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Worship Services for Autistic Children Are 'Rhythms of Grace'

The Avon service is the first Sunday of every month at 11:30 a.m.

There was a period when Sharon Cable stopped bringing her son, Alex to a Catholic church in California when he was younger.

But in 2004, a worship service – Rhythms of Grace – geared toward children on the autism spectrum helped make Cable, now a Canton resident, more comfortable bringing him to church again.

When Alex, who is autistic, was a child, he had a hard time sitting still in church, so he’d run around sometimes and speak loudly during services. The expectation became too much, she said.

“It took me awhile to get nerves to go again,” Sharon said.

Commuting to Trinity Episcopal Church in Torrington from Canton, Sharon found a more accepting place for her family to worship without her son being considered disruptive.

Now she goes with her family to Rhythms of Grace the first Sunday of every month at Christ Episcopal Church in Avon, which started there last October.

“Rhythms of Grace is a great opportunity for whole family to worship together regardless of special needs kids might be,” Sharon said. “It’s an accepting environment and it’s really geared toward the kids."

It takes a traditional worship service and fits it to the children, according to Linda Snyder, co-director and president of Rhythms of Grace.

“Unintentionally parents don’t realize some of characteristics of worship experience, these kids can’t handle,” Snyder said, such as language difficulties like taking the “blood” or “body of Christ” language literally, struggling to sit on a hard pew because of how it feels, or hearing organ music that is hard on their ears.

Sharon, board president of the Litchfield County Autism Spectrum Association, found out about it from a fellow board member who ran Rhythms of Grace services in Torrington in 2004 – Audrey Scanlon, of Canton.

The services, now nationwide and in Scotland, are “nurturing” and “accepting of all differences,” Sharon said. The organization also produces Rhythms of Grace books for churches to incorporate the techniques themselves.

“It’s a really different way of doing church for kids,” said Scanlon, who now leads the service in Avon. “It’s much more relational and experiential.”

Just as traditional worship services have processionals, the liturgy of the words, sermons, an offering of bread and wine, the Eucharist and blessings at the end, Rhythms of Grace services follow a similar structure, according to Snyder.

A Rhythms of Grace worship service is structured like this:

  • At the beginning – “the gathering” – the children are given time to familiarize themselves with the space.
  •  Then, they are told a story with pictures, story cards, hands-on materials, dramatic interpretations, felt boards or songs. The children and families sit on the ground during the service. For instance, a story about the Ten Commandments include tablet-like props.
  • Next, they do a response activity that reinforces the story and focuses on “large motor skills,” “fine motor skills,” “receptive language skills,” “kinesthetic awareness,” “oral communication” or sensitivity to touching something, according to Snyder.
  •  A  “safe space” is there in case any of the kids want to observe from further away or take a break during the activity.
  •  After the activity is over, the group gathers again for a game to get the kids interacting with a larger group or a song to prepare for the Eucharist. In the first-level Rhythms of Grace service, a table is set for the Eucharist and in the second level there is a procession.
  •  Grape juice and rice crackers are given to the worshipers during the Holy Eucharist and a simple prayer is done.
  •  The service closes with a song, like “Jesus Loves Me.”

Sharon said the services tend to be smaller groups, noting that it is a place where families with special needs children can meet and talk to each other.

Even though the service is Episcopal-based, families of any form of Christianity are welcome.

Fortunately for the Cables, they have found a Catholic church that is also accepting of their son – St. Patrick’s, so they go there every week.

And on the first Sunday of every month, they go from church to Rhythms of Grace.

For more information about Rhythms of Grace, visit its website at www.rhythms-of-grace.org.

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