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By its very nature, children’s ministry is challenging, but special needs ministry takes the challenge to a whole new level. Any pastor familiar with teaching special needs children understands the importance of developing a unique approach and relationship with each child. It takes a great deal of effort, but it is well worth it when you can effectively connect and minister to a special needs child. One thing that cannot be overstated is the importance of developing a unique approach and relationship with each child. There is no true cookie-cutter way to serve everyone in a special needs ministry. That said, we felt there was still value in summarizing some tips and best practices provided by those who minister to those with special needs. WHAT WORKS
- Buddy System – children with special needs are paired with trained adults to assist them at whatever level is needed. Experienced volunteers trained by child psychologists and educators are a plus. (Example: Joy Zone)
- Childcare Nights (respite care) – childcare for children with special needs and their siblings so the parent(s) can relax. On-site doctors, nurses, and OT/PT’s is a plus. (Example: Revive)
- Community Outreach – go beyond the church walls and minister in the community because some parents will not attend church because they believe their child with special needs will disturb others or cannot be entrusted to others.
- Dual Classrooms – sometimes children with special needs participate in the same class as their age group, and other times the children with special needs are in a quiet room especially designed for them as not to be overwhelming or too stimulating.
- Separate Classroom – children with special needs are separated from the standard children’s classrooms but their parents and siblings are welcomed.
- Pure Ministries (a ministry of Zachariah’s Way) – trains churches how to better minister to people with special needs and their families.
- Labeling their Identity – Do not refer to people by their disability. Say “children with autism” rather than “autistic children” because it can subtly change one’s perception of a child with autism.
- Every Child is Different – Determine how to reach each child. Children with autism often don’t like too much stimulation. But children with other disabilities may thrive on it.
- Give Expectations – Many children with special needs behave better when they know what is expected of them.
- Be Visual – Inanimate objects need to be included in lessons. Things like puppets, pictures, and videos take the focus off the teacher and engages the child without intimidating him.
- Use Music – Children with autism (and many other special needs) love music.
- More than Chairs – Children with autism do not like to sit for long periods of time.
- Keep It Small – Children with autism like small environments
- Don’t gossip.
- Love the child.
INTERACTING WITH PARENTS
- Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” – You can empathize with them, but you cannot experience this process in their place nor truly know how they feel.
- Ask & Research – Do not tell the parent what you think. Ask the parents about the child then do some research.
- Include – Make an concerted effort to include their loved one with special needs in your social gatherings or outings whenever appropriate.
- Offer respite – Even a break for an hour can be a great help.
- Avoid offering unsolicited advice – Even well intentioned advice can communicate they are inferior parents.
- Say and show you care – Parents appreciate it when you genuinely communicate that you care and ask for ways you can be of help…even if they don’t take you up on it.
- Don’t assume – Just because a parent has a high-functioning child with special needs, this does not mean they have smaller challenges than those with low-functioning children.
WHY IT MATTERS (stories from parents)
- I have a stepson who is autistic, and I tried to take him to church, I really miss going to church. My problem is I spent more time in the child’s room than I spent at church because the people who teach there are simply not educated in the needs of an autistic student. I have been looking into getting a tss or a pca to come and help during church but to no avail. It would be wonderful if more people truly understood instead of staring and whispering. (Stacy)
- I have a 20 year old son with Asperger Syndrome who loves the Lord deeply. Sadly the church environment has been the one place he has never been welcomed or encouraged to return. The secular world has been far kinder to him. Though he desperately wants friends and fellowship, the lack of encouragement within the church body has caused him to retreat further into his own world. He now refuses to try again. (Rhiannon)
- I have been very grateful for a Special Needs Sunday School class that was started. I feel comfortable with leaving him there and I am at least getting to hear a sermon once a week! (Sheryl)
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES Church Specific Special Needs Resources
- Autism and Your Church [book] by Barbara J. Newman
- Helping Kids Include Kids With Disabilities [book] by Barbara J. Newman
General Teaching and Awareness Resources
Autism & Asperger Syndrome
- Autism Speaks: a top resource for professionals and families. TONS of information, and fairly well organized.
- OASIS@MAAP offers a number of great articles and resources
- I Am Norm offers resources and videos to help others better understand those with special needs
For Discussion: – What advice do you have for ministering to children with special needs? Are there any other online resources you would like to recommend? Keep the insights coming!