A few weeks ago, while I was nursing Aubade in the mom’s room just off of the church sanctuary, I received a text on my phone asking me to please come to where I had dropped Rondel off for class.
This was highly disconcerting. I have known for years that Rondel struggles sometimes in the class environment; I’m not sure if it is the structure, the people, or the noise, but something about it can be difficult for him. Some weeks he’s protested about having to go to church at all, and threatened to hit or kick the other kids; some weeks he’s come out of class and told us about all the things he didn’t like. Other weeks he’s come out full of excited news about the toys he played with or the snacks he ate, however, so it has never been all bad. And this particular Sunday I wasn’t expecting anything to happen, because Rondel had told me on the way in that he was going to do well in class and was looking forward to the story.
When I reached his classroom, a woman I’d never met before introduced herself to me as the leader of the special needs branch of the kids ministry at our church, and told me what had happened: Rondel, perhaps overwhelmed by the chaos of class, the lack of individual adult direction and attention, or the noise of the worship music portion, tried several times to run away from the classroom. Since the kids were in the big music room at this point (all the older classrooms come together for a worship time in the middle of the hour), this woman had been present as well and had assisted Rondel’s classroom leaders in keeping him safe by taking him to the sensory classroom until he was able to calm down. By the time she showed me to that classroom, Rondel was happily and calmly playing with one of the pastor’s daughters, a sweet little girl with autism.
This triggered a cascade of events. Rondel’s teachers told me that they are normally able to accommodate him in the regular classroom because they typically have three adults and one can focus more on helping Rondel cope with the structure, the stimuli, and his own emotional reactions. Apparently this week it was especially difficult because there were only two adults in his classroom, and while the adult to child ratio was the same, they weren’t able to give him the focused attention he needs. So while this is the first time he’d actively tried to run away and needed to be diverted for his own safety, he doesn’t handle the classroom environment like most of the other children can. I’m sure that was hard for his teachers, and I’m equally sure it was hard for him, and was contributing to his complaints about church. Something needed to give.
J., the woman who directed the special needs ministry, set up a meeting with us the following week and asked us to fill out a questionnaire online. After talking it over, we agreed that for now we’d like it if Rondel could continue going to the sensory classroom each week, so that he could still hear the story, learn about God, and engage with other kids, without the stress and discomfort of the normal classroom getting in the way. The last thing I want is for him to associate church with anxiety and stress – and if he’s having to work that hard at emotional regulation the whole time, he’s not going to be learning anything else anyway. Eventually we’d like him to try to integrate back into his regular classroom with a “buddy” – a designated adult volunteer who helps prepare him for class beforehand and stays with him the whole time to help him with focus, impulse control, emotional reactivity, stimulation, and so on. We’re waiting for a few more volunteers though; I think we’re the third family in line for a buddy 🙂
In the meantime, I’ve already seen a marked change in Rondel on Sunday mornings. I asked him which classroom he’d like to go to and when he answered that he’d prefer the sensory classroom I asked him what he liked about it. After describing the swing and how he can push himself, the beanbags that he can crash into, and the Duplos he can build with, he said, “And I like the other kids there.”
I’ve never heard him say that about a group of children before, besides his cousins.
In just two weeks with this ministry my little social boy, my hypersensitive extrovert, had finally found a place where he could be himself around other kids and still fit in and make friends. He had gone from threatening to hurt and fight with the other kids to telling me how much he liked them, even remembering one of them by name.
I don’t know how all of this will play out in the long run. It’s made me simultaneously more worried and more reassured – worried, because what if something is wrong inside Rondel’s brain that is going to make his whole life more challenging for him; and reassured, because it feels like validation of what I’ve been feeling Rondel’s whole life, that something is just a bit different for him, and because I know there are people on our side in this, rooting for him and supporting him. Whatever does happen in the future, however, Rondel and I are abundantly blessed in this moment to be receiving the unconditional love – giving, serving, and non-judgmental – of the body of Christ through our local church. And for that I am unequivocally thankful.