Making Sense of Worship
My feet are cold. People are shuffling their feet, flipping hymnal pages, sniffling, whispering, rifling through bags and purses, all while the Pastor's voice echoes off the walls. The flowers smell strange today and there's another scent I can't figure out - maybe some kind of cleaner, or someone's perfume. It's cool in here, but the light above my head is producing too much heat. I think I might need to change seats, but my only options are next to my sister or a stranger. Perhaps I'll stay put. Why do we have to sit in front? All those people behind me and I don't know what they're doing. It's quite distracting. Just to get out I have to maneuver through a sea of them. And there's a high pitched sound coming from somewhere - the sound system or the emergency light things, maybe? Now the vibrations of the organ are rattling my chest and my eardrums. It's so loud! So many different voices assaulting my ears all at once. Whew. Silence. Well, not really silence. More shuffling and sniffling and whispering. Noise, quiet, noise, quiet, stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down, speaking, singing, flipping pages, sitting still, being quiet, more noise again. I almost forgot - it's close to the Sharing of the Peace. I need to get out of here before all those people want to, no...expect to, touch me. At least I'm used to the taste of Communion now and can get a drink afterwards if I need to. Worship is almost over. I hope I can get to the door before too many people get up. I need to breathe in the empty hallway before everyone descends on Coffee Hour. I need to get and eat my food so I can escape to the van and sit alone for a while.
I'm so glad we're sitting in the front row. I love to see all the stuff that's going on - the flickering of the candles, the banners and the cross. It's fun to see Pastor's face and hear him clearly as he gives the sermon. Look at all the colors of the flowers. I can smell them from here and it's great. I wonder what they feel like. Look at the faces behind me - a sea of colors and movement and noise. Aww, that song wasn't very long. I love the rumbling of the low notes. Argh, it's too quiet now. Maybe I'll translate the bulletin into code or draw on it or maybe I can make a stamp by drawing something on my hand and trying to stamp it on the bulletin. Oooh, I just thought of something I need to tell Mama. Oops, I forgot to use my quiet voice. It's too quiet in here. I'm supposed to sit still, but my feet won't stop moving. I'm thirsty. This sermon is long. Do people really think God is doing it all wrong sometimes? God's grace is a mystery? I love mysteries. I need to tell Mama about that episode of Scooby Doo where ... ack! I forgot my quiet voice again. And about not talking during the sermon. It's so hard to be quiet when it's so quiet in here. I must have been sitting still for an hour. I just can't keep my legs still. Mama said it's been eight minutes not an hour. Can't, keep. my. feet. still. I need a squeeze now before I launch myself. Must get hugged tight if I'm going to make it through the sermon. Oh, good, it's over. Another song. I need a drink and to walk and to spin my arms around and around until they're too tired. I'll ask Mama to take me. I feel better now. Time to share the peace. I need to find Mrs. Finer and Ellie and Gramma ... and ... and ... Time to put the money in the plate. That means it's almost Communion. I'm so glad we're sitting in front so we can get to go first. More things to say and songs to sing and I can stand up and move my feet and stretch and get some of this energy out and more energy in.
Children and adults on the autism spectrum or with other special needs experience worship in a very different way than the typical population. Some are overwhelmed with the sights, sounds, smells, vibrations, and activity at worship. Others feel overwhelmed trying their best to be still and quiet. Some experience both at the same time.
What can we do to help? Don't judge autistic people when they forget to use their quiet voice. Or when they get up and leave in the middle of worship. Or when they curl up in a ball and ignore you during the Sharing of the Peace. They are most likely not purposely being disruptive or disrespectful. They are more likely overwhelmed ... or underwhelmed ... whichever the case may be. They are definitely meeting their needs.
An autistic child once told me that sitting through worship is sometimes like trying to thread a needle while a skunk-sprayed dog is barking and running in circles around you and you're being pelted by a chattery squirrel throwing acorns at your head while snakes slither up your pant legs. Think about that for a moment.
Many special needs kids and adults don't understand social mores and have poor impulse control. Some don't like to be touched, some seek touch as if it were a drug. It takes a lot of energy and concentration to hold it together as much as they do during worship. And even if it seems like they're fidgeting, odds are they're paying closer attention to the sermon than you are.
As a parent of a sensory-avoiding child with high functioning autism (the first part of this post) and a sensory-seeking child with high functioning autism (the second part), worship is an interesting experience for me. I have been the recipient of glares and stares during worship when a child is being loud or fidgety or dives under the chairs to avoid people touching him. I've tried to find quiet ways to leave the sanctuary with children having sensory meltdowns, and short of getting a straightjacket and a muzzle, I'm not sure I'll ever succeed. Although my autistic children tell me they would LOVE a straightjacket.
I've spent many a sermon hugging and/or swaying with a child - or in the bathroom or quiet room with a child in mid-overstimulation meltdown. I have allowed my sensory avoiding child to sit alone in the Fellowship Hall during worship and my sensory-seeking child to exit stage left and find a place to flap his arms and walk in circles until he can regain his composure. I've read more sermons online than I have experienced in their entirety in person.
Please remember, we are ALL children of God. We all deserve to be treated as such - with patience, love, and grace.