Today was a day of many firsts. I networked with my children's pastors from church to talk about ways to integrate special needs families within the church. How do we make families feel more comfortable? How do we share our resources? I was pleasantly surprised to hear that our church has access to sensory toys and has accommodated several children with special needs. I think this is a great thing. All we want is to feel 'normal' and fit in with everyone else. However, I think there is a negative connotation when it comes to the term special needs. Why is that?
Well, I think it's because we don't really know how to define special needs. If a child has a behavioral disorder - is he or she considered special needs? Or is that term only coined for those who have physical disorders that we can see? I mentioned on my web page that I didn't even know I had a child who was considered special needs until I was talking on the phone with a friend. I remember what happened after that phone call - clear as day. I thought, huh, why did she say that?
I took my question to one of our pediatric doctors and asked him what he thought. Does my child have special needs and I just didn't know it? His response to me was something that helped me process and make my own decision. He said, "I think any child who has special circumstances or needs some sort of additional help to allow them to succeed or function in certain settings/environments would be someone who we would consider to have special needs. Literally, what it says...this child has special needs in order to learn and behave the way he or she is supposed to."
Okay, that helps. It sucks. But it helps. It's helped me be more patient. It's helped me see things more clearly. And I think it's helped me be a better mom. When I know better, I do better. So back to my original question, how do we integrate special needs families within the church? Here's what I think based on my own experiences:
1. If you're looking for a church, get online and listen to a few different sermons. Is the pastor engaging? Is he saying something in a way that gets you excited about the Bible?
2. Once you've picked a church you want to visit, drop your children off in their rooms. When service is over and you've picked them up, check in with your children about how it went. There's no need to point out what this person has or that person has unless you feel like your child would benefit from their teacher having that specific information. I will say this, I don't walk into a room and announce that my son has XY and Z. But I do keep my eyes and ears open. What I mean by this is, if a teacher says something to me about something that may have happened, that's my opening to say, okay, yes, I'd like to talk with you for a few minutes about this. And then go on with whatever it is that you want to say about what would help your child in the future. This is a great opportunity for open dialogue between you and the children's pastor.
3. In my experience, most families don't want to talk about their child who has special needs. Often times, it was hard enough for them to just show up, in one piece, to attend church. They live the hard times every day and want church to be a place of rest for them. It's a place to recharge. Unless there is blood, or some sort of emergency, don't bother the parents in service. They need a break. On the flipside, if you have a child in the nursery who won't stop screaming, then by all means, bring it to the parents' attention and ask them what you can do to help. You can't make someone tell you what's going on with their child but you can show concern, empathy and sympathy for a situation that looks like it might need some prayer.
4. Small groups are a tough thing for me. I love the idea of small groups and up until just recently, it wasn't something our family could continue to do based on our situation. I've noticed that churches group people in common themes for small groups (young adults, 50+, singles, etc.) Offer a special needs group if you think there's a need for it, or if you don't want to call that much attention to it, make a group that provides childcare so the parents don't have to worry about watching their children while they're fellowshipping. Some families can fellowship alongside their children. But some families are in the thick of it and are getting diagnosis, medications, you name it...and just need some space from their kids. They need to feel like people again. For us, church was the only time when we could have time alone - away from our kids - and know that they were in the same building being well taken care of. So, I'm sure this is true for many other families. Church might be their only time together, to reconnect.
5. Acceptance. I think this goes without saying but we just want to feel accepted. What does this look like? This is, saying hello to every member of the family. This is smiling. This is encouraging and praying for the family. This is reaching out to the family and inviting them to something. I was just telling a friend today that it's been six years that I've been hearing the same message, "We have elders in the back and the front who are ready to pray for you and with you." And I still haven't had the courage to get up there and say, "Yes, I need prayer for my family." So, I know there is only so much that a church can do to extend their help - especially when the family chooses not to share it. But, keep asking, because one day, that family will say something and it will be life-changing for them.