Church Breaking Down Sensory Sensitivity Barriers to Welcome All

By Brett Hetherington*

“It’s refreshing to have a place to attend that understands a child with needs different than others, and that he can be himself, wiggles and all!” said Megan Stuck, whose five-year-old son struggles with an invisible disorder that makes engaging with the world around him incredibly difficult.

She was praising Faith UMC (Tuscarawas District) in North Canton for acquiring new resources that make attending church possible for her son and others who suffer from sensory processing disorder, a sensitivity to sounds, sights, changes in routine, and more. Sufferers find that noises, smells, lights, and even crowds can be not only overwhelming from the sensory perspective, but also sometimes physically painful. The symptoms present most often in children or adults who struggle with autism, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and in those who have early onset dementia or have suffered a stroke.

It’s impossible for those of us who do not have sensory processing disorder to understand the struggles that impact the daily routines of sufferers from morning to bedtime. There are more than a few documented cases of someone having a sensory sensitivity-caused outburst during a worship service and getting chastised for being unable to control themselves. Such reactions are damaging to the individual and their family and can even scare them away from being part of a church.

Looking to be accessible to all, leadership at Faith UMC reached out to KultureCity, a nonprofit whose website states that volunteer team members are “dedicated to fight for inclusion and acceptance of ALL individuals regardless of their unique abilities.” Its sensory inclusion initiative is designed to help arenas, zoos, aquariums, museums, restaurants, and other places of public attraction better serve their guests that might have sensory processing issues.

“I was nervous about the cost, because that can be a big factor in whether the church moves forward,” said Faith UMC Spiritual Formation Director Kathy Schmucker. Happy to learn that training, five sensory bags, and all the necessary signage would be less than $400 for an entire year, she said, “That’s affordable for any church.”

KultureCity requires that a church must get 50% of its volunteers trained in order for the congregation to be certified as sensory inclusive. For Faith UMC that meant that 24 people would need to be trained by leading medical professionals on how to recognize those guests who have sensory needs and how to handle a sensory overload situation.

“Currently we have about 100 staff members and volunteers who have been trained,” Schmucker proudly proclaimed. The efforts of clergy and laity leadership have paid off in Faith UMC being one of only three churches in the country to be Sensory Inclusive certified. Brecksville UMC (North Coast District) is one of the other two.

“We are opening up an opportunity for people who are not coming to church to say, ‘this is a place where you are welcome, and respected, and we have accommodations for your needs,’” she said.

Four areas inside the church and one on the surrounding grounds have been identified as quiet places where someone in need of silence can go to get away, when the need arises. There are also portable headphone zones that can be set up, particularly during the sometimes-loud excitement of vacation Bible School (VBS). The headphones can be found on shelves outside of the sanctuary, along with weighted stuffed animals and lap pads, labyrinths, and more that people can use during the service to quiet their hands, be soothed and relaxed, help them focus, and engage their senses to allow them and their family to participate in the life of the church.

“We have one student whose family is fairly new to the church that were coming before we started this, and once his mother heard we were becoming a Sensory Inclusive church that cemented their choice to be a part of our church,” Schmucker said. “Another family chooses to come late because their son struggles with transitions. Before becoming a Sensory Inclusive church, people would ask ‘Why are they coming late all the time? Can’t they get up on time?’ But after our training, people changed how they thought and began to ask, ‘What is the reason that keeps this family from coming at the same time as everyone else?’ They don’t jump to conclusions now,” she shared.

KultureCity Co-Founder Dr. Julian Maha says, “To know that you soon will be able to see families participate in church activities and attend worship services, true community binding experiences, with their loved ones who have a sensory challenge and who were not able to previously attend, is truly a heartwarming moment. Our communities are what shape our lives and to know that Faith United Methodist Church is willing to go the extra mile to ensure that everyone, no matter their ability, is included in their community is amazing.”

During this summer’s VBS, an adult group leader felt a student could benefit from one of the sensory resource items, an opportunity they used to teach the rest of the group the difference between a tool and a toy. At the VBS closing, a fifth-grade student asked Schmucker if she could use one of the bags on Sundays. Excited to learn that she could, the child shared that she struggles with sensory challenges, and sometimes it’s hard for her. That exchange allowed Schmucker to share with the student that she is valuable and important to the life of the church, and that the new sensory-inclusive tools are there for her to use when she needs.

The girl’s story is one that Stuck knows well. Her son has struggled with sensory sensitivity since the family noticed he was having difficulty with noises and a need for both constant motion and stimulation when he was two-years-old.

“We started looking for a church home in February. I was unsure if Faith UMC would be a good fit for our family. I worried about his reaction to the service and if he would be okay. I knew of their children’s programs, and we decided to attend, to see what might happen,” she said. “When we went, we were welcomed with open arms. Kathy introduced herself, and then showed me the worship manipulatives table. I was so impressed. The vast assortment of items they had showed that this church gets it! The people understand the importance of everyone being able to participate in worship. We decided this had to be our church home after the first service.  It’s only been a few short months since we started attending, but the more we are seeing and learning about the church, the more we realize this is where we belong.”

Learn more about sensory inclusiveness by:

Sponsored by East Ohio Christians Engaged in Faith Formation (EOCEF), the 9:30 a.m. October 17 workshop will be held at the East Ohio Area Center (8800 Cleveland Avenue NW, North Canton, 44720).

If you have a story of how God is using your local church to transform the community, please contact us at The East Ohio Conference Communications team wants to tell your story.

*Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.