COLUMBIA — Nathan and Tammy Wheaton of Columbia used to go to church — until a Sunday school director told them the church could not accommodate their son's needs. Beau, who has autism, was 4 years old at the time.
In September, Broadway Christian Church will offer a Sunday school program for children with special needs — the first of its kind in Columbia.
"I'm looking forward to being able to take him somewhere he'll be welcome and can learn about church and God," Tammy Wheaton said.
The program is a response to a growing need for services designed for children with special needs, said the program's coordinator, Teresa Wiegand.
The prevalence of developmental disabilities in children has continued to increase, reaching 17 percent in 2008 and affecting one in every six children, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics.
Starting Sept. 11, the year-round program, "All God's Children," will cater to children through fifth grade.
If successful, it could expand to serve children as old as 17, Wiegand said. She is a special education teacher with more than 10 years of experience working with children with various special needs.
Children enrolled in the program will learn about a story from the Bible every four to six weeks through an interactive curriculum that incorporates art, storytelling, cooking, the use of musical instruments and other activities.
Volunteer professionals from MU and Columbia Public Schools with backgrounds in special education, speech-language pathology and occupational therapy will train volunteer teachers on Aug. 27, Wiegand said.
The program's committee hopes the concept, based on the church's current Sunday school program, will inspire other churches to offer similar programs, she said. Committee members would even be willing to help other churches implement the programs.
"Each child learns in different ways, so this curriculum keeps everyone involved," Wiegand said.
Jack and Christina Crawford usually sit in the back pews during services at other churches with their sons John Patrick, 4, and Gavin, 12. Gavin has autism. The Crawfords are concerned that gestures associated with autism, such as hand-slapping, will seem disruptive to others.
They are looking forward to enrolling Gavin in the program that will allow him to learn at his own pace.
"Gavin doesn't need a different relationship with God — he just needs a way to have it," Christina Crawford said.
The committee launched All God's Children after receiving an anonymous donation for the program. It is also using church funds to maintain it, Wiegand said.
The committee has applied for a grant to purchase adaptive equipment such as computer software for nonverbal children and computers with adaptive keyboards and switches, she said.
Parents of children enrolled in the program will be expected to volunteer by teaching some classes and preparing materials for the following week's Sunday school lesson, Wiegand said.
For more information on volunteering or enrolling a child, call Broadway Christian Church at 445-5312.