Sensory processing as a barrier to “doing church”

shutterstock_173700593In the fifth segment of our Winter 2014 blog series Including Kids and Teens With Mental Illness at Church, we’ll introduce our readers to the challenges kids and teens with sensory processing difficulties experience in attending church.

Sensory processing disorder is not currently recognized as a stand-alone medical condition, but sensory processing difficulties are common among children and teens with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD and anxiety disorders. Estimates suggest that 5% or more of children and teens in the U.S. experience significant functional impairment as a result of sensory processing.

Kids with sensory processing differences are overly sensitive to sound, light, touch and taste than their same-age peers. They often experience difficulty with gross and fine motor coordination. They may be very particular about the feel of clothes against their skin, may overreact when touched by others, and often experience loud noise or potent smells (perfume or cologne) as noxious. They may be extremely picky eaters. They frequently struggle to sit still. They often experience more difficulties with sensory processing…and more distress in unfamiliar environments.

1-s2.0-S2213158213000776-gr2A recent study by investigators from the University of California, San Francisco demonstrated quantifiable differences in brain structure among kids with sensory processing disorder, indicating a biological basis for the condition that sets it apart from other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Ministry environments that some kids find engaging may be experienced as noxious by children with heightened reactivity to sensory stimulation. Let’s consider the range of potential situations that would present challenges to families of kids with sensory processing difficulties.

  • shutterstock_151284752The process of arriving at church…Churches are busy, noisy places on Sunday mornings. Lots of people crowded together in a confined space before and after worship services results in a high decibel level and lots of bumping and touching. One church where we trained established a separate “sensory entrance” to their children’s ministry area, away from the hustle and bustle of their main check-in location.
  • f77fc902f0ffff8a9dc080bff842bdddThe portions of the service dedicated to worship through song…In an effort to capture the attention of kids who spend much of their week preoccupied by electronic devices, some churches have resorted to very high-energy worship experiences for children and youth involving very loud music and bright lights. While this approach works for many kids, those with sensory processing differences may experience such a worship service as distressing. They may have difficulty standing for long periods of time or performing the hand gestures that accompany the music. One church developed a novel alternative for one of my patients with an auditory processing disorder…they gave him an orange vest and put him on the parking team! He’d typically finish his job around the time the last song was winding down, allowing him the ability to attend the large group teaching and small group discussion that followed the worship service.
  • shutterstock_125481890Sitting in an adult worship service…The need to sit still for extended time in less than comfortable seating would represent a major challenge for kids with sensory processing difficulties. In Catholic churches, attendees typically shake hands with those in their immediate area as a sign of peace and incense may be burned on special occasions.
  • Special events…Vacation Bible School typically combines high levels of physical activity with high levels of sensory stimulation. Weekend retreats and mission trips in outdoor camp environments without the creature comforts of home may be very difficult for kids with sensory processing differences.

Our former colleague and well-known disability ministry expert Harmony Hensley authored a two-part guest blog early last year (available here and here) on Church…A Hostile Environment? All too often, church represents a hostile environment for kids with sensory processing difficulties and their families.


Square Peg Round HoleKey Ministry has assembled a helpful resource on the topic of Asperger’s Disorder and Spiritual Development. This page includes the blog series Dr. Grcevich and Mike Woods developed for Key Ministry, links to lots of helpful resources from other like-minded organizations, and Dr. Grcevich’s presentation on the topic from the 2012 Children’s Ministry Web Summit. Click here to access the page!

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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1 Response to Sensory processing as a barrier to “doing church”

  1. Pingback: Ten Ways–Part Two – Friendship Ministries

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