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WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — Aaron Keller’s family didn’t used to go out much in public.

As the father of three boys who have autism, Keller knows the way his sons act and react to things is much different from those who aren’t dealing with that diagnosis. A few awkward situations in public spaces made them decide to stay at home a lot more.

“When my children were younger, we were recluses,” Keller told The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier . “We closed off from society. We didn’t want the gazes.”

Coincidentally, as the lead pastor at Open Bible Church, Keller’s job is to get people to bring their families out into public — and sit through a worship service.

That gave him an idea: What if his were the first church in the Cedar Valley to cater especially to individuals and families with special needs?

“There are so many churches springing up,” Keller said. “What can we provide?”

So Keller prepared his church staff and building to be better equipped to welcome those with developmental delays. In September, he announced Open Bible would have “a shift from traditional church services to better serve special needs members of the community and their families.”

Besides updating the 85-year-old building to better accommodate people with physical handicaps, Keller’s team also renovated classrooms into “sensory learning rooms” that feature dimmed lighting, instrumental background music, tactile walls and weighted blankets.

“What we found was this really calms them, bringing them into this room,” Keller said. “Even students that don’t have these issues do better when we use sensory tools.”

Different toys, like water-filled balls, a peg board with different colored golf tees and sensory hoops fill the room, all designed specifically with autism in mind.

“It’s all about how the left and right brains work together,” Keller said.

Beyond just updating his facility, Keller has trained his staff and volunteers to be more respectful and caring of stressed parents who may feel their families aren’t welcome if their child is being disruptive during church services.

That was the case with Anthony Brown, who has been attending services at Open Bible for three years. He felt Keller understood their family better.

“At our previous church, my son was sometimes disruptive,” Brown told Keller, who shared the quote in a press release. “One service, the head pastor asked us to control our child or leave.”

Ultimately, Keller, whose sons are now 10, 13 and 15, hopes more families like Brown’s will find Open Bible to be welcoming — and eventually, help them venture out more.

Since their own first awkward public outings, and after finding their own community support, Keller and his family have stopped worrying about what other people think — and he’s gained a newfound gratitude for the strengths of his boys.

“We finally got to the point where we don’t care,” Keller said. “I have learned to appreciate these things about them.”


Information from: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier,