Creating and ‘holding’ space for neurodivergent people is the theme of an APCE workshop

Campus minister Michelle Scott-Huffman brings new ideas and understanding toward widening the faith community’s circle of welcome

by Emily Enders Odom, Mission Communications | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Michelle Scott-Huffman led a workshop on making space for neurodiversity during the APCE Annual Event this week. (Photo by Emily Enders Odom)

ST. LOUIS — One Sunday, the Rev. Michelle Scott-Huffman had an epiphany.

As the former pastor of Table of Grace, a non-traditional, radically inclusive faith community she planted in Jefferson City, Missouri, she knew that her leadership and preaching were central to worship.

But one Sunday, the congregation showed her — and the Spirit told her — otherwise.

As the constant noise and movement of worshipers entering and exiting the space distracted her from delivering her sermon, the Spirit spoke.

“The Spirit said I was just ‘holding space,’” Scott-Huffman told the small gathering of educators and pastors attending her workshop, “Making Space for Neurodiversity in Young Adult Ministry,” at the Association of Partners in Christian Education (APCE) 2024 Annual Event. “I was ‘holding space’ for people to have an experience of God that connects with their authentic self. Once I realized I didn’t have any responsibility beyond that, it made it easier.”

Scott-Huffman said she brought that same understanding to her role as director and campus minister of Ekklesia, an ecumenical campus ministry serving several public and private universities in Springfield, Missouri, recognizing that statistics suggest that 15-20% of the U.S. population is neurodivergent.

“All of the people coming to our campus ministry were the same folks that had gathered at Table of Grace,” she recalled, “and I was thrilled that God would allow me to continue to hold space for these people. It was the first time I had named this as a ministry, and I really started to pay attention to the different experiences that people were having.”

Ekklesia embarked on a grant funded project titled “A Celebration of Neurodiversity” to become aware of the ways that its ministry was failing to truly welcome neurodivergent students and how they could be more intentional about creating spaces that celebrate neurodiversity within the ministry, across the campus, and in the local churches with which they are connected.

After wondering aloud whether anyone could truly be called “neurotypical,” Scott-Huffman offered attendees a definition of neurodiversity, an umbrella term that includes dyslexia, autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and other neurological conditions, and applies to all ages and stages.

“People may present as neurotypical but may be ‘masking’ because we haven’t created spaces where they can show up any other way,” she said. “For example, this room has two tables with ten chairs. Masking would be sitting down and getting through it, but it would take that person so much energy and attention just to sit at that table with nine other people.”

The Rev. Michelle Scott-Huffman

Scott-Huffman explained that in preparation for teaching her workshop, she had asked her Facebook friends to share with her what makes attending church especially difficult for them. Among the concerns they raised were sensory overload, hypersensitive hearing, sensory issues around food accompanied by others judging their food choices, and forced interpersonal interactions, such as the passing of the peace.

“Often people who are struggling in the space are not telling us about it,” she said. “They are suffering in silence, or they’re leaving, or it comes out in difficult interactions because there’s so much stress and anxiety.”

After Scott-Huffman made a covenant with participants to create a safe and confidential space — one in which they would not be quoted by the Presbyterian News Service without their explicit permission — she welcomed them to engage with one another about the ways that neurodiversity shows up in their communities.

Following the time attendees spent sharing their experiences in the broader circle, Scott-Huffman explained how “shockingly simple” it is to make the following accommodations:

  • Normalize informed consent
  • Communication in advance
  • Bulletin key
  • Varied seating options
  • Sensory items/toys/doodles
  • Low sensory room(s)
  • Options in activities
  • Adaptive equipment (such as noise-canceling headphones and a collection of whiteboards for nonverbal communicators).

Participants then brainstormed and shared various adjustments they had made or could make to their ministries, such as having a neurodiversity night where church members could talk about it or having open conversations about being a more inclusive community.

Scott-Huffman added that she also continues to struggle with the language that is often used to let worshipers know when to stand.

“‘Please rise in body or spirit’ is an attempt that doesn’t get us very far,” she said. “I prefer to use something like ‘Find whatever posture feels praiseworthy,’ for example. There just aren’t any easy answers because there are 50 different kinds of needs.”

From her considerable experience, Scott-Huffman observed that because culture building takes time, education can help.

“We do a thing once a month where our director of Christian Education takes people out of the space to do an interactive thing during the message,” she said. “It’s a moment for anyone who wants to have a more interactive experience to feel that permission.”

She then closed with a question followed by a charge.

“How do we move from ‘you are welcome here’ to ‘we will create a space that embraces, includes, and empowers you because we are not whole without you,’” she asked. “I want you to think about just one service or activity at your church — is there one change that you can make where everyone can show up and get what they need out of it?”

Scott-Huffman’s workshop was offered in partnership with UKirk Collegiate Ministries, on which she serves on the board. UKirk is a ministry partner with the PC(USA) through the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s office of Christian Formation and one of five ministry partners in the Christian Formation Collective. In addition to the UKirk and APCE, the others are the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association (PCCCA), the Presbyterian Youth Workers’ Association (PYWA) and Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network (POAMN).

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