The Sunday Morning Struggle

Written by Staci McLean, Director of ‘The Neurocollective NZ’ 

A sunrise coming up behind a church in the country

Is going to church on Sunday worth the effort?   

For many families getting to and through a church service on a Sunday morning is a marathon effort. As the mother of a child who is neurodivergent, the Sunday morning struggle was real and at times the stress made me question, is it worth it? 

Sunday church has been a big part of my Christian journey and one that I enjoyed. To be part of a church family is vital for connection, spiritual growth, and support, but to feel like you are included and belong is much more elusive when you sit outside the boundaries of what is considered ‘normal’.

A woman holding a young child, standing at the back of a full church

It is an emotional rollercoaster raising a child who is neurodivergent; it brings with it a wide range of emotions, joys, and challenges. There are moments of joy and pride as you witness your child’s unique strengths and achievements. However, there are also moments of frustration, sadness, and worry when faced with the difficulties that come with neurodivergence, such as communication barriers, sensory sensitivities, or meltdowns. 

A mum and a dad playing with a bubble gun outside with their son who has Down Syndrome

Neurodiversity refers to the natural variation in the human brain and the way we think, perceive, learn, and behave. Being neurodivergent, is a term used to encompass a range of conditions including but not limited to Autism Spectrum Disorder, OCD, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, and others. Many individuals who are neurodivergent will be diagnosed with more than one condition.  

Neurodivergence can be a hidden disability and the journey to getting a diagnosis is long and complex. Because of that often individuals and families do not get the support, resources and understanding they need and deserve. 

For an individual who is neurodivergent managing the sensory input into their nervous system, so it does not get overwhelmed, is key. The way we generally have Sunday church services makes this a challenging exercise for the child and the parent. 

A father feeding his teenage son with a disability

The Sunday morning struggle starts before you leave the house. Organising a child who is neurodivergent to eat, get dressed and stay calm is a complex task. It is like spinning a hundred plates in the air, knowing that eventually something will crash to the ground. Some days are easy, and others are not, and you don’t know what kind it will be when you wake up Sunday morning.  

Stressed and tired woman sitting on the couch with her head in her hands

From the moment you reach church the assault on the senses begins.  All the things I use to love about church, the people, the music, the busyness, are now a potential trigger for my child.  Managing the triggers and the environment to avoid overwhelm and a meltdown keeps you on constant high alert, always trying to stay one step ahead to quickly jump in and prevent a problem before it starts. Being consistently hyper-vigilant, prevents you from engaging in any conversation or from participating in the service as you are never fully present. 

The church service itself can be too noisy and bright for your child but also you are just as nervous when it was too quiet, on edge in case your child blurted out something inappropriate or talks too loudly or starts a meltdown.   

A boy sitting left out from the other kids who are talking happilyNavigating the kids’ programme can also be daunting. Worrying about your child’s physical safety if they are a flight risk, are they being supervised enough, can the volunteers manage their emotional needs, are they being disruptive or ignored? What are they being taught? Neurodivergent children can latch on to any comment and, not fully understanding it, they can become confused and obsessed about it. In the past it has taken me weeks to work out what was going on, then explain it to them in a way they can understand and process. Often the easiest option is to stay in the kids’ programme with them or sit with them in the church foyer. Neither option gives you a break or the opportunity to connect with others or enjoy the service or listen to the sermon. 

After the service trying to have a conversation can be impossible. You need to manage your child, be hyper alert to possible problems and watchful at all times, making it tricky to have a meaningful conversation with anyone.

A grandmother sitting on a swing seat beside her granddaughter who has Down Syndrome and is wearing headphones. They are both looking at something on a tablet.Not only do you have the struggle of that, but you also need to handle the comments and judgements from other people. The sideway glances when your child is having a meltdown or when you pass your child a phone or iPad so you can have a few moments of peace. Dealing with well-meaning people offering parenting advice without understanding the complexity of neurodiversity or those who wish to pray for healing for what is ‘wrong’ with your child.  People can say harmful and judgemental comments at church because they don’t understand or appreciate your situation. On the days when I have been at church after a hard week and in a fragile and vulnerable emotional state, those comments can land heavy and I left church discouraged, feeling like a bad Christian and a failure as a mother.    

A tired woman with her head in her handsThe gruelling effort to attend a Sunday church service that you are never fully engaged with, that you might have not even been able to listen to and then facing the judgement of others (perceived or real) and never feeling that you fit in or belong. It makes you question what was the point of it, why bother being there at all? Is it worth it? 

For me, relying on the church service on a Sunday morning to meet my spiritual and social needs was impossible. What I needed was people around me who were walking a similar journey, those who understood the Sunday morning struggle and the every-other-day struggle of parenting a child who is neurodivergent. What worked for me was finding a small group of women from church who understood and accepted me and my child without expectations or judgement. They are my sounding board when I need to talk, they are the prayer warriors who carry me when I can’t. We encourage and support each other and together we find the humour and joy in the journey. I get spiritual, emotional, and practical support and help from this group of women and it was with this group that I found a place where I belonged.  

They are my sounding board when I need to talk, they are the prayer warriors who carry me when I can’t.

What would make it easier for individuals and families with neurodivergent children to attend Sunday church? 

No two neurodivergent individuals are the same, so what works for one will not be the solution for all.  Each person is an individual and needs an individualised approach. It is not enough for churches to provide low sensory areas or noise-cancelling headphones and think that is adequate.  

A mother and her teenage daughter and son hugging each other. The son is neurodiverse.

It starts first with understanding. Understanding the complexity of

 neurodivergence and the struggles and challenges individuals and families face trying to engage with church activities.  The best way to understand the particular concerns and barriers faced by members of your church is to ask them. They are the experts with lived experience. Ask them what they need and what will help them.  

The next step is acceptance and inclusion. We want to be part of church, to belong to the church family, to be included, not segregated, or apart.  To be able to belong, individuals and families need to be able to feel they are accepted as they are and included even if that involves a little more effort.  

A mother and her young neurodiverse son eating choc chip cookiesSupport networks are vital, especially for those who find Sunday church too challenging. Sunday church might not even be an option for some, so small groups are extra important. To be connected with a group that can encourage spiritual growth, provide emotional support, has shared experiences, and can lend a helping hand when needed can make all the difference for a family or individual facing the obstacles of life being neurodivergent. Encouraging and facilitating these support networks is something churches can do to help.   

A father and his young son cooking dinner together. The son has Down Syndrome.There is little available in the community to support families and neurodivergent individuals. Accessing education, health and mental health services is difficult and exhausting. The church has a significant opportunity to step into this area of need as community service and outreach. There are so many barriers for families with neurodivergent children and neurodivergent individuals who want to come to church. Breaking down those barriers, and creating safe environments and inclusive congregations will open doors to many in the community who want to know more about Jesus. This is a sector of the New Zealand community that we are failing to reach or to serve. 

All of us are part of the body of Christ and as with a human body, variety and diversity is important for function and thriving. Instead of looking at neurodivergences as a problem to be fixed, let us embrace and learn. Neurodivergent individuals have much to give and teach us. They have a special way of seeing the world, a different perspective which can add so much to our collective experience. As the body of Christ, we will be stronger and reach more people by ensuring all members of the body are included and feel they belong.

A young girl who is neurodiverse, sitting in a sheet tent, with a book open in her lap, smiling up at the camera.


But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” 1 Corinthians 12:18-20 


The Neurocollective NZ  

Creating places where we ALL belong through advocacy, education and support to individuals, parents, organisations and churches regarding neurodiversity and inclusion. 

Staci McLean 021 180 2018 


Posted in conjunction with Neurodiversity Celebration Week 2024

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