What the Church Needs to Know about Families with Special Needs

You see them. You know they’re there. You might even provide a great Special Needs ministry for their child or young adult. But have you ever focused on what a family who has a kid with special needs might want you to know?

After talking with lots of churches who serve families who have kids with special needs, and with the families themselves, here are some things we’ve learned and wish you’d know too.

Their kid is awesome

Every kid is unique and special to their parent, but here’s what we miss sometimes: As church leaders, we tend to focus on what we can do for someone with a special need and overlook the unique gifts and talents they bring to a church. 

Churches are discovering that having a special need doesn’t stop a kid or young adult from: 

  • being a rock-star greeter.
  • serving up a latte with a smile in the café. 
  • or handing out weekend service guides.

Missy Farrington, Special Ministries Director at Highlands Church in Phoenix, says her church has special needs kids, teens, and adults serving in all these areas—as well as serving communion in their weekend services alongside another adult. 

Missy says this has changed the culture of their church. Their congregation values every individual as a critical part of serving each other. It reminds everyone we’re all made in the image of God.

Here’s a challenge

Take a moment to see every kid or young adult through their parents’ eyes. Challenge yourself to recognize that alongside every special need is a unique ability to smile, interact, and bring joy to someone else.

Your language matters

As every parent will share, their kid’s special need doesn’t define who they are. When we say, “a special-needs child,” we’re putting the special need first, overshadowing their potential and uniqueness. 

The same goes for a family. They’re not a special-needs family—they’re a family who happens to face special needs. They’re unique and messy just like every other family, tackling challenges unique to them. This difference may seem small to us, but it matters to parents. 

Here’s a challenge

Ask yourself: Where have we unintentionally been insensitive with our language? Does our language reflect the dignity and individuality of every person? Re-examine your titles and phrases to see if you need to adjust.

Families are facing big-time stress

You already know this, but do you know how big it really is? 

A study of parents of kids with autism showed this: “Mothers of adolescents and adults with autism had levels of stress hormones comparable to soldiers in combat.” Let that sink in. 

The stress they face is 24/7, and sometimes severe enough that it causes them to have health issues of their own. Parents of kids and adults with special needs are worried, anxious, and deal with guilt about time pressure, money, the future, and lots more. 

So what can you do? As a church, we know we can connect them to the God who is the source of comfort and hope, and we can also do something very practical: Help them widen their circle. 

Research from Boston University says this: “The most beneficial support and information parents receive is from other parents of children with special needs.”

This is good news. You don’t have to be the expert, but you can be the concierge who connects them to other families with valuable information and support. 

Here’s our final challenge

Think about gatherings, Sunday classes, or small groups where you can give parents a break as well as help them connect with another parent who gets it. Be sure and provide something for their kid or adult during this time so they can relax and take a breath. 

Looking for some resources to help partner with parents?

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