There is something nice and neat about a can of Pringles. They stack so perfectly into that round can, and the taste and shape are entirely predictable. A bag of Chex Mix, however, has variety in taste, shape, texture and look. When you put your hand in that bag, you’re never sure exactly what you’ll pull out.
Church volunteers often expect the children to resemble that can of Pringles. However, the reality is that God’s creative variety is fully evidenced in every group of children. From learning styles to differences in personality, looks, IQ, abilities, and interests, children’s groups far more resemble Chex Mix than Pringles.
To better equip the volunteers, this article will explain some of the differences associated with children who have been diagnosed with AD/HD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) and those with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Volunteers who are armed with information and ideas to try often find greater delight in the group of Chex Mix children.
One job of the brain is to help us attend to the tasks we do each day. The brain has chemicals that allow us to focus on a task, control behavior, and keep the body still when needed. When these chemicals, or neurotransmitters, are in short supply, a person is known as having AD/HD. There are three types of AD/HD:
A child with AD/HD Inattentive Type may find it difficult to focus on the Bible story or group discussion. Following all four parts of the directions, organizing supplies or materials, and following through on projects and tasks may also be difficult.
A child with AD/HD Impulsive Type may struggle to keep the body from fidgeting, squirming, and moving as well as staying seated during worship or small group times. Other challenges may be playing quietly, waiting to answer a question or take a turn without interrupting or blurting out an answer, or thinking carefully about the consequences of an action.
For a child with AD/HD Combined Type, you will see signs of inattention as well as impulsivity.
Ideas to try:
- While the area of attention may be weaker, this child will certainly have areas of gifting. Find those areas and use them as a way to engage and encourage. Illustrating the Bible story as you speak, leading the group in exercises, constructing a portion of your story with blocks, or setting up a word search for others based on the lesson might make the child more a part of the experience. Act out, build, move, stretch, construct. Let the child shine.
- Give choices in seating and activities. Instead of only offering chairs, consider supplying an exercise ball or a seat cushion. Give children a choice to complete an activity while sitting, standing, kneeling, or rocking in a rocking chair.
- Provide breaks as needed. Running errands or doing short movements or exercises mixed inside lessons or worship can be very helpful.
- Use visuals. Posting rules, directions, samples, and expectations allows children to have the boundaries and instructions always visible.
- Be understanding. Some children may take medication that allows an individual to pay attention. Some of these medications, however, may be in the process of running out during late afternoon or evening hours. Some parents may choose to have children off medication on week-end days. Both of these situations can make evening church meetings and Sunday settings more challenging for a child with AD/HD. Also, would leaders ever consider bribing or punishing a child with diabetes for not making insulin? Remember, AD/HD is a biological issue. Keep that in mind as you set up expectations for the child.
- Provide leaders with additional information. Learning Disabilities and the Church: Including All God’s Kids in Your Education and Worship by Cynthia Holder Rich and Martha Ross-Mockaitis (Faith Alive Resources) would be helpful.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurological difference. Children with ASD exhibit a wide spectrum of differences in six areas:
Language understanding. Children may be unable to use spoken words and may communicate through sign language or systems involving pictures. Other children may have an excellent ability to speak but may understand words very literally, being surprised that it’s “raining cats and dogs” or that someone would suggest you should “give your heart to Jesus.”
Social skills. Children may try to hide from or escape social settings or be confused with body language and facial expressions. Others may make social errors or blunders, often not recognizing that their words or actions were inappropriate. Some children incorrectly analyze the best course of action in a social setting.
Repetitive themes and behaviors. Children may have a great fascination with one topic, such as trains, a particular movie, or computers. Others may repeat the same action, such as lining up toy cars or making sure each chair is sitting in exactly the correct spot. Children may be limited in the types of activities they enjoy.
Desire for routine. Children may seek to know the schedule, routine, or order of worship and get upset when that schedule is altered or suspended without advance warning in a way they will understand.
Perspective-taking ability. Children may know only their own perspective and advocate for their idea with great passion. They may also find it hard to accurately know what others might be thinking, feeling, and experiencing.
Sensory responses. Children may have one or more sensory systems that process information differently. Sounds might be very loud to one person while another child may need extra volume to penetrate the senses. One child may crave heavy, hard touch while another child might get hurt from someone brushing against him lightly. These differences may happen in sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touches, balance, and pressure.
Ideas to Try:
- Get to know the individual child. Find out what activities that child really enjoys and what might be difficult. Find out especially what sensory system may have differences and what that will mean for your church setting.
- Visual supports are very important. Vision is often a very stable sensory system, so using picture or word schedules, devising behavior systems using visual supports, and illustrating a biblical concept with pictures or real objects can often enhance communication.
- Create a predictable schedule or routine. If that routine needs to be changed, give advance warning in a way that individual will understand (moving pictures around on a picture schedule, providing an alternate order of worship for the day).
- Understand how that child interprets words. Telling a child who interprets words literally that they are “covered with the blood of Jesus” can be a frightening thing. If a child can point to pictures, get some pictures. If a child knows some sign language, learn those signs.
- Help peer groups better understand that child by giving accurate, positive, and honest information about ASD.
- Provide leaders with additional information. Consider purchasing Autism and Your Church and Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities by Barbara J. Newman (Faith Alive Resources) as well as Autism: A Christian Response Training DVD and Church Welcome Story by Barbara J. Newman (CLC Network).
Barbara J. Newman is a church and school consultant for CLC Network. She is the author of several books including Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities, Autism and Your Church, and Body Building. She is a frequent national speaker, and Barbara also enjoys working in her classroom at Zeeland Christian School.