Story of Aslan
2013: In the beginning…
It all began with James, a 14 year old autistic boy. He had grown up in our church and, as a young boy, had been supported through Sunday School with a 1:1 helper, but as he got older, it became more difficult for him to be in a group of children where noise levels and activities were sometimes overwhelming for him.
As James became a teenager, different people were asking if there could be something else set up for him – away from the others, somewhere quiet, somewhere that he would feel less vulnerable, somewhere he could go so that his parents and sister could attend church without any concerns about him. A meeting was called and various ideas put forward and eventually, on Easter Sunday 2013, we earmarked a room and 3 of us spent an hour or so with James. It worked well, and so began the special needs ministry at TBC.
In those early weeks the focus was on James’s main interest – animals. He made up stories, we filmed him, we sang, we read stories with him. There were initially 5 leaders and we worked on a rota basis. However, as a teacher of special needs, I felt challenged to expand and develop this ministry. We could have other children. We could have a focused, constructive lesson. Children with special needs could learn about God and the Bible in a safe space with dedicated people to help them.
More boys, more leaders
Two months later enquiries were made about another boy. Joshua was 10 and the oldest of 4 boys. His parents wanted to attend church but one of them always had to stay behind as Josh didn’t want to come. We invited him to attend and he enjoyed it. Within a few months we had another 2 boys and, since then, the number has varied, with a maximum of 10 registered at one time. Early on we made a decision that this group would be specifically for those in special education and this has kept the numbers manageable, although occasionally we have had children at mainstream where a diagnosis was being sought.
Alongside the growth in numbers, it was clear that more leaders were needed, and we prayerfully sought out people who might be interested. Some had direct experience of working in special schools, others seemed to have a natural gift of working in this environment. The aim has always been to provide 1:1 support and this has been a strength of this group. In addition to adults, we have also had older teenagers volunteering to help and this has worked very well in helping to have peer interaction. Over time it has become clear that partnering the children with the right leaders is an important part of the planning. Some of the best faith conversations go on during individual activity times and we have always been blessed with very gifted people.
Establishing a routine
In September 2013 we decided to introduce a routine for the morning. We started with free time – the boys could bring something that would interest them and for 10 minutes they could play on that activity. Then we came together for a prayer, bible story and song. This was followed by a snack time – biscuit and drink, and then an activity linked to the bible story. We finished the morning by allowing the boys time on their chosen activities. This routine worked well and has continued to be the framework of the morning as we found the predictability of the structure was very helpful. In addition to the structure of the session we wanted to underpin it all with prayer, so we made it a priority to gather to pray for 10 minutes before the start. It remains such a good way to focus on the reason for being there, to pray for every aspect of the morning, to pray for the families and to pray for each other.
Choosing a name
After a while of calling it the ‘special needs group’ we began to think we should find another name. This was quite challenging and various suggestions were made but nothing seemed quite right! One day I sat down with a piece of paper and doodled some of the words about us… special, loving, nurturing. I played around with the letters and soon had organised them into ‘Aslan’….All Special needs children Loved And Nurtured. I liked the idea of the individual letters meaning something but also loved the idea of using Aslan the lion, the Jesus character in the famous C S Lewis chronicles, as our symbol. Fortunately others liked it too and a decision had been made! We asked James, who inspired the vision, to draw a picture of a lion head and Tom, one of our leaders, photographed it and developed it into our logo.
Developing the curriculum
When we started out, I looked for good quality resources but I found it impossible to find suitable material. However, being an experienced SEN teacher in schools, I was able to gradually create a 3-year bible teaching curriculum suitable for SEN children aged 5-19. The plan follows through the Old Testament and the life of Jesus in a systematic way, roughly alternating monthly with Old Testament/New Testament topics, with 3 sessions a month. It was clear from the start that activities would have to be differentiated as the levels of ability varied a great deal and were not linked to age. I then came up with 4 levels, ranging from children who cannot read through to independent learners.
2017: Ready to share curriculum
By 2017 the 3-year curriculum had been tried and tested and, because there was still no one else offering anything similar, I wanted to make my resources freely available to other churches and offer advice and guidelines for any who would be interested in setting up a similar group. The next step was to create a website. Thankfully my son Dan offered to set it all up for me. It was a steep learning curve for me to be able to add and edit material, but eventually it was ready to go!
2017 also saw the start of Aslan being a mixed group as our first girl joined us.
2018: Website Launched
It was an exciting moment when we went live with the website and since then I have had some wonderful feedback from those using the resources and there have been thousands of downloads.
When we launched the website we made a promotional video. It’s a few years old now, but still worth watching to get a good feel of how Aslan looks in my church.
2019: Premier Digital Awards
The Premier Digital Awards honour churches and individuals from across the UK who excel in the online world and it was suggested to me that I enter Aslan. It was wonderful to hear that we were shortlisted as one of 84 entries representing a cross-section of churches, people and projects. The event was held in October 2019 at the Brewery in London, and I was delighted when the website was awarded 'Runner Up' in the accessibility category.
2019: Aslan Facebook Group/Instagram
In June 2019 I set up the Aslan Facebook group as a forum for leaders and parents using Aslan materials: a place to celebrate together what's happening; share photos, experiences and prayer requests; ask questions, make suggestions and say what has worked well and what hasn't! An Instagram account followed in November 2020.
2020: Aslan at Home
Sunday 22 March 2020 was a very different sort of day. It was the first time in living memory that church buildings were closed!
The following day, the government introduced ‘Lockdown’ and it was clear that our Aslan group would not be able to meet for a while. We had been meeting three times a month since 2013 and I knew it was important for contact to continue. Soon the Internet was buzzing with live streaming, zoom sessions, worship services on YouTube; and everywhere people were responding with creative ways to continue to meet up, albeit virtually.
But what of our group? What was appropriate for us? I was soon personally involved in zoom sessions with others (including my Pilates group!), but realised it had its challenges and knew that the different levels of understanding of those in the Aslan group I run would be a barrier to doing something that would suit all. I therefore decided to adapt the material I would have used in our group, making it more ‘user-friendly’ for parents to share with their children and each week I emailed out a new session. At the same time I saved it on this website and created the new section ‘Aslan at Home’.
Each session is similar in layout: the first 2 pages of each download need to be followed online because of the YT links. After that there are activities for the different levels, as with the group material. My primary aim in preparing these resources was to provide this material during the time when churches were closed or restrictions to gatherings were in place, but it can be used in other ways: for churches who only have only 1 or 2 children, for parents to use with a child who has missed a group session and for parents who do not have easy access to this type of group within a church setting. All that is needed is an iPad or laptop, plus a Wi-Fi connection.
2023: Website Redesigned
Ten years on from the start of the Aslan group seems a good time to upgrade the website and a great way of marking the anniversary. My son Dan is now working full-time as an independent web designer, and I have benefitted hugely from his skill and creative ideas in redesigning this website. Wonderful work from Oodle Design!
Over to you!
We’d love to encourage others to have a go at setting up an ‘Aslan’ group in their churches so please feel free to use any of the resources on this site. If you would like any further help please contact me via the ‘Hi’ link.