Finding a Supportive Church for Children and Youth with Special Needs

Sarah McKennon, MA, QMHP

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I have worked with special needs children, youth and adults throughout my schooling and career. One place many of my peers or clients have felt safe was at the church. Finding a church willing to attend to the needs of the special needs population is a separate issue. When one is found, the caretakers and the child/youth/adult are able to receive the rest, support, and community that they need more than most attendees at the church. Sheri Dacon noted in her article, Why Church Is a Burden for Special Needs Parents {And What You Can Do About It}, how some Children’s Ministers tell parents of special needs children that their child can’t come to Sunday School or children’s programs without one of the parents there if they want them to attend. She explained how special needs parents are NOT overstepping their boundaries by expecting love and acceptance for their child in church. Dacon stated that it is NOT too much to ask. She suggested that if others heap more burdens on them than they can bear, it might be time for them to look for a different fellowship. Sheri is the mother of a special needs child that was a twin. She found it very sad when the twin without special needs was highly exalted and the other twin was habitually ridiculed and rejected like a burden. She could not understand how the church could not see that they should accept all God’s children as they are, and love them equally for their unique qualities.

I believe all parents should help in their child’s Sunday School or children’s programs as a rotating volunteer or helper. They should know what the child is being taught and how the population is managed; this is responsible parenting. All programs need assistants and substitutes. Part of being a parent is helping with programs and showing their child how to act appropriately in the church environment. If a child is having a particularly bad day a parent may need to take some extra care for their child and flex their personal church schedule to meet their child’s needs. Some times when extra parental support may be needed at church are when new teachers come on board, moving to new classes through promotion, leadership changes, challenging home life circumstances (divorce, deaths of loved ones, moving, etc.). Recognizing these times of stress especially before they occur and stepping in to offer support for staff can help reduce stress on the child. When it comes to supporting special needs children/youth many churches are unprepared to understand that the child may need a different type of interaction and not necessarily more interaction from volunteers. Parents should guide the core staff regarding these things and offer to attend trainings where personal insight can be shared with church staff regarding interacting with special needs children/youth.

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Showing care:

Sheri Dacon wrote about how a Sunday school teacher touched her heart through showing her family love and care.

Sheri was shocked when she prepared herself to stay at the Sunday School class and the teacher stated, “You don’t need to.” He continued, “We’ve got it covered.”

“But, but,”  Sheri stammered. . . “the minister said we needed to stay. She said one of us was required to stay.”

The teacher looked at the Sheri and her husband. He was kind and his eyes were soft. He was sincere. “It’s okay,” he said. ” You can go to Sunday School. It’s not a problem.” He smiled. “It’s not ever gonna be a problem.” Tears welled up in Sheri’s eyes because in his words, in his simple statement, she felt the presence of the Lord Jesus the Christ in that room as clearly as she had ever felt anything. Her son’s teacher was awash in the love of the Holy Spirit and it came through in his face, his words, his demeanor, his attitude.

Maybe special needs parenting problems are not an issue in your life. If you know a family who deals with the issue perhaps you know someone that might be a good match to help with such a program. Perhaps you would be willing to put aside your preconceptions and learn how you can help? Would you be willing to love the way the Sunday school teacher did? Would you offer to view such a family as people who deserve love and not as a problem to solve? People really can change for the better. Change happens one child, one family, one smile, one kind word at a time.

If you are looking for a church that supports children/youth with special needs I recommend calling your local churches and inquiring if they offer such programs/classes. If they do not, you should ask if they would consider this as a possibility. The churches that I have worked with in the past offered warm compassionate care for children with special needs. Not fancy equipment or elaborate environments. The churches offered a Christ centered message and taught it with love and care. They hoped the lesson would continue in the coming weeks conversation in the home as they sent material back with the client. Clients were excited to attend and rarely had behavioral struggles in the church once they felt safe and came to understand the routines of the programs and felt the warmth and care in the environment. Special needs church programs can be extremely rewarding for the support staff and student peers as well. This type program offers more compassionate experiences than a class without special needs children. The love shared by a child that struggles to be understood and yearns for acceptance for most of their life’s interactions can be so abundant the staff and peers can’t wait to return to class. Parenting Matters offers support services to churches with a desire to establish or improve programs for children/youth/adults with special needs.

Excerpts taken from an article written by Sheri Dacon, November 10, 2014; Why Church Is a Burden for Special Needs Parents {And What You Can Do About It}:

http://sheridacon.com