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(Posted June 7th 2016 @ 7:20 PM by: Melody Reever)
The more I learn, the more amazed I am by the attention to detail that our creator put into our bodies. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight are all part of the way in which our body processes information. This sensory system in turn affects how we perceive the world and communicate.
Many individuals with autism have difficulty communicating with others. This is just one condition where one or more of their senses may be affected. Not everyone with sensory challenges or needs will have a diagnosis, but every person has sensory strengths and weaknesses. In order to help, we need to better understand our sensory systems.
To understand sensory systems I think about my first job working in a fast food restaurant. The first system is the front counter. The function of the counter area is to take incoming orders from the customer and present them their food. This system would be of very little use without the second function—the grill area. This restaurant would not be successful without the working of both systems—one system’s success relying on the other to complete the task. If information is not communicated successfully from the front counter to the grill, the customer will not get their food.
Our sensory systems work in much the same fashion. If an individual's focus is out of balance and they are overwhelmed due to the bright lights in the sanctuary, that individual will not be able to understand that the purpose of the music is to worship God or that the purpose of the preaching is to draw us closer to God and change our lives for our benefit.
In the fast food restaurant, it was very important to have each system balanced. If I had six people in the grill area ready to make the orders but only one person taking the orders, it was inefficient. When the system was balanced, it was able to do the most efficient job.
Each sense (sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing) is its own system, but each one is reliant on the other. When someone is struggling with an imbalance in one or more of these areas, we will see a breakdown in their overall ability to accomplish tasks that are expected of them. For example, in a classroom or during service if someone is visually overwhelmed, it might be hard for them to focus and listen. On the other end, if someone needs a lot of stimuli to stay alert and focused, it might be hard for them to sit still and listen to a sermon.
It is critical that teachers and support staff in our churches work together to understand and learn about individuals that struggle with some aspect of sensory processing. Sometimes caregivers will be able to give us these little indicators of these challenges, but we can also take the initiative as members of the body of Christ to create environments where fun, learning, and spiritual growth can take place for everyone. We must create classrooms and spaces with all of the senses in mind and seek to make learning and coming to church fun for all.
Shelli Allen attends church with her husband, Patrick, and two autistic children, Josh and Izzy, at Calvary UPC in Springfield, Missouri. She is the author of Steps, Forming a Disability Ministry. She enjoys serving in the local disability community and being a wife and mother to her children.