Attending a church service can be challenging for many reasons. Some people have specific music preferences, while others may be pickier about the content of the sermon. Many people have been hurt by a church in the past and are understandably hesitant about trying a new one.
People who are neuroatypical can experience a variety of challenges that, if unaddressed, may render regular attendance impractical. To become more inclusive of these valued members of your community, church leaders must make an effort to understand where they are coming from, advocate for their needs and adapt accordingly.
The first step to including neuroatypical people is realizing how truly diverse their needs can be. There's not a one-size-fits-all option. Some who are on the spectrum or are sensory sensitive may need quiet options to benefit from the service. Others may prefer predictable patterns to increase their comfort level. You don't know what specific people need, though, unless you ask. These conversations are easier to have within the context of a trusting relationship, so it's important to get to know neurodivergent or neuroatypical people and their families on a personal level before asking for more private or sensitive information.
Education about the wide range of possible needs of neurodiverse individuals can start with something as simple as a Google search. Find credible sources to increase your understanding:
- Signs and symptoms of ADHD
- Stories from those with autism
- Distinguishing between dyslexia and dysgraphia
- Understanding vocabulary as it applies to neurotypical, neuroatypical and neurodiverse individuals
Neurodiverse individuals are accustomed to being misunderstood. While they may tolerate the subsequent social difficulties that arise from these encounters at the job that pays their bills, the benefits of doing so may not outweigh the cost when it comes to involvement in a faith community. It is up to the community itself, particularly its leaders, to ensure that gatherings are a welcoming and inclusive place for them.
When leaders are presented with suggestions that seem nontraditional, they should fight the urge to shut them down without trying to understand. Instead, they can view it as an opportunity to explore the innovative thinking that it takes to become more open to a diverse membership. It's also important to be vocal about your acceptance. Just as you would hopefully stand up for anyone else in your congregation who is belittled, ignored or isolated, confront those whose first reaction is to dismiss rather than understand neuroatypical members.
While understanding can go a long way toward communicating love and acceptance, there may be practical needs to address as well. It's likely that neurodiverse people already have a strong handle on the accommodations they need. For example, if they know they need to have more control over auditory stimuli, they probably already have headphones designed to help them focus. Your responsibility may just be ensuring that you have a reliable sound system they can access through Bluetooth or some other connection and that every speaker remembers to use a microphone.
Finally, take time to recognize the assets neuroatypical people bring to your community. This is good practice for all members, but it can be particularly inviting to those who have been treated like they are burdens in other places. Your church richly benefits from a diverse population, and this includes neurodiversity. Leaders should reach out to members to help them discover the specific ways they can serve within the faith community.
Expanding your inclusion efforts to incorporate the needs of your neurodiverse and neuroatypical members should be an integral part of the work of the church. Getting to know them better helps leaders overcome their own stereotypes and welcome them more fully into the community.