Children with conditions such as autism, attention deficit disorder and learning disabilities are far less likely than others to show up in church on weekends, according to a new study that says faith communities have been slow to accommodate them.
One in four children who have learning disabilities, developmental delays, anxiety and behavioral disorders never attend church, the national study indicated. Likewise one in three children with autism, speech problems and depression are absent.
“I would like to think that this research could serve as a wake-up call to the religious communities in our nation,” said researcher Andrew Whitehead, the professor at Clemson University in South Carolina who conducted the study.
“In many ways, this population is unseen because they never show up, or when they do, they have a negative experience and never return,” he said in a news release.
Whitehead is the parent of two children with autism, and he has experienced firsthand the hurdles facing both children and their parents on Sunday mornings. He is also the assistant director of the Association of Religion Data Archives, considered the nation’s largest collection.
Many children with developmental disabilities simply aren’t wired to sit quietly in a pew or classroom for an extended period, parents say. Yet it’s precisely these kids who could benefit from the embrace of a faith community, as could their families. Previous studies have shown that regular attendance at welcoming church communities improves the self esteem and emotional well-being of children with disabilities.
However, congregations as a whole haven’t stepped up to the plate to support these kids, Whitehead said.
The Well, a United Methodist Church in Rosemount, is among the relatively small number of Twin Cities churches that have made a conscious decision to accommodate the children in worship, Sunday school classes and church activities. Most are common-sense steps designed to keep the children’s attention on track and behavior in tune with the rest of the group.
For Sunday services, for example, The Well offers children bags with widgets, coloring books and other items to keep them occupied, said pastor Karen Bruins. One girl likes to get up and sing with the worship band, she said, and that’s OK.
The Well’s Sunday school classrooms have “wiggle chairs” that allow students to burn off energy in class. Children with more significant disabilities get the equivalent of a school individual education plan (IEP) that spells out specific ways to engage the child.
“Instead of calling attention to the special needs of a child, we look at what are their strengths,” said church administrator Carol O’Neill. “Let’s find something they can be successful at.”
“They might want to hold the pastor’s hand and sing along,” she said. “If they’re older, they could usher. It’s all about the right fit. Every special need is different.”
The Well also offers respite care six nights a year so parents can have a night out.
Whitehead analyzed data over a nine-year period from children’s health surveys conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His findings were published in June in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
One in six children now have some type of developmental disability, he reported.
Katie Strand, a youth director at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, isn’t surprised at the research findings. Her church is among those welcoming children with special needs.
“We use visual prompts, movement, making things tangible,” she said. “And for kids who aren’t able to particulate fully, we may add an extra volunteer for them, kind of like an educational support person in school.”
Strand acknowledges, however, that it sometimes requires a delicate balance.
“We walk that fine line of being extraordinarily welcoming to all people,” she said, “but recognizing that some disruptive behavior can make it unwelcoming for others.”
Shepherd of the Valley also hosts an educational forum for parents, said member Connie Simonson, who launched the group 20 years ago. The group’s Sept. 24 meeting, open to the public, will explore “How ADHD Shapes Your Perceptions and Motivation.”
“In general, there’s been more knowledge [of disabilities] and acceptance over the years,” Simonson said. “I think our church is trying to be very accommodating. I would hope that other churches would start doing that too.”