I love my church. I really do. We’re all sinners trying to get closer to Jesus, so no one is perfect, but I love my church. Even if my husband weren’t the pastor and I wasn’t the music director, I would still love these beautiful people. But no church is perfect and most people in a church don’t know how to care for a special needs child. And to top it off, special needs children are all so different, that knowing how to help one child with Autism doesn’t mean that a child with Cerebral Palsy needs the same help. So, what does the church do? How can churches help families with special needs children?
I firmly believe that churches should be a place where all people can be ministered to. No matter what their needs are.
But what about a child who is afraid of loud noises? Or large groups of people? What about kids who can’t control their own volume?
How do you teach a Sunday school lesson to a child who can’t speak or doesn’t speak well?
What about runners?
My daughter is all of those things. Especially a runner.
I’m playing the piano and my husband is preaching, so we depend on our church a lot. A lot of special needs families resort to staying home with their children. To us that is not an option.
Church is a place where everyone should get the opportunity to get what they need from God. Special needs parents have an extra need for this time. They are exhausted from 7 days of intense decision making and often don’t get any time to take care of themselves.
So what does the church do?
5 Ways Churches Can Help with Special Needs Children
Talk to the parents about their needs and the child’s needs
Each special needs child has their own unique needs. Designate a person or a team to talk to the parents about those needs. Find out what helps at home and school to meet those needs.
Do the child need noise cancelling headphones? Does she need a quiet room with the service playing on a screen rather than in the main sanctuary? Does he need some quiet activities to help him stay busy during the preaching?
Whatever you do, listen to the parent when they explain their child’s needs. Many people didn’t realize how much of a flight risk my daughter was until we nearly had a terrible accident with her during church. The parents know their child the best, so if they say the child can’t be left unattended for a minute, don’t underestimate that.
Provide a “buddy” for the child
Some kids need one-on-one support to help them manage a Sunday school class or church service. While they may benefit from being close to the other kids, they may not be able to understand a lesson as easily as other kids. They may need pictures or manipulatives to understand the lesson.
Create a system for tracking the child
This is especially important for runners (kids who can escape a room quickly and often without people immediately noticing). But it can also be important for kids with limited speech abilities. If a child can’t answer who his parents are and he is wandering in the hallway, this creates a dangerous situation.
Does the church need to keep people stationed at all the exits to ensure that children aren’t leaving the church without the adult who cares for them? Do teachers/assistants need to physically place the child’s hand into their parent’s hand to make sure they are safe? Find a system that works for your church.
Does the child have a tracking device? Find out how far the tracker goes before going out of range. If you have a large building, the tracker might not be working effectively if the parents are in the sanctuary and the child is in Sunday School. Decide if you need to have a back-up system.
Help Throughout the Week
Leaving the church building doesn’t mean we stop being ‘The Church’. Churches can minister to special needs families throughout the week as well.
Can you start a group that offers respite care? Whether in someone’s home or as a drop-off service at the church, giving the parent of a special needs child a much needed break is always appreciated.
If the child won’t tolerate the parents leaving them for respite care, take the time to visit the family. Bring a coffee or a treat. Offer to accompany them to the grocery store, so that they can think about their budget and grocery list instead of chasing or calming their child.
Check out this great resource for other ideas for helping special needs families throughout the week.
No matter what you can or can’t offer a special needs family. Love them. Let them know they are always welcome. Don’t make them feel like their child’s needs are too great.
Their needs aren’t too great for God. And they aren’t too great for the Church.