If you have a sensory kid, a child who with sensory processing differences, your child may struggle with behavioral expectations at church. You may have worried that your child would have a complete and total meltdown at church. Your child may have actually had a complete and total meltdown at church. You may feel like you need a miracle. That’s just what Li-Li got one Sunday morning, in A Miracle at Bates Memorial.

At least, it seemed miraculous to her.

A little girl with big feelings

Li-Li is a little girl who has a speech delay and sensory issues, and Bates Memorial is her church. She loves her church. She really does. But she doesn’t love it when the pastor tries to talk to her. It’s not that she doesn’t love her pastor. She just doesn’t want anyone looking at her, and she doesn’t want to look at him.

And she doesn’t love it when the silver-haired ladies want to give her hugs and kisses. She loves the ladies, because they give her candy. But she hates hugs and kisses.

And she doesn’t love it when it’s time to go. The crowd at the door, the jostling, the noise. Too much talking. Too much everything.

Li-Li’s daddy is off deaconing. Her mommy wants her to leave through the main door. Li-Li knows she can’t do it. She knows that, if she tries, she’ll have a meltdown, a Li-Li Letdown. She wants to leave through a back door where there aren’t any people.

Li-Li really doesn’t want to be difficult. “I try to tell my mommy that her way hurts me. All the people talking at one time makes my head hurt. It feels like pins pricking my skin. But all I can get out is, ‘Nooooo!’”

As she gets more upset, she starts to go boneless and cry and scream. And that’s when the miracle happens.

Li-Li’s mommy gets it at last

Just as the meltdown is beginning, Li-Li’s mommy reconsiders. She agrees to leave through the door.

To Li-Li, that act of mercy and kindness was a miracle.

And maybe it was. Maybe God softened her mommy’s heart, and helped her mommy realize that Li-Li needed the quieter exit from church. Not that she wanted it. She needed it.

What’s wonderful about A Miracle at Bates Memorial

There is so much that’s wonderful about A Miracle at Bates Memorial. To start with, it’s a picture book about a child with a disability. People with disabilities are the most under-represented group in children’s literature. It’s important to have books that include them. And the child in the story is Black, and that’s important, too.

It’s important that children see people like themselves in books. And for those children who always see people like themselves in books, it’s even more important that they see people who are not like themselves. Children who read books with characters who aren’t like themselves are more willing, as they grow up, to have friends who are not like themselves. They have more empathy. They are kinder.

And, most wonderful of all, A Miracle at Bates Memorial is set at church! I’ve sometimes said that churches in the world of picture books are like toilets in science fiction. You know they have to exist, but you never, ever see them. How many picture books do you know of where the characters attend church? (Please send me a list! I want as many of them as I can find.)

But the incredibly wonderful, incredibly important thing is that A Miracle at Bates Memorial puts a child with a disability at church. The only other picture book I know of that has a disabled child at church is my own Catherine’s Pascha. And in Catherine’s Pascha, it’s a secondary character, Elizabeth, who is disabled, not the main character. Centering A Miracle at Bates Memorial on Li-Li’s experience is powerful.

Disability and church

Children, and their parents, need to see children with disabilities at church. They especially need to see children like Li-Li, children with invisible disabilities that affect their behavior. If they don’t see these children at the church they attend, they need to see them in books.

They need to, because otherwise families like Li-Li’s family will find church too hard. And they will quit going.

One of my children went, for a year, to a special needs school that included mostly children with autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions. Children like Li-Li. There were a very few families at the school who went to church regularly. Most of the families used to go to church. The ones who didn’t go just found it too hard. Church was too difficult for their child. And the judgment and disapproval they got from other adults was too difficult and painful for the parents.

There are mountains of research now, showing how difficult church is for people with disabilities, and how many of them feel unwelcome, and how many choose not to go. That needs to change. And books like A Miracle at Bates Memorial will help.

I love how real and honest Li-Li is, when she’s explaining what church is like for her. Children who are like Li-Li are going to love the book, because they’ll hear their own difficulties validated. And their friends and siblings will grow in understanding of the children in their church and in their family who struggle to meet the behavioral expectations at church. Other parents, and Sunday School teachers, and other adults in the parish may develop more empathy for families with special needs kids as well.

A child’s privacy

Because author Gin Noon Spaulding based the character in the book explicitly on her own child, the Li-Li in the book is well rounded and believable. It worries me, though, that Spaulding disclosed Li-Li’s real name, and her diagnoses in the book. When you have a child who isn’t entirely typical, it’s important to share your parenting journey with others. You have to talk with other parents about the kids, sharing information about diagnoses and what things are helpful and what things aren’t. When you share your stories, and your child’s stories, with other parents, you learn from each other. You help each other become better, stronger, more effective parents.

So this kind of talk is important. And talk is essentially both private and ephemeral. It’s not going to come back at you later.

But as my children grew up, I realized that talking online isn’t ephemeral. In the early days of the internet, it felt like it was. But online disclosure has to be considered permanent and public. Talking about medical, developmental, and behavioral issues online could at some point create issues for the child.

Books feel even more permanent to me. And while I’m sure that the real Li-Li loves seeing herself in a book now, she might not feel the same way when she’s all grown up.

A word about the illustrations

The illustrations in A Miracle at Bates Memorial are bright and cheerful. But they are also a little bit stretched or distorted. That seems an odd choice for the illustrator, Aranahaj Iqbal, to have made. And they don’t add anything to the story; they don’t tell you anything that isn’t in the words. But they are good enough. And Li-Li is adorable in her pink church dress and hair ribbons.

Read More

Disabilities and special needs in the Church: Some thoughts from people with disabilities on how to make your church a more welcoming place.

14 picture books with disabled characters: There aren’t a lot of picture books featuring disabled characters. This post lists some of the best. (I need to update it to include A Miracle at Bates Memorial!)

Outside-the-box kids and the Sundays of the Paralytic: A guest post by Anastasia K. Bond, talking about what it feels like to be the mother of outside-the-box kids at church on Sunday morning.

Charlotte Riggle, author of Catherine's Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
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