The term special needs covers a wide variety of potential issues a child might have that separates him or her from the norm. Technically, those differences can be above or below the norm in a number of areas. Some children are born with special needs, while others develop them after an illness or accident. A child can have special needs that impact him or her in movement, sight, hearing, cognition, behavior or a combination of these.
What we rarely discuss in Christianity is the impact a child’s special needs might have on his or her faith journey. Every child is different, but these are some things to consider as you help your child with special needs build a strong faith foundation and grow to his or her godly potential.
- Most young people with special needs will eventually reach the age of accountability. Assuming the average twelve year old is about the age of accountability, estimates are that as many as 80% of people with special needs will eventually be able to reach the age of accountability. They will be able to make an informed decision about being baptized for the forgiveness of their sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Assuming your child will reach that milestone will help you make better choices to help him or her grow spiritually.
- Spiritual growth milestones may be reached later, sometimes years later than for the average young person. Some young people with severe cognitive impairment may not reach the age of accountability until they are in their 20’s or even 30’s. Others may struggle with maintaining spiritual disciplines or exhibiting Christian character traits like self control until they are older than average. That’s okay. Your child – every child – has a unique timetable and your goal is to help your child reach those spiritual goals at the correct time for him or her. Just don’t underestimate your child’s potential.
- No matter how severe your child’s special needs may be, he or she has been given potential and at least one gift from God to use to serve Him. Over the years, I have heard so many stories of people who were non-verbal and wheelchair bound who still impacted people’s lives and ministries in amazing ways….often because of their personalities that shown through. You may have to be creative to help your child find and use those gifts to serve God, but it is possible.
- Your child may need special strategies to help him or her obey God and do the things God wants him or her to do. Children born with fetal alcohol syndrome, for example, have erratic memories. They need visual cues to help them remember things on those difficult days. Adding visual cues for spiritual things like scripture reading or prayer can help. In general, the special strategies your child needs to navigate life may also need to be adapted to help him or her navigate the spiritual aspects of life.
- Your child will need your advocacy at church, especially in Bible classes. Unfortunately, many churches do not have people who are trained in how to minister to kids and teens with special needs. Some children with special needs can participate fully in Bible classes and activities. Others will need special strategies or extra help to be able to learn and grow. You may have to guide ministry leaders and Bible class teachers or suggest resources to help them minister to your child in ways that are spiritually productive. Don’t be afraid to intervene if you see your child is being placed in a corner and ignored. Ask that your child be taught using strategies that will help him or her best learn what God wants them to know.
- The way your child worships, serves, and learns about God may look different from other children, but it is just as important and impactful. Depending on your child’s special needs, he or she may never “look” like the average Christian. Maybe your child sees the world a bit differently or interacts with it in a unique way. Those differences can actually make your child’s light shine brighter than that of the average child. That brightness can mean your child may end up having an amazing positive impact on God’s Kingdom…if he or she is given the teaching, opportunities and guidance needed to reach that potential.
- Your child may have questions or doubts that stem in part from their special needs. Children with special needs may wonder why God made them different from others. It is important you help them understand the concept of God’s original perfect plan and how sin brought a lot of issues…including illness and genetic imperfections into the world. They need to understand more than anyone how much God truly loves them…especially when they are lonely, frustrated or discouraged. They need to hear Bible stories of people God used in spite of their frailties. They need to know God can and will use them to serve others and share their faith, just like all of His people. They need to appreciate that their special needs may actually give them special opportunities to minister to others in ways an average person may not be able to do as effectively. They need to understand the reality of Heaven and the hope for the future it can give.
- They will need Christian friends and mentors who can see past their special needs. A mother of a child with special needs said she found there were three basic ways people tended to interact with her son. Either they avoided him entirely, they wanted to interact but were very uncomfortable (although willing to learn), or they treated her son like any other person in their lives. Those, she said, were the people who founded it easiest to be a great friend or mentor to her child. Look for those people. Seek them out. Make them a part of your child’s life. It will take intentionality on your part, but the results can be beautiful and lifelong.
Understanding how your child’s special needs can impact his or her faith is crucial if you want to help him or her build a strong spiritual foundation and grow it his or her godly potential. As with many things in parenting, it will take extra time and effort on your part. The rewards in this case are eternal, however, making it more than worth the extra effort.