Churches are known for hosting several events throughout the year. Whether it’s an after-service lunch or a holiday program, these special events allow members to mingle or enjoy church in a unique way. In general, special events can be pleasurable and help foster a sense of community within the body. This may not be the case for families with children with special needs. I know this from personal experience.
Attending Vacation Bible School
Like many mothers of young children, I wanted my daughter to attend Vacation Bible School (VBS) at our church years ago. She was a preschooler with a developmental disability and relied on sign language for communication at the time. Because of her Intellectual Disability, she thrived on routine and liked for things to remain the same.
The church entrance and sanctuary were beautifully decorated in the VBS theme. The children marveled at the transformation and the incredible props. My daughter, on the other hand, was disturbed by the changes. I wasn’t prepared for the tears and physical reactions she had. It wasn’t fun for her. It was confusing, and it only worsened as she went further inside to the sanctuary. I was extremely stressed as I felt responsible for calming her down and helping her adjust. Nothing I did helped except to remove her to a less decorated area and let her sit quietly on her own.
The first two nights of VBS, I merely reacted to my daughter. By the third night, her teacher agreed to take her to the familiar classroom as soon as she arrived, which was her normal routine. Our night ended early, avoiding the closing portion in the sanctuary, but she was happier.
Family Preparation for Special Events
After that situation, I assumed my child would need supports at any church event out of the ordinary. Before we left for a Mother’s Day event, I took time to explain to my daughter more than once what we were doing. I warned her about the changes at the church and in her routine. With limited verbal skills, she couldn’t ask questions to clarify. She could only listen.
My daughter followed me inside the church smiling. When dining tables replaced the familiar rows of chairs in the sanctuary, the smiled quickly faded. We took a table near the back as my daughter was too upset to go any further. She sat on the floor next to her seat, clearly overwhelmed. There she remained until she felt comfortable. I ignored the voice in my head that told me she needed sit down at the table with me. I patiently waited for her to join me, which she eventually did.
Over the years, we have attended different church events, each one causing an alteration in my daughter’s routine and thus creating adjustments for our family. I eventually discovered that the more I could show my daughter, the more she understood. If there were any pictures or videos to supplement my preparatory talks, she connected to the information better. Still, there are some events we have simply skipped because I knew it would be too stressful for her and me.
My daughter is now a teenager, but special events at church still require careful planning. She has had several years at our church to build a framework of what to expect. When a special event falls outside of her norm, it is distressing for her.
Understand How Special Events Impact Families with Special Needs
For families like mine, special events are not always easy. I try to not live in avoidance of them, as my daughter needs to learn that life is full of changes. Sometimes, I succumb to the idea that it will be too hard for our family. Other times, I bravely walk my daughter through the door of a church for a special event. It may look like an ordinary entrance to anyone else, but for us, it is one brave step after another.
Evana is a wife and mother of two children. Since becoming a parent, Evana has spent many hours driving to specialty appointments, praying beside a hospital bed, and learning about her children’s diagnoses. Evana is also a pediatric speech-language pathologist and serves children with autism, feeding disorders, and other developmental delays. You can connect with Evana on Twitter, Facebook, and her blog, A Special Purposed Life. You can also read more about her family’s story in her book, Badges of Motherhood: One Mother’s Story about Family, Down syndrome, Hospitals, and Faith.