Are teenagers with special needs welcome in your church’s youth programme, or is it just another place they feel excluded?
My friend Mary*, a mom of two teenage boys on the Autism Spectrum, recently told me, “Our church experience has been pretty disappointing in terms of children’s and youth pastors reaching out to our family to include our children. Even when our kids were in a children’s program, they were pushed out for not being ‘cool enough’ to attend. That was heart-breaking.”
Studies show that there is an increase in childhood mental health and neuro-developmental conditions. This is largely due to the escalating rise in Autism. No doubt there are young people with these and other conditions in our churches. We need to ensure that we love and minister to the often-marginalised teenagers with physical, neurological or intellectual disabilities.
Youth worker Liz Simmonds says, “For students with disabilities, and their parents, the biggest thing we can do is let them know we’re on their team.” Here are six ideas to make your church more inclusive for special needs teenagers.
Inclusion requires commitment
Start by asking yourself if you are willing to do the work necessary to reach these teens and meet their needs. Inclusion of youth with special needs requires commitment from the church and youth pastors. Leaders must face their own biases and fears, gain awareness and understanding, and often go beyond the job description. Consider questions such as:
- Are we open to inviting a child with additional needs into our youth program?
- What steps will we take to help them be a successful and growing participant in that program?
Some churches have prioritised inclusion to the point of investing leadership and financial resources into a dedicated special needs ministry.
Build a relationship with the parents
Engagement with parents is an important first step to assess the teen’s needs. Parents can impart understanding and guidance on dealing with their child’s specific requirements.
Engagement also sends parents a message that the church is working to make youth a safe space for their children. Mary says, “The majority of parents with special needs children are anxious about whether their children will be accepted and accommodated in their church. When they hear that their child will be loved, accepted and valued as they are in their church family, this is a tremendous assurance. Even a small accommodation sends a powerful message of love and acceptance to a family.”
Continue to communicate and partner with parents on an ongoing basis, working together to integrate their son or daughter into the youth programme.
Work out an individual plan for each teenager
Every student with special needs is unique. A strategy that works with one person may not work with another, even if they have the same diagnosis. Expect some trial and error, and persevere! It will take time for the teenager, as well as the other youth, to adjust. Importantly, keep sending a message of love and acceptance that will give the teenager a sense of belonging.
Involve peers in building relationships
Prepare the young people to be more inclusive. Angela Parsley writes, “Teach your kids the importance of an open circle in youth group. There is time for more intimate friendships at different occasions. Teach them the only thing acceptable is to be friendly to all. Especially those who are different than them. People left to themselves will gravitate to their own kind. But this is not the way of Jesus.”
Several successful programmes have also implemented a ‘buddy system,’ training and pairing high-schoolers with special needs teens.
Involve adults in building relationships
A while ago I came across the Fuller Youth Institute’s “Sticky Faith” principle that equips churches to build a web of relationships around their young people. I instantly saw the value of these inter-generational relationships. My own daughter (a university student) is on the high-functioning end of the Autism Spectrum. Social engagement is a challenge for her. She has not been involved in youth or church programmes since Sunday School. Although she attends church with us, I worry that she doesn’t have a single significant relationship (i.e. no sticky web) to keep her there.
Special needs youth are often more isolated than typically developed youth. Try to identify and ‘grow’ adults who can influence and work alongside special needs teenagers. This can happen in surprising places. One adult volunteer I came across works on his church’s technology desk. He took several students (including some with disabilities) under his wing. From this an informal discipleship group grew.
Seek guidance from knowledgeable people
Approach knowledgeable people in your congregation or community for guidance on inclusion. Good sources include:
- Speech and language therapists
- Occupational therapists
- Special education teachers
- Social workers
In conclusion, it appears that many of our churches are failing to impart a sense of welcome or belonging to teenagers with disabilities.
Amy Fenton Lee writes, “Just like you and me, people with disability are hardwired to have a relationship with our Creator. They too yearn for God’s grace and love. Many of these same individuals will wrestle, some profoundly, with God’s purpose for their life.”
If we ignore or dismiss the special needs teenagers seeking God and Christian fellowship in our churches, our youth ministries are falling short. Let’s ensure that we accept, love and serve every teenager as the person God created them to be.
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*Not her real name