Family dynamics change dramatically with the birth of each child. Such change takes on a whole new meaning when the new baby has special needs.
At the beginning of the child’s life, the parents often travel through a period of grief similar to that of losing a loved one. This grief is different, though, because there is no closure. Closure is replaced with an acceptance of how different life will be.
Including special needs children in education
When a child with a disability is old enough to go to school, questions arise concerning how and where the child will be educated.
Federal special education law provides guidelines requiring, to the maximum extent possible, the student is to be educated with his or her peers using supplemental aids and services as necessary.
This is called “inclusion,” which means keep the student in the general education classroom whenever possible. Inclusion requires teachers to think outside the box to provide an education in which the child with special needs is a member of the class, not merely a visitor in the classroom.
As a former special education teacher, I was tasked several times to make inclusion work. I remember an incident with the child who started my career in special education. This child had autism and liked to recite the scripts of movies over and over, much to the distraction of his teachers and fellow students.
He was capable of learning content in the general education classroom; so, we developed a strategy to allow him to stay in the general education classroom, while not distracting himself or others from learning.
We bought a vibrating timer and clipped it to his shirt. We also gave him a chart with the question, “Am I making noise?” written across the top. After several days of training he learned to set the timer for two minutes, and when the timer buzzed, he marked “Yes” or “No” on his data collection page, then reset the timer for another two minutes.
This strategy was used across three different classes for 30 minutes each time. The results were phenomenal. The vocal scripting reduced so significantly that he was able to remain in the classroom. He learned new material, and his classmates were able to learn as well. This was a major win for all involved and continues to be a story I tell my students today.
Let creativity have a chance before removing a child from a classroom. Sometimes, the simplest solution is the best solution.
Including special needs families in the church
There are laws that govern how and where to educate children with special needs, but those laws don’t apply to the church. Instead, we draw on Scripture to guide us in how to teach all children about Jesus, including those who learn differently.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all describe an account in which Jesus rebuked the disciples and asked for children to be brought to him. At a time and place in which it may have been perceived inappropriate for children to be taking precious time away from teaching, Jesus showed his love for them.
This is the model for inclusion of children with disabilities in the church. Use all the time we have available to teach them about Jesus using whatever means necessary.
Many churches have found ways to include children and adults with special needs creatively in worship.
Molly Kate, age 7, is a child with significant physical challenges that to some may seem insurmountable but to Molly Kate and her family are just part of who God made her to be. She is nonverbal but has learned to use a communication device to memorize Scripture. This is very helpful in Junior Disciples, where she works with a buddy to recite her memory verses.
Molly Kate has the option to attend a Sunday school class specifically for students with disabilities, but her church provides a way for her to attend Sunday school with children her own age using a buddy system.
Molly Kate also serves beside her family as a greeter and has been on several youth mission trips in which her parents were chaperones. Prior to a youth mission trip, the leaders scouted the location to be sure it was accessible to Molly Kate in her wheelchair. “Physical accessibility in churches equals welcome,” her mom said.
Logan is 25 years old and has autism. Often, people with autism thrive on structure and routine. When the routine is disrupted, the person with autism may lack the skills to manage the change. This was the case with Logan.
His family typically sat in the same row at church, and from time to time, someone else would sit in their row. This was hard for Logan and sometimes resulted in the family having to leave church due to Logan’s increased anxiety, which could result in aggressive behaviors.
The pastor became aware of the issue and solved the problem creatively by reserving the row for the family. This is a simple way to include a family who otherwise might miss worship.
Logan has had tremendous difficulties understanding worship during the coronavirus pandemic. He remembers times when his family had to leave church and does not understand why he cannot go. He thinks he has “made bad choices” and is grieving this time away.
In an attempt to show Logan that not being at church is not due to his behavior, his mom asked the church body to send pictures of their families worshiping at home. The church body from all parts of the country responded with pictures, videos and words to help him understand we all are worshiping at home.
Seeing God’s work
In John 9, when Jesus healed the blind man, the disciples asked who had sinned, thus causing the blindness.
Jesus answered that no one had sinned, but, “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me” (John 9:3-4).
Molly Kate and Logan are but two examples of those who display the work of God. It still is daylight. We must continue to do the work of God in all people, including those with special needs.
Kris Ward is an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. The views expressed are those solely of the author.