Are You Ready for Kids With Special Needs?

And I thought I had experienced disruptive kids!

Carol Race can’t take her son to church. One Sunday she tried… and the Sheriff was waiting at the end of her driveway. The church had filed a restraining order. But according to this twin cities Star Tribune article, Carol’s son isn’t your average 13-year-old.

The Rev. Daniel Walz, who did not return calls left at the Church of St. Joseph parish office, wrote in court documents that Adam’s behavior was “extremely disruptive and dangerous.” He alleged that Adam, who is more than 6 feet tall and weighs over 225 pounds, spits and urinates in church and has nearly injured children and elderly people.

Wow. This wouldn’t be an easy situation for anyone. Carol’s son is autistic. Shouldn’t he be able to attend church? At the same time, are there boundaries of what behavior is tolerable?

How do we minister to special needs kids?

My wife volunteered in a Sunday school class where we had several autistic children that attended. Some were pleasant experiences, some were very difficult. If we as the church are unprepared for such a situation, the results can be very unpleasant for everyone. But with a little compassion and some pro-active planning, ministering to special needs kids can be one other aspect of our ministry where we can represent Christ not only in word, but in deed.

Being pro-active to minister to special needs kids always includes two elements:

1. Being prepared to offer one-on-one attention to special needs kids

2. Good communication with the parents

The best help in these situations is always providing “one-on-one” attention to these children. The church I attended realized that many of these special needs kids needed special attention. So the church assigned a single volunteer to these individual kids (yes, it should be no surprise that much of our job as youth or children’s workers is recruiting and managing volunteers). If the kid became too disruptive, then the volunteer could take the child on a walk or in another room. I attended one large church where they had a special room for special needs kids. This was a room set up with special toys and games reserved exclusively for these kids.

An open channel of communication with the parents is also always key. Parents of special needs kids should be assured primarily that we want to serve them and love them and their children. Then ask them for any advice about their child. Be a good listener. As you listen to their needs, explain to them what you can hope to provide with one-on-one attention and any special rooms or services. Then be sure to get a cell phone number or point of connection so you can call them for help if the situation gets out of hand. It’s not unfair to set boundaries.

My sister in law Amy is a speech therapist and works with numerous special needs kids, including autistic children. I emailed her about a special situation with a kid that was very disruptive in a youth group. Her response was very helpful:

To me, the physical outbursts have to be handled – I would definitely talk with the family and if they were unable to help control these, I may have to restrict the son’s involvement in certain events where he was more unmanageable.  I would also consider having some private chats with the regular ed students – how God has made us all in His image, and see if God has placed these (special needs) kids on any of the student’s hearts to directly minister to and “help out.”  It may help make them less “annoying” in the eyes of the group if the group has an opportunity to voice their frustrations and at the same time hear a bit of God’s perspective on these kids of His. 

I love how Amy not only gave good advice about communication and boundaries… but she talked about an opportunity for our entire youth group to minister.

Jesus came across a lot of people with special needs and always seemed to act in compassion. I think we should try to do the same.

About Jonathan McKee

president of The Source for Youth Ministry, is the author of over twenty books including the brand new If I Had a Parenting Do Over, 52 Ways to Connect with Your Smartphone Obsessed Kid; Sex Matters; The Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket; and youth ministry books like Ministry By Teenagers; Connect; and the 10-Minute Talks series. He has over 20 years youth ministry experience and speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers and parents on his websites, TheSource4YM.com and TheSource4Parents.com. You can follow Jonathan on his blog, getting a regular dose of youth culture and parenting help. Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.
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10 Responses to Are You Ready for Kids With Special Needs?

  1. pastor steve says:

    Jonathon, this is diffinately a HUGE mission field in the church today. We definately need to be more pro-active in this area. One web-site that has helped us is “childrenofdestiny.org” I would love to continue to be part of a team that develops a ministry action plan for this missions field. Thanks for the thoughts in this blog, pastor steve

  2. We have a Down’s Syndrome boy who has attended our church for many years. He is now 15 years old and can be quite a handful at times.
    He went all through our AWANA program — for years he has had a personal handler that stayed with him the entire evening. He still “goes to AWANA” — in that the handler still walks him around and such, but she also brings him down to the Teen Center and he participates in the worship time as the teen praise band plays.
    Over the years we have had autistic kids attend our programs — we ALWAYS keep the parents in the loop, report disturbances, make a plan of action and it seems to have worked.
    It can be frustrating and exhausting at times to keep on top of all this — but in the end it is VERY rewarding because we know that we are ministering to a group that could easily fall through the cracks and go virtually unnoticed.

  3. Scott says:

    I am the youth pastor of a small youth group of about 15-20 students. However, over the past several years, we have had at least 2-3 different special needs students each year, ranging from mild retardation to cerebral palsey and autism. We have had many times of great joy and tears, seeing the beautiful things God does through these students, but also times of frustration.
    Our main strategy has been to try to include them as much as possible, finding ways for them to participate where they can. We have even brought chaperones on trips whose sole responsibility for the day is to be with that one student, so that we can bring them to places like waterparks, or hiking trails. It has been wonderful to see these students getting to have interaction and receiving love from the rest of our students. It has also been good for our other students to learn about loving, “the least of these.” I do think that our students are getting better practice, now, at loving the way that Jesus loved, than they would if we didn’t have our special needs students. Our students genuinely have affection for them and feel like they truly do belong as full memebers of our group.
    However, in the cases of some of these special needs students, I’ve begun to feel that we might be doing them a disservice. They are getting loved and getting normal interaction with their peers, but they are not receiving any specialized spiritual training/ discipleship at their level of understanding. They sit through our teaching times/ experiential learning/ activity times that are designed for the rest of our students. They do not generally cause problems during this time, but they are not really benefitting from it either. At least not as much as they could benefit from teaching designed for them at their level.
    We would love to have a two tiered approach to ministering to these students. Our goal is to help each student love and follow Jesus as best as they are able with their disabilities. In the public education arena, they have teachers who specialize in working with these students, and know how to best help them. It would be great if our church could include special needs students in as much group activity as possible, then have someone who is trained to help the individual student in the best way possible,at their own level of learning. If you’re lucky you might have a specialist in your congregation, but probably this will mean having a volunteer doing a lot of research, including talking and working with the parents and teachers of the students.
    One thing I have been learning is that inclusion, while it may seem like the most loving thing, is not always the most beneficial to the special needs student. Rather than always asking the question, “How can we include them more?” we need to sometimes ask, “What will be best for this student’s growth as a person, and as a follower of Jesus?”

  4. Michelle K says:

    Check out Garr Christain Academy in Charlotte NC and it’s program for special needs kids!

  5. camani says:

    Would like to hear your comments on another “special needs” category: ADD and ADHD in the church. We are struggling hugely to meet the needs of these young people as well.

  6. Chuck says:

    Thanks for the attention to this topic. I have an 11 year old w/ Autistic tendencies. He is going through the “change” and “found himself” and what his body can do. He functions at 1.5 to 2 years of age. I will forward this to our children’s director. His recent behavior has many “unsettled”

  7. This is interesting reading for me as I’m a parent of a child with autism. My son is doing fairly well now but there were years when my husband and I took turns going to church. Autism is isolating for the whole family. My son definitely feels that our church is HIS church now, but it has taken a long time to get to that point.

    Because autism is on the rise, it’s likely that youth leaders and Sunday School teachers and churches will have an opportunity to reach out to families. It is a missions field.

  8. Nina says:

    Thank you for this blog because I am a single mother of two special needs children. My son has ADHD due to TBI (tramatic brain injury) and my daughter has a chromosone disorder called trisomy 9 and sometimes I be worried when I send my children back to their bible study classes because they can’t communicate good with the teachers at the church. I know these are men and women of God, but they are human too and can get fustrated with the children so with this blog I can pass on to the teachers to see if will help them any with my and other special needs children in the future. Thank you again and God bless you:-)

  9. Cory Witmer says:

    First, I just want to thank you for talking about a topic that many youth pastors avoid. I have a brother and a sister who both have Down Syndrome, and another sister who has other special needs. I would like to point out one thing, when you are talking about students whith special needs, please do not call them special needs students. This is a mistake that many people make. They are people first, they just happen to have special needs. My siblings have not yet reached Jr. High so i am interested to see how their church will facilitate for them. I do think that the best thing to do is include them and then provide a “special helper” for them. So many churches push these students off and forget about them, but I have learned so much from my siblings and I think that our youth could as well. Again, great job on bringing up an important issue.

  10. Great string for discussion! At a large church where I youth-pastored in the 90’s we had a good sized group of special needs “kids” that came to the church from a local Christian group home. The truth was that most of them weren’t kids at all, but into their 20’s and older, but had the maturity level of elementary and middle school kids. Every week in one of our children’s church services the back two rows would be filled up with this group, and boy, did they love it! There was usually one or two from the group home who came and sat with them and watched over them, which always helped… but our teens “regular ed” teens grew to love and accept them as a part of the group.

    One of these students I will never forget… his name was Joey. Every week in youth group (I was the middle school pastor) when it came time for the altar call, there would be that inevitable pause with no hands up… and then there would be Joey raising his hand. Now the other kids didn’t know that… they had their heads down and eyes closed. What they heard was me saying, “OK, I see that hand” — and this ALWAYS prompted the kids who were at first hesitant to respond. Joey was the water that primed the pump, if you will. I KNOW that there is a special reward waiting him in heaven… and I KNOW how genuinely he himself responded to that altar each and every week.