“Thank you for taking a moment to talk with me” the mom said over the phone. On a busy Monday, packed with meetings, I was lucky to sandwhich in a few minutes for phone calls before the day ended. But something in this mom’s voice caught my attention. I grabbed my pen and paper in case she was about to bring up a problem, need or complaint. To my surprise, she said, “I just wanted to thank your team for the service for my kids this past Sunday.” “Um, you bet, you’re welcome!” I managed. “We are always striving to make our services connect with kids and have an impact.” After a moment of silence, the mother continued, “Well, you see, Pastor Trisha, my husband Neil is the worship pastor at _____________ church downtown. Actually, I am a licensed worship pastor myself. My husband and I used to lead worship together there. And I miss it so much.”
I waited with baited breath for her to tell me she quit ministry due to conflict issues or leadership struggles. But instead she said this:
“We couldn’t wait to start a family. But our boys, who were born a year apart, are both autistic- and pretty severe on the spectrum. We soon began to feel unwelcome at church. I could no longer serve because I had to take care of the boys. And then came the day that the children’s ministry could not accept them, and they made noises in service. I loved our church, and had spent all my time there. I lived for those services. But now, I have not been in a church service for over 3 years, because I have to stay home with the boys. We are pariahs. Cast out of God’s house and it has been so hard (she started crying here). But last Sunday, I decided to try out one of your site churches that meets in a school. I thought that might be smaller/easier to quickly leave if things got bad. I called ahead, and explained the whole situation to one of your staff, and she told me to come on ahead. (Inside I was doing a dance because I knew that staff member has a huge heart for kid’s with special needs). I was terrified that this would be a disaster, so I sat just outside the door for the entire service. But your team never called me once! They didn’t make a big deal when the boys made noises and even tried to include them in what was going on! I just sat in my car after the service, put my head on the steering wheel and wept. Even though I didn’t get to be in worship or hear the sermon, it felt SO GOOD just to be in church on a Sunday. And to not be treated like a burden or a freak or a failure. (I had tears running down my own face at this point). I just wanted to say thank you. And I want to give it another go this Sunday. And whether or not it works out or not, I am grateful that at least your team is trying.” You know how your perspective can change in just 5 minutes? That team deserved a lot of credit that week for ministering like Jesus and showing grace……
But I realize that this is a hot button topic right now. Autism is on the rise like never before. It used to be a rare thing for a church to have a special needs child in their services. Part of this was partially due to the shame, stigma and “hiding” that has traditionally come with special needs- either physical or mental. And unfortunately, these terrible views of disability have taken hold, have dug a root into our churches. These days there are so many children in our ministries with special needs- down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, deafness, autism (all across the spectrum), ADHD, children from abuse and neglect situations (they have special needs too!!) and many many more. What’s worse, there is so much fear associated with disabilities. All this guilt, as if someone must have done something wrong, or not had enough faith, or as if certain challenges were “contagious” from close contact. I think that one of the deepest fears is of making a mistake, doing something wrong, or of inadvertedly “not ministering correctly” to a child with special needs. The needs can seem overwhelming. But gone are the days that we can ignore special needs family ministries- you already have several in your ministry, and in your church RIGHT NOW. And perhaps even more importantly, how many families of children with special needs are NOT in your ministry, because they do not feel welcome at a church? That question tears me up inside.
So what do you do if you and your church are considering ways to better include kids and families with special needs into your ministry? Need some ideas on how to better address the issues you are already having with integrating kids with special needs into your existing ministries? You already have conquered the first and most important step: you are open to, and are trying to INCLUDE these families, and you CARE about them- you want them to be ministered to effectively.
As a parent of a child with Asperger’s, and 16 year staff children’s pastor (600 kids), here are a few tips I have learned over the years to help you get started ministering to children and families with special needs:
1. Start small, but do START. If you stay afraid you will never step out. Make up your mind to take steps, even small ones, to reach out to families of children with special needs.
2. Set REALISTIC expectations. If you build it they will come. The need is so great, and so many families of special needs kids are looking for a place to go to church. I would highly suggest you let word of mouth do all your advertising at first. Be careful to manage those expectations and do not promise what you cannot deliver. A good idea would be to say, “we are just starting to reach out to families of special needs kids. We are in the process of expanding what we can offer. We are looking for people with experience in working with special needs teaching/ministry to work with us.” Remember, “Promise low, Deliver high”. It is always better to exceed expectations.
3. Sensory Room- We created a “sensory room” for kids with severe needs (autism etc.) who need a “break”. The schools gave us the sensory room items we needed. We know that all kids have good days and bad days. So we have the sensory room option open for tough days. Some kids who are sensitive to flashing lights or lots of worship noise may need some quieter time, and for us the sensory room has been helpful.
4. Special needs ministry non-integrated. We have been sooooo blessed with two older ladies, both of whom have raised autistic sons- they do our class for children with severe special needs, children who the parents do not want integrated. We work closely with parents to decide what works. Most kids with special need are integrated. But this is about what works best for the individual child and their family. And some kids do better in a designated class. But this has to be taught by loving people who have EXPERIENCE working with special needs kids. You may not have this right away, but it may be something you want to work toward.
5. I still say, do not give out any medications or provide any medical treatments. This is a liability issue and still must be the sole responsibility of the parent. I do not make exceptions to this one. You MUST have a way to contact that parent at all times, even if you try not to use it unless you really need to. But for safety reasons, do not accept any child in your ministry if you cannot quickly contact the parent (paging, cell, screen etc.), especially a child with special needs. It is true that a church is not equipped to do what a school can do. That doesn’t mean that we do not try to reach out and minister to these families. What is reasonable, AND full of grace in your ministry situation?
6. Case by case- no two children are alike, and no two children have exactly the same severity of special needs. Two children with autism can be so far apart on the autism spectrum that their plans may look nothing alike. Your first step is always to talk with the parents and try to understand the full situation and try to help them understand your set up. Don’t promise what you cannot deliver. Listen a LOT. I suggest writing down a plan for each child that you agree on with the parent. Evaluate it later to see how the ministry is going. Think of ideas for inclusion.
What great tips do YOU have for reaching out to families with special needs? love and God bless- Trisha