My husband and I are blessed to be a part of a church plant in Texas. We came from a church with many missions-minded ministries, one of which included the special needs ministry that my son was able to be involved in.
My youngest of three children, Jacob, has severe autism. He is almost eight and has minimal speech, elopes from safety, and cannot attend a Bible Study for 20 minutes. Having a buddy system to help him behaviorally and to keep him safe as well as having curriculum adjusted to his needs was an enormous help to us.
So, when we stepped out in faith to follow a preacher that we didn’t know to a church plant that didn’t have a special needs ministry yet or enough volunteers for it, I was a little nervous for Jacob. Nevertheless, we felt like the Lord wanted us to go, so we followed with eager anticipation to see the gospel spread through our new pastor and church.
Finding encouragement in a small group
Encourage your children to engage with children with special needs.
Being a special needs parent can be pretty isolating at times. We can’t go to people's homes and attend events often because of how much anxiety it causes my son. Even standing in the lobby visiting with people can be hard when my son is trying to dart away. So, when it came time for our church to start hosting Bible studies in homes, we were surprised that our pastor urged us to host one.
This has been an incredible source of encouragement for us. People come to our home every week to worship God and fellowship despite my son’s frequent interruptions of song and humming. They laugh if he runs through the room full speed or when he takes a swig of their water or climbs in someone’s lap that he barely knows. They don’t mind the sounds of every object in the house spinning in the background. They even understand that we have to deadbolt them in our house with a key to prevent him from wandering outside.
It’s life-giving when our friends come into our home, remain joyful and present despite seeing our wild and unusual life. We feel connected in a deep and meaningful way. Being a part of a small group that prays for each other—in moments profound sadness and triumphant joy—has grown our faith tremendously.
How your church can serve a special needs family
With one in 59 children diagnosed, you most likely know someone affected by autism. I urge you to reach out to them. If you’re inspired to find ways to encourage families with special needs, here are some helpful tips that I have experienced at my church:
- Encourage them to join a small group or Bible study, and share their hardships and victories.
- If their children cannot be in the Worship Center, create a buddy system where people take turns caring for their child, so they can be free to worship. Remember to share the gospel clearly with their children. People sometimes assume non-verbal individuals can’t comprehend the gospel because they can’t respond verbally, but oftentimes they do understand speech.
- Show excitement rather than dismay when their children arrive at church, especially if their children are engaging in behavior that seems odd or different.
- Look at their children in the eyes and say, “Hello.” You may be surprised at how many people turn away instead of looking at individuals with special needs.
- Encourage your children to engage with children with special needs. I promise it will bless and grow them.
- Go to them if you see them isolating themselves. I find myself sitting alone with Jacob when he is having a hard day because I don’t want to disturb people.
- Ask them how you can pray for them, and then pray.
I hope that as the number of individuals diagnosed with autism rises, so does the desire of the church to step in alongside these families and show support and love. Though living day in and day out as a caregiver to a child with special needs can feel hopeless or scary at times, having close relationships with believers can point our families back to the true hope that can only be found in Christ.
What I’ve seen time and time again in my family’s life is that God is faithful. He has provided encouragement for us in a way that we weren’t expecting, and we are so thankful for his provision. I pray you find this type of encouragement in your local church—people who love the Lord with all their heart and, as a result, love and accept your family, no matter how different.