Lauren Casper »

Special Needs Families and Church: Tips for Making it Work

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A couple weeks ago we got to church a little early (highly unusual for us) and when we walked into the lobby we could hear the worship team practicing in the sanctuary. Mareto immediately halted and backed up into my legs… “It’s too loud my ears!” he protested as he covered them with his hands and tried to head back through the front door. I grabbed his hand and reassured him that he didn’t have to go in the loud room whilewe walked as fast as we could back to the Sunday School area and away from the sound of singing and guitars. He had a great morning in his new class with a teacher who is willing to make accommodations where necessary and simply wants to make Sundays a good experience for our son.

When Sunday School ends, his teacher walks him to the room next door and he goes into the toddler nursery where he is reunited with his sister and can spend the next hour or so playing with the toys and enjoying himself. Meanwhile, I get to sit in the adult Sunday School class and then go into the main service and actually worship and listen to the sermon regularly for the first time in… years. But if this new church we’ve been attending wasn’t so open to loving and serving our family in a way that meets our needs I would be sitting at home on Sunday morning or searching the internet for yet another church to try.

As with most churches, four years old is the cut off point for the nursery. Most of the four year olds go from Sunday School into the main service with their parents where they either stay the entire time, or stay through the announcements, liturgy, worship, and prayers… right up until the sermon when they are dismissed for Children’s Church. But our son simply can’t do that yet. The music hurts his ears and would be a trigger for a huge meltdown, the big room full of strange people overwhelms him, and he can’t sit still for that length of time. So he spends that hour in the nursery because the church we’re attending has been gracious and loving and willing to put our family’s well being over a set of “rules.” This has made a huge difference for our family and for my heart + spiritual growth.

Not all families are so lucky, and I know many who have struggled to find a church that is willing to accommodate their unique family. There have been many posts and articles written to churches and staff members encouraging and educating them on how to best serve all the people who walk through their doors and I will share some links to those at the end of this post. But the question posed to me on Facebook is asking what we should do, as parents, when we are met with a church that is unwilling to serve our family.

“We stopped going to church because I just couldn’t handle all the comments about how our ASD son was acting during the service. He is a 9 year old sensory seeker and is quiet, but moves about a lot. Most of the church members are elderly and consider his behavior disrespectful and inappropriate. We have been contemplating attending another church in our area but I’m afraid we won’t feel welcomed there either. Do you have any tips or suggestions for getting through a service when there is no place for children to go?”

My heart breaks for this family who has given up on church because it is just too hard and isn’t working. I get it and I’ve been there. I’ve spent more Sunday mornings than I can count standing in the foyer wondering why I even bothered to leave the house in the first place. Then I spent many Sunday mornings at home because the effort to get out the door, only to stand in the foyer was just too much. Finally we made the tough choice to look for a new church who could serve our family in this season where we find ourselves a bit more in need. It was scary and intimidating, but I’m so glad we took that step.

The first thing I did was get on the internet and search all the churches in our area. I made a list of the churches that lined up with our beliefs and then I emailed the pastor’s of a few of them. I explained our situation and introduced our family, then asked if we could come by during the week to talk and tour the building. One church was so gracious and kind that we went there first and then stayed! We met with the pastor who was compassionate and understanding. We let the kids run through the building and explore the Sunday School classrooms while it was quiet and empty so they would be more comfortable on Sunday morning when it was filled with people. We got the phone numbers of the children’s ministry director and the Sunday School teachers to follow up with later in the week. And we left feeling very cared for.

It’s important to remember is that it’s not necessary to find a church that already has a full fledged “special needs” ministry in motion. What is important is to find a church willing to work with your family – a church willing to communicate with you and try new things to help your family be able to be a part of church on Sunday mornings and beyond. Perhaps you are the first family who has walked through their doors with a child on the autism spectrum. Give them a chance to learn and serve you!

The second thing to know is that you need to have some sort of idea of what will work best for your family and you need to communicate that to the church staff. If you have no idea what would be helpful for your child and your family then it is unrealistic to expect the staff to know what to do. Have a meeting and come with a handful of ideas to try out. See what works and what doesn’t and then go from there. We started our son in the same Sunday School class with his sister so that the transition would be easier for him. After several weeks we felt he was ready to move to his own class and it was actually a better fit for everyone involved. The teachers were flexible and kind as we figured this all out.

If you’re child is much older (as in, way too big for nursery) then maybe you could enlist a couple helpers. You could sit near the back or near an exit and if the service becomes too much your helper could take your child for a short walk before coming back in to try again. Of course, you could do this same thing yourself but you’ll likely miss a lot of the services. Having rotating helpers will ensure that you get to sit through an entire service at least a couple times a month.

One last thing … not everyone will get it. You might find a church that meets all your needs and accommodates your family well and 99% of that church loves your family to pieces, but there still might be that 1% that doesn’t understand and gives you judgmental glances. Those sting, and I won’t downplay that fact. But the truth is that they are missing out on the blessing of loving your family. Focus on why you’re there and the 99% who are thrilled you made it that morning.

It’s tough to put yourself out there, be vulnerable, and tell someone you’ve just met, “we need extra help.” I understand, but I also think the benefits are worth it. It’s frustrating at times that church can become another thing added to the list of things that special needs families have to fight so hard for. It should be the one place where we can put our guards down, stop fighting for a little while, and just find rest for our souls. So often it isn’t… however, like everything else, if we keep trying and keep fighting eventually we will find a place that accepts us, people that understand, and a system that works.

Here are some great posts geared more toward church leaders to help them see the need to include special needs children in church activities, and give tips on how to do that:

7 Ways Churches Fail Special Needs Kids

The Church is Forgetting Us

Don’t Tell Me Your Church’s Theology is Sound if My Family isn’t Welcome

Four Challenges of Leading Disability Ministry as a Special Needs Parent

The Inclusive Church

Joni and Friends

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