This article first appeared in the Baptist Children and Families eConnect on the 9th of June 2022.

Jenny Lee is a professional educator with 20 + years experience; mainly working with reluctant learners and special needs students. She has a journey of coaching a son with ASD, and supporting her husband Timothy who lives with tetraplegia. Jenny loves serving the people of her Rotorua community in a number of different roles, including Rotorua Baptist’s Kids Church, running a Lego club at the library and pastorally supporting families with neurodiverse tamariki.


As a parent and teacher focusing on neurodiverse* children, I hear stories all the time from parents who long to give their children the opportunity to be part of a faith-based group, to build relationships with other adults and peers, to feel that they are known, valued and appreciated. The Church should be that place where we accept people for how God made them! 

Below are five suggestions of simple things we can do to prepare for, and welcome, these tamariki.


1.    Chat with parents

We know our kids best, what works and what to avoid. Some parents have a “passport”(1) for their child, giving three or four statements that describe their personality, communication methods and behavioural patterns. Just because you’ve taught one neurodiverse child, don’t assume that it will work for another! Dr Stephen Shore says: “If you’ve meet one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism.”(2)

Also recognise that it might take some time for tamariki to warm up to your programme. It’s likely they will prefer just to sit and observe from a safe distance. This is when they are getting used to the routine and how you do things. Maybe have a “busy bag” full of some activities or fidget toys that kids can play with while they are transitioning from being with Mum and Dad, to being in your care. Another strategy is to have a space in the room or nearby where kids can draw aside from the noise and chill.

(*Neurodiverse: recognising that there are different way of thinking within the population eg ADHD, ASD, dyslexia, Tourette’s and that it is embraced as diversity. Just like people can have blond hair, red hair or even no hair)


2.    Neurodiverse Kids Think Visually

It is just the way their brain works. So if you can, use visuals in your programme, they will engage and remember content better. You can use less words (which is also helpful), but using visuals helps to mitigate barriers from their learning. I can still remember supporting my son in Sunday school when he was young. The teacher was using pictures for words in a bible verse.(3) At the end, he encouraged the kids to close their eyes and repeat it from memory. Our son Callum called out, “but that's cheating”, as he could see it easily in his mind! Visuals are also helpful for children who struggle with reading, or may be new to speaking English. Here are some further tools and guides to consider...

  • Using a Bible with pictures or even a graphic Bible. Using the reading or story as a video. E.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZEO_Ls2ERs or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mP6pKBDbENI
  • Using a visual way to respond. When using a story about some of the Kings in the OT, I used “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” to signal which kings followed God, and which kings rejected God.
  • Predictability and routine are very important so that kids know what will happen, when and how. It can be shown in a visual schedule4, with photos or pictures. If you are going to do something different, warn the parents so they can prepare the kids before arriving at church (priming).
  • Using a timer (even your phone's timer) for some activities. This helps when changing activities or to show much time is left until you finish.
  • Using a bean bag, cushion or carpet square to visually mark which space is theirs.


3.    Overstimulation

Overstimulation can be a big issue for some kids due to sensory input like sight, sound, smell; from flashing fairy lights, microphones, kids shouting, the smell of popcorn, and taste (resulting from a very limited diet). One child loved the colour red and spent the lesson staring at the teacher’s bright red lipstick. It is a catch 22 situation in trying to make your environment interesting and attractive for children. However, the strings of flashing lights and very busy visual walls can make it hard to concentrate for neurodiverse tamariki. 

Again, we parents will often let you know what is a trigger for our kids and have suggestions to help, such as: noise cancelling headphones, weighted lap or shoulder wraps, playing with a fidget toy to having a movement break or brain break - sitting away from the action just quietly reading, doing a puzzle or playing on a device.


4.    Relationship is key

Please have someone from within your team that will take the time to build a relationship with the child (and us, the parents). They can be the go-to “safe” person who understands the child, their strengths and their triggers. 

Sometimes I use the analogy of being in a foreign country i.e. you might need a translator to help you understand the culture, the people and the language, so that life isn’t too overwhelming.

 

5.    Don’t take things too personally

Sometimes neurodiverse tamariki make inappropriate comments. They struggle with social understanding and it is amplified when in a group. 

 We laughed last week, when one of the pre-teens asked a leader he hadn’t seen for a while if she was pregnant? She laughed and said no. He then followed up with “you’re just fat then!” He had a picture in his head (visual!) from the last time he saw her and it didn’t match up with the way she looked that day. He was simply and innocently trying to work it out. He struggled to think about it from the leader’s point of view, which we know as: “the theory of mind or mindblindness"

1. Mells K. Tips for Autism Course Workbook. 2017. p. 128.

2. Shore S. Leading perspectives on disability: A Q&A with Dr. Stephen Shore. [internet]. Lime; n.d. [cited 2022 May 20]. Available from: https://www.limeconnect.com/opportunities_news/detail/leading-perspectives-on-disability-a-qa-with-dr-stephen-shore

3. Rebus photo. Available from: https://scripturelady.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Rebus-for-Rom-3-23.jpeg

4.Hoover, C. Teaching Children with Autism – The Tangibles [internet]. The Inclusive Church; 2010 [updated 2010 Oct 3; cited 2022 May 22]. Available from: https://theinclusivechurch.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/teaching-children-with-autism-the-tangibles/


Photo: Rotorua Baptist Kids Church in Morning Service. Supplied by Jenny Lee.

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