In the same season God called us to be part of a small church plant in our city, my 18 month old son’s behavior and speech difficulties began to emerge. We knew no one, and no one knew us. As we became acquainted with a new church family, our son struggled to make eye contact with anyone, and that was just the beginning of his problems in church.
Over the next six months, it became clear our son’s difficulties were not temporary, and not simply a matter of discipline. At first, we would be called back to the nursery because he bit another child. Eventually we had to sit with him every Sunday to police his actions more closely. By his second birthday, Sunday mornings became a source of heavy anxiety for all of us—instead of listening to the sermon, we spent the better part of an hour keeping his forehead from finding the nearest wall, blocking doors, and taking him down from windows as his sensory sensitivities searched desperately for a way out of the noise and excitement of Sunday School.
We loved our church, and we felt confident God directed us there. But we could no longer attend as a family without help from the church. This feeling is all too familiar for families of a child with special needs, yet it doesn’t have to be. Helping a special needs family be at church does not have to be complicated or expensive, it simply has to be intentional, and grounded in the belief that families with special needs need to be part of a local church body, and the local church body needs them, too. Here are four simple ways a church can welcome kids with special needs.
Cultivate and Model a Grace-Filled Culture
There can be an unspoken pressure in churches for parents to have well-behaved children, because it can seem like a marker of the parents’ faith and spiritual maturity. And while there is a clear biblical mandate for parents to be diligent in raising their kids, there are times when a child’s unique needs mean that the parents’ “diligence” looks very different in his or her upbringing.
Children with special needs are often noticed for all the wrong reasons. He might make unexpected noises at socially inappropriate times, or her response to discipline from a teacher may be completely ignored. Not only can a child outside an expected norm be treated as a nuisance or distraction, but the parents often leave a Sunday service feeling ashamed, embarrassed, and hesitant to come back to church at all. So, they don’t.
Pastors, elders, deacons, and ministry leaders can demonstrate patience, understanding, and compassion to the child that might be loud or inappropriate and assure parents their child is not “too much” for the church family. When a parent struggles with a child’s behavior that feels inexplicable, a church leader cannot tell them too often that they are welcome, and that their child is welcome. I know from experience the insecurity that we are a nuisance at church never fully goes away, and a word of encouragement such as, “We are so glad you guys made it today,” or “You are doing a great job!” can carry me through the week.
Start a Buddy Program
Involve more of the church in aiding families with a special needs child. Leadership can recruit help for them by asking a teenager, a college student, or any willing adult to be the “big buddy” to the child who needs a little extra help during the service. This small step does not mean starting an entire ministry for special needs children, which most churches will not have the resources for. But it will offer much needed support for a family who wants their child to participate where he or she is able.
Most parents are not going to ask for help at church, largely due to shame. But giving even one hour of reprieve for parents to be able to sit in church together can be a tremendous refreshment for them, one they may not know how much they need until it is offered.
Create a Sensory Room
If space permits, consider making a quiet sensory room. Reserved for children struggling with behavior or sensory issues, the room can be a much-needed protected space for parents to go with their child if neither Sunday School nor the church service are an option. Sensory rooms do not need to be fancy or expensive; a small trampoline, white board and markers, and a bin of toys will do. But these quiet spaces, where a child isn’t interrupting service and parents do not have to hover anxiously over his or her every move, can be a lifeline to the family struggling to make it through a full church service.
A sensory room encourages families to come to church, knowing there is a place set up for them and their special child; where they can see their church family, and their church family can see them making the effort to be there.
The wide variety of unique needs and disabilities among children means there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to serving them. Churches must be intentional about asking each family what they need. Would having a few grab-bags with activities or sensory toys available be helpful? Could headphones be provided by the church during worship? What are the child’s strengths, and could they be put to use or displayed at the church? Few places in the world feel safe for a child with special needs, much less encouraging. But by asking questions, consulting special needs resources in the community, or borrowing best practices from other local churches, the church can be one place that is both.
In the United States alone, nearly 1 in 6 children is reported to have some form of developmental disability[i], and by all measures that number is increasing each year. It is highly unlikely that a church today does not have any children struggling with some sort of atypical behavior. If they don’t, it is more likely that those families are not coming to church. As a mother immersed in the world of special needs, I will confess that church has been the hardest place for my family to go. Fortunately, we have a pastor who is willing to listen and do what he can with the limited resources of our small church. With just a bit of intentionality, every church can make itself a welcoming space for an entire family with unique needs.
[i] Boyle, et. al (2011). Trends in the Prevalence of Developmental Disabilities in U.S Children. Pediatrics. June 2011, 127 (6) 1034-1042.