Unusual Behavior Is Usual

Christmas Trees in Church

Neuroscience Has Something to Tell Churches How Better to Include Exceptional People in Worship

by Sarah Bridges, Ph.D., M.B.A.

The family next to me is glaring. They stare at my son Porter, who is a touch out of control. His light-up Spiderman shoes blink as he jumps down the aisle and he’s hitting his head with a hymn book. It sounds like someone is slamming a door in a huff. If chaos and impulsivity had a baby it would be Porter.

The little girl in front of us whispers to her father, “What is wrong with that boy?”

“It’s ridiculous!” Her father says back. Up in front, the pastor reads The Lord’s Prayer in a monotone voice. “Forgive us our trespasses,” He says. Beside me I hear Whack. “As we forgive those that trespass against us.” Whack, Whack.

The father is antsy. “Could that kid get any louder?” He asks me, pointing at Porter.

 “Yes,” I answer. “A lot louder. Take away the book and you’ll find out.”

I look at my son in the aisle spinning the program over his face. Parishioners have moved to the far side of the pews and left a barren circle around where he’s sprawled. We have this effect on people. He is lying on his back, flapping his hands, as children with autism are well known to do. I pack up to make our exit.

Whack. It is the last sound we make as we leave church for a decade.

Porter and Sam.

Porter and Sam.

I’d written off worship. The services we attended were orderly and polite. My child was erratic and noisy. The math was easy.

The disruptive, flapping child was only part of the picture. He was also loving and grace-filled much of the time. I wanted to include him in the church community, but we didn’t fit. Being in public wasn’t our strong suit. It was only when I found my friend Suzy and became godmother to her son Sam that I revisited the church issue. Sam has cerebral palsy, autism, and mental health issues.

Sam also has the strongest spiritual connection of anyone I know.

The first time Sam met Porter he gave him a long, very un-teenagery hug. The next day he told us, “I looked in his heart and it’s filled with love.” After my church-free decade, Suzy introduced me to a different kind of worship that was led by a pastor whose own son had autism. This special service is shorter than a typical one and the sermon is geared to a message that resonates with this gang. People with special needs participate in every aspect. A service dog lolls beside the podium for kids to cuddle.

Parables is for people with disabilities and their families. My experience attending both kinds of services taught lessons about how other churches can include all people in worship.

The Default Setting is Casual Chaos

The goal is inclusion, not conformity. From the opening procession, to the music and schedule, services can be geared for a flexible agenda. Melt downs happen. Setting the expectation that kids mill around, interject, and read prayers from the pulpit works well.

Neuroscience teaches us that our expectations literally create our experience. Cognitive psychologists are finding that our attitudes and perceptions play a central role in our interpretation of events. We know this from MRI imaging.

When we scan a person’s brain as something unexpected occurs it is logged as an error message. We think something is wrong. Translating this to worship, we can establish the assumption that the service will be different. We normalize the difference.

Choice Makes Us Happy (and Healthy)

Allowing the wiggly and vocal group to engage positively (in an opening march, distribution of the communion, and singing with the band), puts the “spirit” in Holy Spirit. Even traditionally one-way communication is interactive when the arbitrary, “AMEN!” is screamed.

Again, unusual behavior is usual.

On a recent Sunday, for instance, Sam was having a rough day as he stood at the pulpit wearing his sunglasses and reading a psalm. Someone yelled from the back, “Nice shades!” He leaned over the mic and began, “I don’t think God cares what I look like. It’s what’s in here,” he said, pointing to his heart.

Family with child with autism spectrum disorder.

Choice is the common denominator. The importance of making our own decisions is a human universal that we can forget is equally important for people with special needs.

Harvard’s Dr. Ellen Langer studies this. Her research shows, for instance, that providing choice and control affects happiness as well as mental and physical health. In one study in nursing homes she allowed half of a randomly divided group to choose what movies they watched and where they would greet visitors. They also received a house plant and chose how to care for it. The other group had these decisions made for them.

Eighteen months later, the researchers found that the choice group was happier and more engaged in daily life. They were surprised, however, that they were also healthier. The unanticipated part of this research was that while all participants were equally elderly and frail at the start of the study, less than half as many people died in the choice group than those who had others decide things for them.

Worship acknowledges struggles and gifts

The father of modern psychology (and a key influence on Alcoholics Anonymous founders), Dr. William James, knew something about challenges. He suffered a brutal three-year depression and came to see the experience as pivotal to his spiritual understanding. He wrote that only through deep struggle does a keener sense of meaning and renewal avail us. Inclusive worship acknowledges both aspects of disability—the challenge and the spiritual gift. It also allows us to connect with other people in our broken places.

People with disabilities and the families that love them are used to trying to squeeze ourselves into the “normalcy” of other people. Worship is a place we can all meet—in the connected and spiritual space far beyond our differences.

We just need to open the church door widely enough.

About the Author

Dr. Sarah Bridges

Dr. Sarah Bridges, Ph.D., is a “free-range” mom, and has been wandering on and off the beaten path since she was a kid. Growing up in a six-family commune with her two PhD parents outside of Berkeley, CA was far from traditional.

Her interest in psychology and human development led her to earn a PhD of her own in neuropsychology from the University of Minnesota after a B.A. from Wesleyan University. You should read more about her work and writing about autism, recovery, and spirituality at Free Range Lives. Really, you should!

Dr. Bridges lives in Minnesota with her husband, six kids and three dogs.

Daniel D. Maurer

Daniel D. Maurer was a former ELCA minister who served in Underwood and Williston North Dakota. He now is a freelance writer and thrice-published author and speaker on the topics of resilience, change, transformation, and long-term recovery from addiction and depression.