This post is inspired by a coffee date I shared recently with our Children’s Pastor. She was looking for advice on what items to add to the new Sensory Sunday School Room.

Could I say that again slowly?
Sensory. Sunday School. Room.
How wonderful is that?

If there are any church leaders reading, please consider setting up a Sensory Room in your own building. If you want families with Special Needs children to attend on Sunday mornings, you NEED to have a safe and welcoming place for their little ones. No Special Needs Mamma or Poppa Bear will regularly go anywhere that disrupts and upsets their child. Full stop. In fact, most Special Needs families that I know or follow online either alternate which parent attends worship, with one always staying home, or have quit going to church entirely. If it weren’t for how accommodating our pastors have been, we would be one of them.

A Sensory Room is a ministry to both child and parent. It allows the child to experience new people, places, and things in a non-threatening way, which is no small thing. (Many children with sensory needs rarely leave their own home except for therapy and school.) For the parents, it is an hour of respite. Something parent caregivers of Special Needs children never get enough of. There is an epidemic of burnout amongst these parents who are largely forgotten and ignored as much as their children are.

I don’t need to convince my own church of the value of a Sensory Room. They are already developing one. But in case there are others who need an extra push, please let this Pastor, and these verses preach to you on my behalf:

Jesus said, Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

The Holy Bible Matthew 19:14 NIV (Emphasis Mine)

“The King will reply, Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. …whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.

The Holy Bible Matthew 25:31-46 NIV (Emphasis Mine)

A sensory room is not just for children on the Autism Spectrum. As I mentioned before here, sensory issues can and do affect Autistic children, but they can also affect others as well. Children with ADHD, Down’s Syndrome, Traumatic Brain Injuries, delayed speech & communication skills, and more, can all benefit from a place that takes their needs into consideration.

Here are my recommendations for setting up a sensory space in your church:

  1. Select the Right Staff & Volunteers
    As the author in the link above mentioned, a professional is best. Many well-meaning individuals react poorly when faced with an autistic meltdown or other needs they have never seen before. Sometimes they interpret them as bad behavior instead of a need that a child is trying to communicate or meet. Hiring a trained individual is ideal, however, I understand it is out of budget for a small church. Which is why choosing the best volunteers possible is important.

    My advice for the perfect volunteers for this classroom? Teacher’s Aides. They know their stuff! (Even more than a nurse/medical professional, who may not work in a specialty that sees many Special Needs children, a TA will have had more job training and experience than anyone else in your congregation.)

    And speaking of training, train these volunteers specifically for the task at hand. Find out from parents what their child’s needs are, and train in the proper first response for seizures, meltdowns, or allergic reactions. A meet-and-greet with the parents, giving them an opportunity to speak to all of the volunteers about their child’s needs, likes, and dislikes, will go a long way in helping volunteers feel prepared and parents feel at ease. Remember, parents are the best source of information on their child.

  2. Select the Right Room
    Avoid any room that can only be accessed by stairs. You do not want to exclude anyone before you even start, which means your room should be accessible to wheelchairs and other mobility aids. The nearest washroom should also be accessible, and have a change table installed. Consider getting the largest change table available, or providing another large flat surface with disposable change pads in that washroom. Many Special Needs children still need to be changed long after they have outgrown a baby change table, and their families find that where and how long they can go out is very limited because there is nowhere suitable to change an 8, 12, or 18-year-old’s diaper.

    Choose a welcoming room. No offense to old church buildings that were built this way, but no Special Needs parent wants to drop their child off in a dark, damp, smelly basement that reminds them of a dungeon. They also want to be nearby to come help their child, if necessary. A room on the same level as the main auditorium is best.

    (Speaking of parent-accessible, be sure to implement a pager system, or collect cell phone numbers, so parents can be called immediately and easily.)

    Choose a calming room. Although most rooms designed for children are painted in bright, fun colors, these may prove too stimulating for sensitive little ones. Stick to neutral-colored walls and carpets. You can always add temporary decorations to up the excitement, but it’s hard to take the mood down if the room is painted lime green or flamingo pink.

    Finally, consider the room’s lighting. I know most buildings have florescent lighting that cannot easily be changed, but these lights are harsh and flickering which can be a problem for photosensitive individuals. There are florescent light filters available for purchase, but check with your local Fire Department before installing. Or, consider keeping the florescent lights off entirely, and go with strings of Christmas lights around the room, lamps, or even light projectors instead.

  3. Select the Right Program
    Or rather, throw out your program! Children with Autism or developmental delays won’t respond well to your usual curriculum, and frankly, getting them to tolerate a “normal” program should not be the goal.

    Meet your kids where they are at. For some, that will simply be finding the courage to stay in the room away from their parents for the entire hour. And that is enough.

    Work on helping the children in your care feel calm and safe. In time, perhaps you can help grow their communication skills by teaching them to say hello to teachers and classmates, or perhaps you can can ask the parents what skill their child’s therapist is currently working on, and offer support by practicing it in class.

    Your #1 goal here is to simply love, not provide religious education. However, if you succeed in this goal, you will, in fact, be teaching these children something. You will be teaching them that church is a safe place. You will be teaching them to associate safety and kindness with Jesus/the church. You will be teaching them that they are worthy of your time and your love… And aren’t those the most important lessons of all?

  4. Select the Right Items for Your Room
    A few staples to get you started are:

    -A music player or TV to play white noise, fireplace/ocean sounds, or gentle calming music.

    -A mirror area. It’s just a fact that kids of all abilities like to look at themselves and make faces in a mirror! This can also be a form of therapy, getting them to practice and mimic another person’s facial expressions.

    -A wall-mounted sensory area near the mirror is also very popular. It allows children in wheelchairs the ability to play at their own level, instead of the floor. It is also great for development. Many children learn better when they are standing and moving then when they are sitting. Examples of great wall installations: Tactile/Visual, Fine-Motor, or Creative.

    -A small tent with pillows or a bean bag chair, for an overwhelmed child to calm down in.

    -Some comfort items such as weighted animals, a sensory/fidget pillow, a busy board, or a small collection of fidget/sensory toys.

    -Some gross-motor toys and activities for playing off the energy! Some great examples are: stepping stones (sometimes called “River Rocks”), tunnels, a miniature play structure, and exercise balls that can be bounced on, rolled on, or used to “steam roll” over kids laying on the floor as a form of deep-pressure sensory input (like a big, squishy hug).

    And then, try incorporating some proper therapy items to suit your group. Anything with the word “therapy” in the title will be expensive. That’s why it’s important to select wisely and get items what will have the most impact. First and foremost, find out about the specific sensory needs your children have from their parents/caregivers, and build your list based on their specific sensory-seeking or sensory-aversion needs.

    Then, take a look at this list of products I have compiled, organized by need.
    And this Pinterest list of budget-friendly and DIY sensory toys & activities.

    If there is an item that is much-requested, but wildly out of budget, why not consider fundraising for it? Many families cannot afford to drop $2,000 on a specific therapy swing, for example, but might be willing to contribute $200 toward one they can have regular access to, and share with other families.

  5. Share the Space
    Now that you have this safe and welcoming space, why not use it to the fullest? You could post a sign-up sheet for families to book a time to use the room mid-week during office hours. You could even inform your local school board of its existence, so that other families in the community can book a time. (Can you say, “Community Outreach?”)

    Special Needs families can make use of the space in many ways:

    -To work on therapy skills with their children using equipment they may not have at home.

    -To have meetings or evaluations with their child’s therapists in a safe, familiar, comforting, place.

    -For playdates in a safe setting. (Many parks and children’s entertainment centers are too stimulating or dangerous for a Special Needs child.)

    -For a child and respite worker to come spend time, while parents sleep or rest at home.

If you are a Special Needs grandparent, family friend, or champion, please consider sharing these ideas with your local congregation or local community center. So many children and families are trying to survive in a world that was not built for them, and they could use your help!

© 2022 Ashley Lilley – First time commenting? Please read my Comment Policy.

3 thoughts on “Sensory Sunday School: How the Church Can Do More for Special Needs Families

  1. We have a really great church!!! I am thankful for our leaders who see needs, take time to learn more and sometimes go to great lengths to accommodate. Thank you church!!!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s