From the start, let me clarify that I am not an expert on special needs. I have had a few graduate level classes on teaching children with special needs though, and have done quite a bit of volunteer work over the years with children in a variety of settings.
I have had a heart for children with special needs ever since I was a child. One of the things about the Church that breaks my heart is most congregations not only have not done a great job at finding a place for people with special needs, they have done almost nothing to discover and use the gifts they have.
Yes, I truly believe God has given everyone in the Church at least one gift to help the Body and to help spread the Gospel. The problem is we have enough trouble identifying and using the gifts of “average” people, so most of us haven’t even considered the possibility people with special needs might also have gifts God has given them to help the Church. The idea of using someone with special needs to help in the work of the Church has probably escaped the vast majority of the Christian world.
Sadly, the “real” world is way ahead of Christians in realizing the value of people with special needs. My family will tell you, my favorite bagger at my local Publix has special needs. I don’t really know what they are and frankly I don’t care. He is the BEST bagger at the entire store! I will even switch to a longer line if he is the bagger. He is careful how he bags and is quick and friendly. Yes, he can repeat stories if something has agitated him, but he has won awards from the company for consistently getting praise from customers. Publix doesn’t care about his special needs. They found his gifts and are using them to improve their customer service.
A friend of mine years ago was teaching some of the most severely disabled children in the city of New York. Most had unbelievably low IQ’s and multiple physical disabilities as well. Yet, she was able to find paid work for everyone of those children (actually teens). There was something each one of them could do that added value to a company.
My challenge to the Church is that we find the value in everyone who is in our congregation. Maybe a special need allows the person to focus on one task. Perhaps he can put the communion cups in the trays or place cards in the pews. Maybe she is particularly loving and friendly. Have her be a greeter at the front door. I have a friend whose child has the most severe form of CP possible. He is non-verbal and can’t control his movements. Yet he has spent his entire life teaching children how to comfortably interact with people who have special needs. He and his mother have modeled to dozens of mothers and children how to truly serve with love for many years now.
If your child has special needs, take another look at him or her. This time, try not to look at what he or she can’t do, but rather what they can do. What skills does she have? What does he like to do? Just like you would with any child, let your child experiment. Don’t eliminate things until your child has actually tried them. Your child might just surprise both of you with a talent you would have never considered. Be creative, too. The internet is a wonderful resource for showing how parents and teachers have adapted things to make it easier for someone with special needs to also do them. Take advantage of all of your resources. (I have a special needs board on Pinterest with lots of helpful links. You can follow my special needs board by searching for Thereasa Winnett on Pinterest and then selecting the board.)
Once you have discovered your child’s gifts, I am afraid that most likely, you will once again have to be an advocate for your child. Hopefully, most Christians will be open to allowing your child to share his gifts with the Church. Be prepared for questions and concerns, but don’t give up. Find teachers or other members who will help you advocate for your child. I believe more people will benefit from the service of your child than we can ever imagine and in ways only God understands.
If you would like more help or suggestions, please feel free to comment below or email me privately. I am really passionate about making our congregations more inclusive and will do what I can to help you. If you are a parent who has successfully, found your child’s gifts and seen them used in the Church, please share your experiences. I know others can benefit from your successes. Finally, if someone in your congregation has special needs, help them find their place in the Church. Share this article with them and help them discover the gifts God gave them to serve Him. I believe you may just find it one of the most spiritual experiences of your life.