Put Out the Welcome Mat for Those with Special Needs

happy boy in wheelchair in class for kids with special needs

One Sunday morning in 2002, Laura DiFatta arrived at her church nursery’s check-in desk with her visiting niece in her arms. Seeing a child with special needs, the nursery greeter explained that the church was unable to care for the little girl. DiFatta’s niece had been diagnosed with Rett syndrome as an infant. Because of the physical and cognitive effects of the disease, providing care for such a child can be intimidating to an unfamiliar caregiver.

While a big-hearted volunteer emerged to care for the child that particular Sunday, the experience inspired DiFatta to start a special needs ministry in her church. Thanks to DiFatta’s passion and perseverance, Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, launched its Hearts & Hands ministry in January 2003. Hearts & Hands accepts, accommodates, and advances the spiritual development of children with special needs throughout church programming.

The story of DiFatta and Dawson Memorial Baptist is common, both in the initial dilemma of receiving a child with special needs and the emergence of an eventual ministry to “the least of these.” Congregations working to develop a special needs-friendly culture share the following pointers:

Begin with What You Have

Find a family in the church who has a child with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, or another special needs diagnosis. Ask the parents for guidance on how the church can engage and help their child. Keep in mind that including the child with special needs and ministering to the family may require networking across several church ministries, staff members, and congregation members.

Do not wait to begin the ministry until the facilities and anticipated resources are available. Just start!

Plug In the Professional

Approach special needs professionals in the church or the community. Invite their input to shape the program, on behavioral techniques and teaching strategies, or even to train caregivers. Special education teachers, pediatric therapists, and a whole host of educators and medical providers are all excellent resources. Following a professional’s suggestions for simple adjustments to typical programming may make the Sunday School hour or Vacation Bible School setting successful for everyone involved.

Train Helpers

Many church members are willing volunteers once they are empowered with confidence and training. The buddy system is a good starting point, whereas a volunteer is placed on a weekly rotation and accompanies the same child across program environments once a month. The assigned assistant may help the child with special needs during the larger, typical group settings or inside the special needs self-contained classroom.

And oftentimes a one-on-one ratio is not required. Children’s ministers who help typical setting volunteers to engage all types of learners create an educational atmosphere that more naturally engages children with special needs. When teachers are equipped with stimulating activities suited for varying levels of ability, visual and sensory aids for the Bible stories, and effective behavior-management techniques, everyone benefits!

Amy Fenton Lee enjoys equipping churches for special needs children’s ministry.


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