“5 Things Your Church Can Do Now to Reach Out to Families with Sensory, Autistic Disorders” Article

April 25th, 2019

I wrote a new article to help churches be more friendly to families on the spectrum. It was picked up by the Christian Post (here) and The Stream (here) and a number of other places. I’m putting the text below in case the links expire:

Five Things Your Church Can Do Now to Reach Out to Families with Sensory and Autistic Spectrum Disorders

There is a major problem in the US that is flying under the radar of most churches. Approximately 1 in 50 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and some sources say the number of children struggling with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is as high as 1 in 20. Many of these families report that they feel unable to attend church because it’s too hard for their children or they feel unwelcome. When I talk to parents about their experience, they tell heartbreaking stories of being kicked out of churches for being disruptive or just feeling the struggle is too great. They feel lonely and isolated and often bitter or hopeless. They need the Church and the Church needs them! It would be wonderful if all churches had full disabilities ministries, but here are 5 things you can start with to immediately make your church more welcoming to families dealing with sensory challenges:

1. Educate your congregation.

This is so important. Try to give your congregation your vision to reach out to this population. Hand out a “did you know?” type flier in your bulletin with a few facts about SPD and autism and how that might affect behavior so they can better understand the challenges. Recruit the special needs teachers in your congregation to help, or ask a parent to share. Show people pictures of common tools used by families like weighted lap blankets and chewy T necklaces, and explain stimming and self-soothing behaviors so they aren’t staring if they see them. Ask them to consider themselves ambassadors and servants to these families. This is not easy, but I promise that it only takes one grouchy person “shushing” someone’s struggling autistic child in a service for that family to never be seen in your church again.

2. Tell them they can come late.

For most families affected by SPD, getting into church and the first 15 minutes of the service are the most challenging. Try to imagine entering church from the perspective of a person struggling with sensory challenges. If your brain can’t process touch, the press of people in the lobby is frightening because they may bump you. If you find visual or auditory input difficult, all the people moving and chatting and laughing is overwhelming. Then you enter a sanctuary where people sit close together and often the lights change and the music is loud. By allowing (even inviting!) them to come late and skip the whole scene in the lobby and possibly even the opening music, you are setting them up to win because they are not already overwhelmed and struggling before they even get in there.

3. Save them a seat.

Reserve a section at the back specifically for these families. If they come late, there is nothing worse than hunting around for a seat – this alone can keep families away. In addition, the back is often so much easier for people with sensory challenges because it distances them a bit from the noise and movement on the platform making them feel safer, and also gives parents an easy exit if their child really needs a break.

4. Give them tools to tone it down.

Most people with sensory challenges can handle a certain level of sensory stimulation. It’s when all the input adds up that they cross a line and become upset or overwhelmed or can have a meltdown. Give them some tools to help them tone down the input. Have a couple boxes by your sanctuary doors with ear plugs (or better, head phones if possible since many kids with SPD struggle with the feeling of ear plugs), sunglasses, and even squishy toys. The ear plugs and sunglasses reduce the audio and visual stimulation, and squishy toys are great for positive sensory input and anxiety calming. Yes, someone will have to wipe those down when they are returned, but that is a one minute job that can’t be compared to the message you are sending.

5. Start a buddy program.

Most families I talk to are exhausted. They need church to be their place to recharge and be renewed by God, but instead it is stressful and difficult to be constantly vigilant. Ask you congregation if there are people who could see this as their personal ministry and be trained to be buddies who could accompany children to Sunday school and let the parents worship and rest. Be prepared that buddies need to be trained (do you have an occupational therapist, a child development specialist, or a special needs teacher in your congregation who could help with this?), and that it may take a good bit of time for the child to get to know the buddy and trust them to go with them, especially depending on where the child falls on the spectrum. This should be seen as a long term mentoring friendship to be really successful.

Remember, even if no one ever takes the sunglasses or if they decline a buddy, just by having those resources available you are communicating “we want you here, we support you, you are welcome.” And that may be the difference between a family who is able to be in church and one who isn’t.

Jennifer Shaw is a Telly Award winning speaker, five-time Top 40 Billboard singer/songwriter, and author of the book “Life Not Typical: How Special Needs Parenting Changed my Faith and my Song,” an Autism Speaks resource. She is also mom to six biological and adopted children, some of whom have sensory struggles. For more information, please visit her at www.jennifershaw.com.

Conference in PA and Aspire in WA and OR

April 2nd, 2019

The first Aspire stop in WA – Lighthouse Christian in Puyallup near Seattle.

Northshore Church on our last Aspire night in Everett, WA.

Ways to recognize that you are in the Pacific Northwest – totems and fish tacos, baby!

Apparently I totally forgot to take pictures at my conference in PA last weekend. This makes me sad because we had a great time, and it was such a wonderful group of women! I did a three day conference with the ladies from the Eastern PA district of the CMA, and it was on the topic “U-Turn: Trusting God when Life Changes Direction.” We were at a lovely conference center in Amish country, and just had a lovely time together looking at God’s word, and eating lots of Amish food!

The following weekend I was with Aspire in the Pacific Northwest, and we did three events. Friday night was in southern Seattle, Saturday night in Portland, OR, and then back to Everett (north of Seattle). This was a great weekend of ministry, but it is also pretty exhausting to move everyday – so thankful for a great team!

First Aspire event

March 11th, 2019

First event in West Palm Beach, FL

The team after the event

Well, after an airline adventure involving delayed flights, missed flights, rebooked flights, luggage traveling the world without me (including all my books and CDs and shoes, darn it!), and, yes really, Air Force One, we actually made it to the Aspire Event in Palm Beach (Melissa Spoelstra and I were on the same flight and therefore, on the same disaster, um, I mean, adventure). Aspire, however, was great, and it was so fun to work with such amazingly talented ladies and the people from Extreme Productions!! Loved sharing the Lord with such a great group! So looking forward to our next adventure in WA and OR and hoping it’s maybe slightly LESS of an adventure getting there!

Three years with Noah!

March 7th, 2019

Noah and Toby were pretty much instant friends, and it’s been beautiful to watch them become brothers.

Three years ago today these two met for the first time, and our family got one of the best blessings we could have. Who could imagine how seamlessly you would fit into our family, and how very much poorer our lives would have been if we had never known you? Happy Family Day, Noah!! We can’t imagine our lives without you!

Crazy story from a crazy week

February 18th, 2019

Our homecoming picture – you might be able to tell what decade it was from the hair.

This past week has been crazy. We had our Chinese New Year and Rinnah headed back to school with her roommate only to call us the next night from the ER in terrible pain. After a lot of craziness just to figure out what to do, misdiagnosis, ice storm, transfer to another hospital in our state which necessitated Nathan traveling to IN to get her, and then major miscommunication and mistakes at our hospital here, it was 2.5 days before she had surgery. Almost as soon as she was discharged, I had to leave for Chicago with Rachel for a string quartet competition and college visit. It’s been cray-cray. Fortunately, Rinnah is okay, and recovering well. Hopefully she’ll be able to catch up all the work she has missed, but we’re just so relieved she’s okay.

With all that, though, one hilarious story did happen, and I’m copying it here from Facebook:

Okay, didn’t think I was going to share this, but then I thought, whatever, we both had epic hair, own it! So, here’s the weird, pretty hilarious coincidence that happened in the middle of this terrible time with Rinnah’s emergency surgery.

Put yourself in my shoes. We’ve just spent a day and a half trying to get our daughter diagnosed and switched to another hospital in another state while also covering several things that were really important to our other 5 kids – it was terrible timing. Rin and I had both been up most of the night with pain and procedures, etc, and I had JUST fallen asleep hard for about an hour.

So, I’m literally passed out face-down on the worst hospital cot ever when I realize that there’s a doctor in the room talking to Rin. I wake up, sure I have pillow creases across my entire face, and he turns around to introduce himself to me as the surgeon. I reach for my 10 year old glasses since the other ones coveniently disappeared as I was racing out the door to the hospital, and my blind self realizes as he turns around that the surgeon is…

The guy who took me to homecoming a hundred years ago. Hahaha! What a strange moment! And exactly how you’re hoping to run into an old high school friend!

So, maybe I’ll continue the trend and rock the old pjs, unshowered, no makeup, ancient glasses look for my next class reunion! Or maybe not. ?

But at least I instantly remembered that he was kind and brilliant and wanted to do good in the world. Which he is apparently doing! So thanks, Dr, for being so good to my baby! Ironically, I found this picture so quickly because my mom got bored when she came to help me after Rinnah’s birth and put all my highschool pictures in order.

PS. He still has good hair.

Xīn nián kuài lè! Happy Chinese New Year!

February 10th, 2019

Somehow we got everyone at the table! 19 people, woot!

Everyone pitched in – here we are making dumplings on the left (for Noah’s northern region) and rolling spring rolls on the right (for Ethan and Anna from the south).

Braised tofu, voted (shockingly!) favorite dish, spring rolls, and dumplings done pot-sticker style.

Whole fish symbolizes prosperity and abundance and is both very traditional and Ethan’s most, most, most favorite thing. This American mom was challenged, but this year we got it right, and it was definitely delicious (even if they are looking at you).

Happy Chinese New Year! One of the things we’ve found to be so important with our “littles” is to try to support them in continuing to celebrate and know their home culture. Our adopted kiddos came to us older, and they have lots of memories and many years of living in China. We don’t want them to lose such an important part of their history, lives, and identity, so we’ve been learning SO much about Chinese cooking, holidays, and culture, and we had our second annual Chinese New Year dinner together last night.

One thing that really hadn’t occurred to me before is that our kids had not really celebrated this in China. CNY is a family holiday, and our kids did not have family. So, they had seen it and been around it, but had never been a part of it. As Ethan said, “Now it’s our turn, mom!” So happy to celebrate with them!

Two of my brothers and their families were able to come, along with my mom, Rachel’s best friend, and Rinnah’s roommate from college came home with her for it too. We cooked forever, and then had a fabulous time!

Sweet story about Anna

January 25th, 2019

Anna drew this picture of us for me.

Just didn’t want to lose this sweet story I posted on FB:

Here’s your “sweetest thing!” post for the day.

Anna is still afraid to go to bed alone, so I’ve always sat with her until she falls asleep. She gets very chatty at this time which I enjoy, but a couple nights ago it was just going on forever. I finally told her she had to stop talking and go to sleep.

A: Okay, mama. (Silence for 10 seconds.) This is so hard!
J: I know, but you have to sleep, hon.
A: Okay, mama. (Silence for 5 seconds.) But I really like to talk!
J: I know sweetie, and I love talking to you, but you will be so tired at school. You really need to sleep now.
A: Okay, mama. (Pause.) But there is a lot to say!
J: Okay, hon, let’s do this. Think about all the things you want to tell me and pick the most important one that you really, really want me to know about and tell me that one. Then you can tell me the rest tomorrow. Deal?
A: Deal. Okay, I’m thinking. (Humming, thinking.) I got it! I love you, mama. So, so much. Okay, good night!

Cue my heart melting. I love that girl.

Joining the Aspire Tour!

January 8th, 2019

The promo for one of the upcoming events with Aspire

Just a quick announcement – I’m thrilled to be joining the Aspire Tour for 2019! So far, I’m booked in several cities this spring in FL, NC, SC, WA, and OR, and will do some more dates with them in the fall. Excited to see where God takes this, and doubly blessed to be getting to do some of these with my friend, Melissa Spoelstra! I’m also really looking forward to connecting with other women in ministry – so excited to get started!

Christmas events in NY

December 12th, 2018

Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle

With the Women’s Ministry Director and my old youth group “kid” Jaime at Church on the Sound – what a blessing!

Trying to fit 700 women at a sit-down meal simultaneously at Smithtown Gospel.

With my wonderful friend, Linda – what a joy to spend time with her again!

One of the Saturday venues, Grace Church.

This past week I had a number of Christmas events in New York. It started with one large church I’ve been to before booking me for their annual women’s Christmas event. Then the women’s director, Diane, called me one day and said, “we can afford to fly people in, but there are a lot of other churches here who can’t. Would you be willing to do other events for smaller churches while you’re here?” Of course I said I’d be happy to, and the next thing I knew I had four churches in three days! I was so impressed with Diane’s desire to help other churches in this way! It’s not the norm, and it should be because it makes so much sense – I just loved that she wanted to use her church’s resources to also bless others!

One odd thing that has never happened to me before happened here. I had shipped several cases of books and CDs ahead to the church since I can’t carry that much with me on the plane. Well, when I went to get the boxes, they looked like they’d been through a war! Two cases were ripped all over, one was literally missing the outer box and somehow the inner boxes all showed up, but separately (have no idea how that worked!!) and the fourth one just never showed up. I called USPS and they said it was “missing” then “undeliverable” and then, I kid you not, the message said, “DESTROYED.” What, did they drop a bomb on it? And, if you know it was destroyed, you must also know where it is?!?! What the what?! Anyway, super frustrating as it was a huge amount of product to lose and it’s a double whammy since it was all my Christmas CDs I was hoping to sell. Sigh. Live and learn, I guess – always going FedEx from now on.

So, Thursday night I was at Church on the Sound (as in, Long Island Sound for those of you not from Long Island) for their women’s Christmas tea. It was a great night with a really fun team, but personally for me the best part was that this church was literally minutes from where we lived when we were living on Long Island. It’s 3 minutes from where Nathan did his doctorate, and we drove past it pretty continuously, so it was a fun walk down memory lane. And, when I got there, one of the girls from my high school ministry from way back was there, and it was so good to see her! Then I looked toward the back and her mom was there too! So fun to connect with them – she has a special place in my heart.

Friday night was the bigger event I had come out for in the first place at Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle, and it was packed! I think there were over 700 women in the room at tables, and they had used every inch of their space. Sadly, Diane had surgery just before this event, so she wasn’t able to be there after all, but we talked by phone, and her daughter did an amazing job covering for her! I also had the joy of another close friend from my Island days coming to this event with her daughter, so again, just such a lovely blessing!

Saturday was very busy as I had two events back to back. I did a Christmas brunch at Grace Church and then headed straight to New Village Church for their Christmas tea. I was especially touched at these two churches with the number of kids we got sponsored for Compassion. It never fails to bless me when I see people really reaching or sacrificing to do something for kids in need, and I saw that over and over at these churches – what a blessing! I would have come just for that! But again, beautiful teams at both of these churches, and even though I was very tired, I was just overwhelmed with the blessings of the family of God!

The next day I spent services at Smithtown Gospel again, and then traveled home. Long Island is a pretty tough place to do ministry, and I have to say, I was really impressed with these churches. I will be thinking of and praying for them all, and so glad I got the chance to be with them!

Events for Fall 2018

November 26th, 2018

Ethan and Anna fishing off the dock at our hosts house in Kingsville – like visiting old friends!

Concert at New Albany Presbyterian

One of the services at Union Chapel

Titusville Ladies’ Conference

Baskets of Blessing at Anastasia Baptist

Another historical post to cover where I’ve been this fall. 🙂

In August we had the wonderful privilege of being back with our friends from First Baptist in Kingsville, OH. This is a smaller church, but they are very dear to us! They are one of the first churches to ever have me in many years ago, and have become friends as we’ve gone back many times. This trip, we took the whole family and stayed at a “magic house” as the kids called it – Dr. Dan and his wife Stevie have the most amazing place with ziplines, goats, secret doors, haywagons, ponds, you name it. The kids could hardly believe it, and they are just wonderful people and wonderful hosts, so it was ministry and a family trip all in one!

The following week I did a concert at New Albany Presbyterian. This was also a sweet night for me as the music director there is my old high school choir teacher who really had quite a profound impact on the direction of my life. Not only was he an excellent musician which just got me excited about making music, but he was the one who talked me into auditioning for voice in addition to piano, and the rest, as they say, is history. 🙂 It was so fun to be with them!

In September I did a women’s retreat for Karl Rd. Baptist Church. I completely re-wrote my women’s conference, “U-Turn: Trusting God When Life Changes Direction” for this one, and boy, did we have many U-Turns on the way to that retreat! It was clear why God had new and different things to say to both those ladies and to me, and I was just marveling at God and all He was teaching us that weekend!

In October I had several big weekends in a row. First, I did a retreat for the East Central District of the Missionary Church denomination on the topic “Nothing to Fear.” I’ve been with them before, and they are just lovely to work with! This was, I thought, a very timely topic, both for them and for me – I always learn so much when I’m writing my retreats. Then the next day I stayed and led worship and gave the message on all the services for the host church, Union Chapel. They were outstanding hosts – just served with such a humble heart for Christ during the retreat, and then were just amazing to me. Such a great weekend.

The next weekend I did the Titusville Ladies Conference in Pennsylvania. This conference has been going on for many, many years, and was held in the most beautiful historic church. I did a concert and testimony on Friday night and then spoke on the life of Peter on Saturday. This was another lovely team with an especially fun worship team – just loved getting to worship with those ladies!

Then the following weekend I did another retreat in Ohio for Christian Fellowship Church on Esther. This was a three day format, so we had a fabulous luxury of time, both to meditate on what God was saying and to rest. What a lovely bunch of women too!

Then in the first weekend of November I headed down to Florida to do a women’s event and the services for Anastasia Baptist Church. On Saturday they had a big women’s luncheon called “Baskets of Blessing” where everyone brought things to fill baskets they took to women in nursing homes, which I thought was a great way to celebrate Thanksgiving. Then Sunday I sang on all three services. I so appreciate the different teams and the way the services were focused on the Gospel! And on my way home, I got to visit with my cousin who lives in Orlando and designs super-secret fun stuff for Disney, so that was a real treat – I don’t get to see him nearly enough any more!

Taking off in a week or so to do several Christmas/Advent events in NY, and then I’m done until next year. We have a pretty big announcement about the spring, so I’m excited for things to get finalized so I can share!!