Tips on how to create neurodivergent-friendly holiday programming.
Holiday programs are fun for many, but they are not always experiences the whole congregation can enjoy. Learn simple ways to adapt that programming to support the inclusion of neurodivergent congregation members.
Beloved Holiday Programming
Holidays. They are a staple in religious organizations, and the traditions that are developed to celebrate them—by each religion, church, family, and individual—become almost as foundational as the holiday itself. One much-loved tradition is that of the Christmas program. Christmas pageants and programs are often a tradition that requires significant, small-detail planning—sometimes starting as soon as the new program year hits. Who gets to play Mary? Who has a baby to be Jesus? Where are the artificial trees and the decorations? What songs do we have to rehearse? While all this planning takes place, there is a group of individuals that is often forgotten or not included in the planning: the neurodivergent members of the congregation.
Being neurodivergent means that someone’s brain processes information differently than the typical person. A common theme within the neurodivergent community is struggling with changes in routine and difficulty processing sensory stimuli. Churches can easily plan for their congregation members who fit into this category by offering options for inclusion and involvement.
Adapting Programs for Inclusion
First, pageants and programs should always be voluntary and not a required part of the confirmation, baptism, or other sacramental foundations of the church. Making these programs required activities tells neurodivergent participants that they are not built for being confirmed/baptized/etc. Instead, designating these activities as options for meeting any requirements encourages involvement without forcing someone to do something they physically cannot handle doing.
Involvement in holiday programs often takes the form of performing in front of others. Whether it is a concert, pageant, or a nativity scene, the focus is on an individual performing. You could offer “behind-the-scenes” or similar opportunities for those who struggle with being the focus of attention. This allows them to be included without causing distress. This is also a way to involve those who may struggle with impulse control and might not benefit from having a captivated audience. Handing out programs, setting up the area, folding or handing out costumes, hanging up signs, or creating props are great ways to involve neurodivergent individuals. These roles are just as important to keep the show running smoothly as being in front of an audience.
Change in Routine
Another way to make a holiday program accessible is to schedule the program outside of other common activities. A choir performance is a great way to celebrate a holiday, but that performance should take place outside of the common time for other large group activities. For example, the Christmas pageant should not take place at the same time as Sunday school. By putting this activity at the same time as another, it tells individuals that a stand-alone activity is more important than the weekly work. Often, it requires individuals to participate via the audience in an activity they are purposely not involved in. If the stand-alone activity is important enough to take place, it is important enough to get its own time to do so.
Finally, an often-overlooked option to support neurodivergent congregation members is to offer a sensory-friendly experience. Opening the nativity scene an hour early for those who struggle in crowds is a great way to reach those who are often left out. It is important to set expectations for limited sensory stimulation during this time by posting signs or advertising appropriately. Providing noise-buffering headphones at concerts and pageants can also allow individuals who struggle with noise to enjoy the program as intended. Allowing participants to create and wear their own costumes instead of the costumes provided can increase participation of individuals with tactile sensory issues. These are minor changes in planning and execution, but monumental for including individuals whose sensory needs prohibit them from participating in holiday celebration activities.
Creating a neurodivergent-friendly holiday program doesn’t mean completely scrapping beloved congregational traditions. It is simply realizing that not everyone has the same threshold for an activity that others see as fun or engaging. Being aware of the sensory stimuli, offering alternative options for participation, and intentionally planning for neurodivergent involvement allows for organizations to step into the world of inclusion.
About the Writer
Elaine is an educator by trade and passion, licensed in Special Education areas of Emotional Behavior Disorders, Specific Learning Disabilities, and Autism Spectrum Disorders, as well as Secondary Communicative Arts. Education-driven, she has previously completed a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Social Psychology. With Spirit & Truth Publishing, Elaine is happily employed as a writer and editor.
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