainly not alone (and neither am I for that matter). One of the craziest things about writing this post has been seeing all the families that are struggling with exactly the same thing we are.
      Praying for you and yours today.
      Love,
      Shawna

  63. I am so glad you wrote on this subject. It is just nice to know we are not alone. We have 2 kiddos with severe Autism. We, too, took them to Church each week, when they were younger & could tolerate more. Now, the music & loud noises (we attend an Apostolic Pentecostal Church, so it gets pretty loud) are just too much for one of our children, & the other child has other anxiety challenges. The only feasible solution was to start keeping them home. We have prayer & devotion at home with them but have also found a solution for attending Church. We actually attend 2 separate Churches that have different service times, & we take turns staying home with our kiddos. We make sure each family member gets in 2 services a week. Afterwards, I have found I feel very refreshed. Hugs & Prayers

    1. I love your solution and I am so glad you found what works best for your family. Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement!
      Love,
      Shawna

  64. We have struggled with the same problem, and it is totally real! My daughter has Aspergers. She has come to terms with it by wearing ear plugs and sun glasses. She is now 13. She doesn’t want to ever miss a service, but sometimes her migraines are so bad, she cannot handle the extra stimulation. She pushes on though, and we encourage her to try her best. Just keep making decisions the best you can! It does get better!

  65. I’m sure if I was a child today, I would have been diagnosed with some kind of sensory processing or aspergers type disorder. Large group activities were consistently overstimulating. We attended a large church and my very social parents had people over for dinner often after church. I hated Sundays. As early as 5 years old, I remember saying I hated church. It was so overwhelming…coupled with the theological issues I was perceiving even at 5…I never liked it. Several years ago, I was having a crisis of faith so to speak and read the book Pagan Christianity. It changed my life. I realized then that so much of what we call “church” is really just tradition. Church doesn’t have to look exactly a certain way, meet in a certain type of building or have a certain number of people to be called “church.” For me, it was enough to send me on a journey of searching. Now, We do church at home (or on the back porch if we have company over). We now have 7 children…whom we homeschool and we have very open conversations about faith, brokenness and working out your salvation. I now realize that I don’t hate the church but the environment was really just too much for me. As an adult, I can manage how much external stimulation I get, but as a child I was subject to the adults in my life. I encourage you to keep searching..read the book 🙂 and trust that the Lord will make a way. Your child will be so grateful when they are old enough to understand that you were their advocate.

    1. I normally wouldn’t do this, but given that the people who read this article are likely dealing with sensory issues with their children and are very likely at the end of their ropes and are willing to try anything, I have to issue a strong warning against Pagan Christianity. Frankly, while there are some spot on critiques of the modern church, the book is fairly dangerous and extremely misguided in it’s solutions and proposes the opposite of what the church is supposed to be doing. The sensory issue is a big issue that the church needs to deal with, and it may be messy for a while, but the fact is that your children (I’m speaking to everyone here) are valuable members of the body of Christ and need to be at church. It’s easy to get disheartened with church, but our whims and frustrations – as real as they may be – are not the determining factors of what church should look like, or whether we should attend or not. Once you buy into this presupposition, it’s easy to manipulate scripture and history to fit what you want – which is precisely what Viola and Barna have done (you can readily find good critiques of their book online by solid, conservative, Christian reviewers… here’s a good one for starters: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2008/01/02/book-review-pagan-christianity/).

      My intention is not to start an argument on here, but the solution is not to pull away from church, but to work toward reform and maturity. I fear the anti-church rhetoric that Viola and Barna express in their book may appeal to many who have yet to figure out how to maneuver Sunday mornings with their autistic children, but they would be doing their children a serious disservice.

      1. Thank you for your thoughtful and respectful comments. I appreciate your sharing them and engaging in the ongoing conversation about how best to serve our families and the church.

  66. My husband and I work with the children’s ministry in our church. It’s a small church and we only have about 20 or so kids on a given Sunday but about 10 of them have some form of autism. We decided to look into lessons that teach things in different ways. We don’t force them to do any activity they don’t want to and we have extra helpers to give them individualized attention. We allow them if they wish to color or draw throughout the class. We also have a separate classroom to take them to where it’s a little quieter if they become frustrated or agitated. In this classroom we have educational games, puzzles, coloring sheets, and if they bring their own they are allowed to play with their electronic games. We try to encourage them to return to the class if they wish but never force them. It is difficult because each child although with the same diagnosis has his or her own challenges to overcome and what works with one child doesn’t always work with another.
    We do our best and are constantly trying to find curriculum that includes activities that are conscious of special needs. We do our best to have them learn about God in any way we can. It’s not always perfect and some Sundays a child may refuse to even be in any of the classrooms and wants to be with their parents. We try to engage them in other activities but if the child insists we call the parent to the back and allow them to decide what is best for their child on that day. I am constantly online trying to find articles and resources to help us reach children and also bring awareness to others.
    One of the kids loved to read and talk about superheroes all the time. We went to the christian bookstore and bought him a bible that’s illustrated like a comic book. The next Sunday he was telling me in his own way how awesome Jesus was and the stories he had read from the New Testament. It was one of the best moments in my ministry.

  67. This is why I’m delighted that our church offers a special-needs nursery that assigns a buddy, who’s with that child on a regular basis to assist them as needed. We have a lot of couples who have sought out our church just for that reason. More churches need to do the same.

    1. The buddy system seems to be an effective solution in a lot of churches. It makes sense really – you can individually serve each person with very specific, individual needs.
      Thank you so much for sharing!
      Love,
      Shawna

  68. I so appreciate this post. I have already been toying with the idea of starting an “alternative church” in my home, where families with these challenging situations can come, let down their hair, and do what they need to do while getting their spiritual needs met at the same time. As a pastor’s wife, my heart aches to realize we haven’t been able to accomodate you on Sundays. But I want to go the distance and see what more we can do.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment and your concern, Faith. I am certain that your heart to serve means more to the families in your church than anything else.
      Love,
      Shawna

  69. Thank you for your article.
    As a minister’s wife, it’s been so hard to take our little 8 yr old to church with him having sensory processing disorder all these years. I knew something wasn’t quite right when he would not stay in the church nursery if there were more than 5 kids.
    When he was diagnosed, so much made sense.
    What did NOT make sense were the rude comments made by the saints. People, even church people, don’t care who they hurt with their comments, actions, and attitudes towards a sweet little boy.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Linda. It can just be so hurtful. I am not sure people who have this experience can ever really understand. I have tried to learn how to have grace for them, yet not let it affect the decisions I am making to care for my boys. My biggest problem was feeling like I needed to people please instead of being a momma.
      Praying for you and your little one.
      Love,
      Shawna

  70. I am currently a leader in our Nursery/Toddler area. My children just turned 5 this July. And although they are small for their age they are still bigger than any other child in the room. My son has more sensory issues then my daughter but they both have some aggression issues which are only getting worse in the room as of late. They are both moderately Autistic. Our church is trying to re start the preschool program which is where they should be age wise but there are many factors why that may not work for us.My husband is on staff and Sunday is a work day for him. So it is just me dealing with the issues. This past Sunday my daughter was throwing toys, throwing fits, and hitting me. All while I was dealing with other unhappy little ones. My son shoved down 4 children. and was being very jealous about me. I have struggled finding help for my area so I worship first service and then second service I am one of the volunteers in the room. I am struggling with what to do. I do not have a person to fill my spot but I know this can’t keep happening to the other kids. We have awareness in our church but not many who truly understand how to deal with kids on the spectrum. Thank you for your heart and opening up to us about your struggles too. I firmly believe we need the fellowship of other believers. Because we can not do life alone. And we are not created to do so. But flawed as we all are, we need to come together in times of trial. So thank you, for helping us come together!! Love God-Love People :))

  71. Lovely article. We too are struggling with church. It is hit and miss and I have to not care about what others think if we decide to come home early. With the help of our bishop, however- we have had a bit of success. We identified the most troubling block of time at church (the large youth class) and have assigned an older youth to just play with him during that period. We also had one of his therapists come in and talk to the group before they started. Most appreciate the opportunity and make the extra effort to play with him. Some don’t, but either way it is a huge help to us.

    1. A wonderful example of how to help alleviate some of the struggle church can be for our little ones! Thank you so much for sharing your experience and for the kind words.
      Shawna

  72. I’m just brain storming here – do you have the capability to have a closed circuit set up in a smaller room? My godson has autism and his mom talked to their church leaders about something similar. They were happy to oblige.

    Either way, Christ said over and over, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’ However you are doing that I’m certain is okay in His book.

  73. Thank you for sharing! When I was growing up, I had fairly severe sensitivities, also. I didn’t like to be touched, but I was very petite, so people would always try to pick me up. It didn’t help that I was, for a year, princess for the American Heart Association. People wanted to talk to me, tell me how special I was and hug me. Everything was so loud and all the people talked over each other. I felt like know one ever listened to me. The lights were so bright, it felt like a stabbing pain in my eyes. Just going outside in the sunlight was often excruciating. So, on especially bad days, when we went to church, I had ear plugs and sunglasses. I had a lady try to take my sunglasses off, and she told me that I was rude to wear them. I slapped her hand and told her she was rude. I got in big trouble. My parents would often ask me to sing and play the piano for groups. I didn’t mind it if I was alone, and the only sounds in the room were the ones that I made, either singing or playing. But, with 30 other people singing and being loud in a small house… sometimes not so fun. I found out just a few years ago, that I have what’s called a Chiari 1 Malformation. It’s basically a condition where the brain doesn’t have quite enough room in the skull, especially near the brain stem. It stresses and compresses the brain, interfering with perception, and magnifying everything. And it causes blinding head pain when doing certain activities that cause your abdomen to strain, like sneezing, coughing, pushing, etc. I learned that the symptoms varied as I grew, because the brain can grow more quickly than the skull, and visa versa. So, for long periods of time there was enough room, and the suddenly, the symptoms and pain would come back. It was baffling and most people thought I was just being an anti-social brat, because my symptoms weren’t consistent. As an adult, after a head injury that made the condition exponentially worse, I had a decompression surgery. And though I’m still sensitive, my symptoms are MUCH less. I have since been to church, concerts and other loud events, tolerating them reasonably well. Also, after my surgery, when the pressure on the brain was relieved, my memory improved, and I almost immediately began writing songs. I’m not saying they’re all good, but, the point is, once my senses were no longer under constant attack, my creativity skyrocketed. I still have to wear sunglasses outside or I can’t see, and I still totally freak out when the smoke alarm goes off. For the most part, though, I can live a normal life. I LOVE my church and our awesome band! And music & songwriting are as necessary to me now as air. God has blessed me so much more than I could have asked for. There is hope for you, too. To every question, there is an answer. To every circumstance, there is a reason.

  74. I haven’t had time to read all the comments, but was wondering if you would have the opportunity at an adult education timeframe to educate the congregation on sensory/autism needs? Or special needs in general? A good website is http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/misunderstoodminds/. Based on a PBS documentary, it allows viewers to “walk a mile” in someone else’s shoes.

    God bless you all on this journey.

  75. Thank you for posting this. I have befriended a young guy who has Autism and I am learning so much, every time we meet. Every bit of shared experiences, like yours, help me to say and do the right things. I have learnt to give this guy the space and the time to tell me about what is on his mind, and I can encourage him along the way. I have been rewarded with him really opening up to me and telling me about his hurtful family life. I could see how difficult it was to talk about this and I felt humbled that he trusted me enough to do so. Once again, thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I do feel like I am the outside looking in, but slowly the mist is clearing.

  76. What a touching story. My heart goes out to you and you are permanently on my prayer list.

    Talk to the Children’s Church teachers, suggest alternative activities he might prefer. I teach Children’s Church and am always happy for parental input. I have an autistic child in my class. I ask him to be my “helper” and this seems to please him. He attends every week and smiles a lot!

    Would soothing music through headphones help during noisy times? Just a thought. Stay the course, you are a wonderful parent and God will bless you!

  77. Thank you for this. It is our experience almost to a “T”. It is hard to explain to others sometimes.

  78. Hi Shawna

    It sounds like you’re in the USA? We don’t have all that many lobbies bustling with people on Sundays in the UK! But I just wanted to encourage you that even here in the UK things are changing!
    I have worked with children with Autism for over 6 years now and about 4 years ago we set up a special needs ministry at our church. We run every Sunday and have 7 regular children with a whole range of disabilities and additional needs. Each child gets his own individual plan and our special room is tailored to meet their sensory needs. We still integrate with kids with the rest of the children’s work depending on their ability, but they also get the space, attention and tailored teaching they need.

    I just wanted to encourage you that God cares so much for your sons, and for all kids with additional needs or disabilities; He has not forgotten them and there is a move in the Church that has started in the last few years to make church more accessible for them. Last year I did workshops with over 30 people from different churches on how to start making their church accessible – things are changing!

    Thank you for this very honest post – I hope one day soon, you will all be able to attend church together and each meet with God in your own ways.

  79. Thank you so much for writing this piece. It really hits home for my family. I am blessed to see it affects not just us…we’ve had the pastor to question about given his meds and how he acts at school. These environments totally different in routine and atmosphere…I can’t stand the turned up noses of the parish. Since my son doesn’t look handicapped many assume he is spoiled and I’m just a bad mother. I live in a community where Autism is so misunderstood that it’s a fight for respect almost everywhere we go, most especially at church. My son never ever sits still….not unless he is asleep which happens at night, period. I’m to the point of home church too. Thank you for each responses. I love you all, respectively. Keep up the good fight

  80. Amen! The children should be able to “come to Him.” Be it in a building with God’s people or at home with God’s people. Actually, the Bible also says that we should BE like little children in terms of always learning and growing spiritually. Our church locality here in Charlotte, NC has teen girls and Moms take turn walking around with the now three Autistic children. From 10AM-Noon. It should always be normal for real lovers of Jesus to extend his perfect care for everyone. So glad you at least have one “normal” Christian to serve you. Christ is coming back through His people. His abodes. Pray more behave as such. Xo

  81. You make so many excellent points, Shawna. I’m quite certain that Jesus just wants our children to be happy and healthy. If that means we have to find alternatives to the traditional methods in how we teach our children about Him, I am sure he is on board. He definitely wouldn’t want to be the source of any anxiety. Well done, mama.

    1. Thank you for your blog. I am always blessed by it, even when I read an article I read a year ago…again….it just reminds me that I am not alone. Today I took my 14 year old to food aversion therapy. It’s just not fun. And he hams it up (God if he would only EAT ham I’d be so happy!) for the counselor and me…..so it’s frustrating. We are considered “lax” by not being “strict” on food issues….”lax” by allowing our eldest to take a “gap” year in between High school and college …….”lax” by some people in our family because the kids don’t attend youth group etc etc etc….as you well know the LIST goes on and on. I have five children. All with special needs of some sort or another. Some with anxiety and depression (suicidal thoughts….I’m not just talking “gee I’m sad today”) Body Dysmorphia….ADHD, ADD, “on the spectrum”, “gifted”….and if someone tells me being “gifted” is So great one more time I’m gonna lose it cause it’s not all it’s cracked up to be when your 13 year old can do HS level Bio and get the highest grade in the class of 17 year olds…..BUT can’t write a sentence about something he’s read to save his life…..I just want to thank you for blessing me…..reading about your own struggles helps me with mine…..just to know I am not ALONE which in theory I know…..but some days I become convinced we are the only family this strange and complex and beautifully messy….God Bless you! And thank you for your transparency. It is a ministry to so many of us.

  82. We used to bring my sister with autism to church. I remember sitting near the bathroom with her, trying to comfort her as she cried. A guy came around and told us to be quiet. Later on (for a different reason), we switched churches, and my siblings and I took turns staying home with her. Eventually we found a church that offered a special-needs class during church. My sister loves it! She has a little table she’ll sit at and do puzzles while listening to kids’ praise songs. Classroom workers have taken her for walks around the church building. Hopefully more churches will be open to facilitating special needs children (and adults!) as they do other children.

    Church services can be painful to me, and I don’t have autism! (possibly some sensory issues, though) My college requires mandatory chapel, and sometimes it’s so loud. When that happens, I cover my ears, even though that’s not exactly socially acceptable from an adult.

  83. I did not have time to read through all 161 posts so this idea may be taken, and if so I am glad. But how about having a “challenged souls” service dedicated to men, women and children having special challenges? Downside: creates a possible “two groups” psychology. – challenged and non-challenged. Admittedly not ideal. Updside: The service for our challenged loved ones can be more structured to their needs. Maybe the organ is not played at all. Or if it is played it is very very quiet. All sounds are more muted, etc. Things like that. Similar accommodations could be made for those with physical challenges. And it could either be every Sunday, or only certain Sunday’s a year. Or even a group of churches in an area could get together and share the idea and have it on a rotating basis at each church so there would be a service available every Sunday, but it would be a shared responsibility. Another possible upside is that ALL attendees would know the purpose of the service is to help our challenged loves ones, and you would think then that the depth of understanding and patience would be much much greater by all attendees. Just a thought that crossed my mind. Like I said, like most things in life, it has upsides and downsides….nothing is usually perfect! Just trying to be helpful here.

  84. God understands. He made your boy the way he is and I’m sure this is just a way that He is testing your faith to prepare you for something amazing.

    –an autistic church choir singer

  85. Thank you for posting this! My son doesn’t have autism, but he does have OCD and some phobias and lots of sensory struggles. Church has been hard for him since the day he was born, for all of the reasons you list. It’s so nice to hear that we’re not alone in our struggle. My husband and I wrestle with the concern that our son won’t learn enough about God from us and his, thankfully Christian, school. Do you struggle with this as well? It feels like a lot of pressure.

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