Be a Roofbreaker Guide
Our 'Be a Roofbreaker' guide is a great resource for helping your church or community group to become a more welcoming and inclusive place for disabled people. It includes an introduction to the theology of disability, biblical references and sections on including wheelchair users; people who are blind; people who are deaf; those with learning disabilities; mental health issues; self-harming and eating disorders; dementia, Tourette’s syndrome, and many other sections. It also contains ideas to support those who’re unable to attend church meetings and encouragement to take a person-centred approach. You can buy your copy through our secure website shop by follow this link to buy a copy of Be a Roofbreaker.
8 Steps to Easier Transitions for Autistic Young People
One issue that parents sometimes raise with us is the matter of their son or daughter making the transition from one Sunday school class or youth group stage to another. Unless you work regularly with autistic young people, you may not understand the extent of the difficulty this transition causes them. If it happens at the same time as they are changing school class or moving up from primary to secondary school or school to Further Education college (usually at the start of the autumn term), the amount of change in their life may breach by a very long way their capacity to cope with it.
The distress which this can cause them may be invisible to the church leaders, as most of it will take place at home out of their sight. It can include sleep disturbance, nightmares, self-harm, meltdowns, and other disturbed behaviours indicative of distress. Above all it can cause a deep, long-lasting psychological wound that continues to colour their experience of the world for many years to come. It’s not uncommon for parents to be dealing at home with a deeply traumatised young person for two to three years while the church remains blissfully unaware of the distress its systems and procedures have caused. So here are a few suggestions of ways to ease the transition for the young people concerned.
1. Be flexible. If your young people normally go up to the next stage at the start of the autumn term, consider choosing some other time of year for the autistic youngster – perhaps after Easter, when they’ve had a bit of time to adjust to their new class at school, but long enough to get settled in before the summer break.
2. Listen. The best people to advise you are the young person and his/her parents. However much you know about autism, you are not an expert in this particular person. Take seriously what they tell you. If they say, “He won’t sleep for a year if you take this approach” or “She will self-harm so badly that she may end up in hospital if you do it that way” don’t be tempted to think they’re exaggerating or making an undue fuss. They really are just telling it like it is.
3. Prepare very well in advance. Autistic youngsters cope best with change when there is long, careful preparation beforehand. At least a year beforehand, start talking to them about how people of their age move to the next class or stage, and the time will come for them to do this. Reassure them that their familiar friends will be doing the same. It might be wise to avoid phrases like “move up” or “go up” to the next class, as children who use language literally may take this to mean that the class is in a higher place, and be confused when it turns out to be on the same floor. Autistic people can find it difficult to visualise or imagine something they haven’t yet experienced, and this can give rise to anxiety about what to expect. Taking them to visit the new venue and familiarise themselves with it can help with this. Some children may want you to pretend or role-play the change, and some may want this many times over as the change approaches. Follow this link for a great resource, designed for schools, which you could adapt to your church situation and work through with the young person:
4. Use visual means to prepare for the change. Social Stories can be a very useful way of doing this – for an example follow this link to Lynn McCann’s material. This story could easily be adapted to fit with the church youth group or Sunday school environment. Give the child or young person a written programme with accompanying pictures so they can anticipate what will happen in the meeting and how long each item will take.
5. Make the transition gradual. Allow the child to take it at his/her own pace. For some youngsters that might mean only going to the new group once a month for the first year. Others may adapt more quickly than this. Every child is an individual and you will have to take it at their own pace. Don’t try to rush them because the young person and their family will pay the price. Some youngsters may not be ready to make the transition at the same age as their peers, and may need to stay with the younger group for 2-3 years. For others it will be important to be treated as the age they are and stay with their peers. This is another area where you will have to be guided by the young person and their family and be willing to be flexible rather than just imposing your normal “rules”. You may find it useful to have a conversation with the young person’s school teacher so as to develop an approach which is consistent with theirs.
6. Prepare the new group or class. Prepare the environment of the new class or group to ensure that it doesn’t cause undue distress or sensory overload to the autistic young person. Try to have a room that is uncluttered, with ambient lighting, neither too hot nor too cold and with comfortable seating. Lots of artwork on the walls can be confusing and overwhelming for autistic young people. But the other young people may want posters or their own artwork on the walls. One church we know of got round this by having strings along the walls on which items could be pegged. When young people wanted to display items such as their own work, these could be pegged to the strings, but they could be taken down temporarily if they caused sensory overload to anyone in the group.
7. Listen again! You may think you’ve ticked all the right boxes and everything should go smoothly. But young people change (one 9 year old we know of suddenly changed from loving water to having a massive phobia of it). So if the young person seems unsettled or unhappy, or the family come to you and tell you something isn’t working, be prepared to listen, take their concerns seriously and be flexible.
8. Don’t blame the young person. Remember that an autistic person having a meltdown that seems loud, wild or out of control isn’t misbehaving. Telling them off or trying to make them stop it will increase their overload and make the situation worse. Studies have been done tracking the brain activity of autistic people in mid-meltdown. What they revealed is almost identical to the brain activity of epileptic people in mid-seizure. In other words, this is not something the person is doing, but something which is happening to them. They can no more pull themselves together and stop it than a person having a seizure could do. So be patient and understanding. Teach the other young people to be accepting and non-judgemental of their autistic friend, and model these attitudes so that they learn them from you.
Hope for a Tree, Hope for Me (Ros' Blog)
While away on holiday, I spotted this tree in the garden of the cottage where we were staying. It was little more than a stump, about four feet high, and had obviously been cut right down at some point in its past. But despite the insult to its entire system, this tree was putting out foliage in abundance, some from half way down what remained of its trunk, and some from the top of the stump. It reminded me of a beautiful piece of poetry from Job 14:
“There is hope for a tree:
if it is cut down, it will sprout again,
and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth shoots like a plant.”
Sometimes life pulls the rug from under us. Something happens that alters every plan we thought we had. For some that includes loss of physical abilities they once had; for others it might mean the creeping onset of a physical or cognitive impairment; for others, discovering that the child you gave birth to has additional needs and will need a lot more care, and for a lot longer, than you anticipated when you planned to have a baby. It’s like being a tree that’s cut down in its prime.
In my last post I wrote of trees that flourish in drought because their roots go down deep into the water source. And here we find water again playing a part. When life cuts us down, we wonder how we could ever flourish again the way we used to. But in this poem, the mere scent of water is said to be enough to make the plant bud again and put forth new shoots.
Sure, the tree in my picture is going to end up a very different shape from the shape it would have had if it had never been cut down. But already it’s shooting upwards again and growing an abundance of leaves. It is certainly going to be a full-sized tree again eventually, as long as no one cuts it down again. It has found water, and that water has nurtured the life in it.
And so with us. No matter how “curtailed” we feel by whatever life has brought us, we will continue to grow and flourish, to become a shape of beauty, maybe a different shape and a different kind of beauty than the one we thought we were headed for, but beautiful and purposeful nonetheless. As soon as we reach out to Jesus, the living water, and come within even just the scent of that spring, we will flourish and grow again. And that, as this passage from Job says, gives us renewed hope.