My husband and I have been working for our child to be included at school and in church. We’ve written about our child here before, who has autism, and have shared our journey as parents. We began Open Gathering as an inclusive church of people of all abilities, but we also work for inclusion in other worship settings.
We argue for inclusion because segregation and integration, which are most often practiced in our education system for students with disabilities, is not sufficient. And it is not sufficient in our churches, either, for any child or adult.
We often make assumptions about children’s ability to understand or comprehend worship, so we send them off to Sunday School and minimize any time in the worship service. We say it is because the children don’t understand, but in reality it is often to appease the adults who find children disruptive. Rather than change the way we worship or how our service or space is structured, we send children out so we feel comfortable.
At Open Gathering, we began doing something different—during our “Work” part of service (based off of Godly Play and the Montessori model), our adults or anyone who wanted to participate in the dialogue sermon were the ones to get up and move, leaving our children and those who wanted to respond to the story in creative ways in the same space we worship in, and we came back together for communion. But for the last year, we have decided to remain in the same space, all together, responding to the story together. We learn and grow, together.
At school, our son is in an Integrated Learning Center, an enclosed classroom designed to help students with severe needs. Integrated is an interesting word, because yes, our son is in public school, but he is in a room with children from kindergarten through third grade. While his other third grade classmates are learning multiplication and adding large numbers, he is still being taught how to count objects that he could count on one hand, and to name his colors and shapes—things he has known for a long, long time, since he was twenty months old, but because he does not demonstrate that he knows these things, he spends a lot of time “proving” to the teacher and paraeducators that he does indeed know these things. For the first two years, while the idea was that he would attend music, P.E., recess and lunch with his typically developing peers, it rarely, if ever, happened.
Some churches do integrated worship, in which children are only in the worship for a short amount of time. Or children, like our child a couple of years ago at age 6 when my husband was visiting another church with him, are taken back to the “crying” room—which literally is a separate room adjacent to the worship sanctuary. Or, when our children become youth, we never involve them in worship leadership or decision making—still not including them in worship.
So we have been arguing for our child to be included in a general education classroom. We know it takes baby steps. We know it’s hard to do something that has not been done before. But last year, after several meetings and having it written in our child’s IEP (Individualized Educational Program), our child began attending a General Education class two times a week for fifteen minutes with other second-graders. And, surprising both his ILC teacher and the general education 2nd grade teacher, he did great. After a couple of weeks, the paraeducator that accompanied him was often able to hang out in the back of the classroom as our child didn’t need reminders to sit any longer.
One day, when I went in to observe, our child made a loud noise as he sometimes does. A couple of kids laughed, and I didn’t think anything of it because, well, they’re second-graders. But two girls immediately said, “Stop laughing! That is not funny!” Those girls saw our child being picked on, saw the beginnings of what could be bullying, and put an end to it right away. Another time, our child covered his ears while the class was singing. One girl spoke up and said, “Some kids with autism have a hard time with loud sounds—AJ might be having a hard time right now, can we be quieter?” They saw him as one of their own. And AJ began counting to one hundred and singing a song that went, “one hundred, one thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand, ONE MILLION!” all the way to one trillion. He did not learn that in his ILC class; he learned that from being included in his general education class.
This year, we are struggling again. Brand new teachers who do not know his abilities, but only begin by perceiving his deficits, struggled to get him started in the general education classroom. This year, our child’s name was on the roster for both his ILC class and his 3rd grade general education classroom, but when we went inside his 3rd grade classroom, his name was not on a desk like the other students. His birthday was not listed like the other student’s on the wall. And his teacher did not have a prepared, “Welcome Student” packet for him like she did for the other students. Inclusion was in name only, not in practice. Still, after only a few weeks, AJ has begun to stay in the classroom longer. The other students welcome him and engage with him.
Inclusion means learning happens both ways. His peers are learning that everyone is different and just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they cannot participate or cannot contribute in their own way. They are learning who AJ is, and AJ is learning from them.
At Burien Community Church, where I serve as pastor and worship on Sunday mornings, we have an inclusive worship service. We do have Children’s Church for those children who want to go during the sermon, but only for the sermon and final hymn. But children are regularly invited to help in worship, lighting the candles, taking the offering, and at times, reading scripture and saying prayers.
At first, AJ did not seem interested in worship. There were some hard moments our first year when others didn’t seem to understand why AJ behaved the way he did. But as time has gone on, AJ has, with help, taken the offering and lit the candles with the other children. Others greet AJ on Sunday morning with hugs and high fives.
We still do a Children’s Message—I know many churches have gone away from this practice, but I enjoy it—and I remind the church that ALL of us are children of God, so all participate and sometimes an adult or two will join us on the chancel. We also close our Children’s Message with The Lord’s Prayer, recited by everyone.
Last Sunday, in which my child was lying on his stomach, head and arms hanging over the steps of the chancel, he clasped his hands and recited the prayer with us. He had never done that before. He surprised everyone, including me. He has probably known this for some time, but this was the first time he chose to say it with us.
Inclusion works, because not only did my son learn how to pray as Jesus taught us, others learned that they cannot judge cognitive ability or understanding based on behavior or age. Yet our schools, and sadly our churches, often do this, and often exclude or segregate rather than include. If we cannot do this in the church, we do not have hope for the rest of the world. Inclusion works, and it matters.