As all good things do, it began with a conversation that took a left-hand turn.
A mother was sitting in my office, shortly after I was called to serve in this place. She was talking about some church business. I knew she had a child who had some sort of intellectual or social challenge, and I also knew that I rarely saw him at church. As we wrapped up the issue she had brought that morning, I said, "How come NNN doesn't come to church?"
Yes, not really delicate. I'm clumsy about stuff sometimes.
She smiled one of those grit-your-teeth smiles and said, "Well, I used to bring him, and everyone was great, especially the Sunday School teachers. But he has Fragile X Syndrome [elements of intellectual disability paired with autism] and he just couldn't get it. And with the other kids in the room, and so much going on, he'd get overwhelmed, and just go sit in the corner under a table. I just couldn't do that to him or to the teachers."
Well, if I was clumsy once, I could be clumsy again: "How about church? Does he like church?"
She sighed. Thank goodness for moms who are patient with their priests. "It's a long time for him to sit still, and sometimes the music overexcites him, and sometimes he makes noise, and then some folks look at him, and at me, as if I'm not able to keep him under control. They don't understand him, and I hate to ruin their worship because my boy can't stay quiet for the whole thing."
By this time, unshed tears were glistening in her eyes.
I couldn't imagine how hard it was for this faithful member of our parish to feel like her child, her precious gift from God, was not fully welcomed. I couldn't imagine how the child felt, put in a place where he wasn't understood. ..
...and I couldn't imagine that we couldn't do SOMETHING about this for this child, and for others like him. I told this mom that we would try to figure something out, if she was willing to help us with it. I asked around, and it turned out that there were other children with different challenges, and that our Christian Ed program, and our worship, wasn't addressing their unique concerns.
So I started researching. My first go-to was a friend who had been in seminary with me. She had a brother with Fragile X, and was very attuned to the problems that folks who are different have when they try to participate in the life of the church. She had written a thesis on the subject, which she generously shared with me.
I also started asking around the parish, doing a little informal asset-mapping, to see who we had who might have some expertise in this area.
Several teachers of kids with special needs, including one who tutors kids with dyslexia and ADD/ADHD, were identified. They were willing to serve on a start-up committee to start to figure out what we could do and what we could provide.
A colleague who had particular expertise in Godly Play, a Montessori-based CE curriculum for children that was particularly adaptable to the needs of kids with special needs, helped us connect with a trainer and with an online community of Godly Play experts who were helpful.
We had a starting point. What next?