Wow! This one is a question that I get quite often. The sad ( and happy in some ways) truth is that our family does not do church like we did before we had the twins. Do you have special needs kids? Do you have kids whose unique behaviors and abilities make it difficult for the family to get to church? We do too. And I’ll tell about our dynamic experience. Dynamic, because it is constantly changing as the family grows. Follow along as I share about our “Going to Church with Special Needs Kids” experience.
A Little Personal Church History
I will share this from the heart for just a few moments. My husband and I are both from extremely conservative backgrounds. We went to a conservative, evangelical college. My husband is an ordained, master’s prepared and seminary educated minister and was on staff as a pastor at several churches over many years. We have many happy memories, and almost everyone in those churches are wonderful people. We have a firm belief system that has not altered.
The churches that we were a part of were for the most part a standard drop your child off for Sunday school early on Sunday morning, then stay for the worship service, then go home for while.. Since we were on staff, Sunday evening service was a requirement. Wednesday night was the most likely night for kid’s clubs, AWANAS, children’s choir, and youth group, often keeping us out late on school nights.
We did our duty, enjoyed the experience, most definitely learned some wonderful doctrine and spiritual helps, and formed some wonderful relationships with many other member that we still have today. We have many fantastic memories and have no regrets. But all of this started to change somewhat when Kasey was in preschool and we noticed that he was different from most of the other kids.
Our First Experience with Church as a Special Needs Parent.
Kasey was a challenge to handle in traditional church classes. I do remember a very specific time when a special team of traveling musicians led by a head evangelist came to our church. There was a huge push for the children to go to the children’s program that was very fancy, and very well done! For most kids ( including my own typical kids) it is the highlight of a super fun week where nightly services were held.
One special part of the service was the giving away of cute balloon animals to children who were enthusiastically following along. It was a supreme honor to be chosen to receive a fancy balloon animal. Until Kasey arrived in the class ( I think he was 4 or 5) and had a HUGE MONSTER size meltdown because he did not receive a balloon. He was also rather lost in a large group that size, until he started screaming at the top of his lungs. Thankfully, his siblings were also in the class. They very quickly informed the group leader of what was happening and got Kasey out of there Pronto! The traveling musicians, who were mostly college age, were super nice, but definitely out of their element. That was the first moment that I knew that church was probably never going to be the same again.
A Little Later
Fast forward just a bit. My husband was pastoring a tiny little church in our current hometown. It was another wonderful experience, for the most part. The families in our church were very loving, and Kasey grew and thrived. The church was so small that it was a bit easier to control the environment to keep Kasey interactive without putting too much pressure on him or us. Life was simple and we were good with that. Then the introduction of the twins……..
The Twins Enter the Picture
Whew! The twins arriving on the scene threw a GIGANTIC curve ball into working in the church. They pretty much struggled from the day they were born. The financial burden of taking care of them became too much very quickly as church staff salaries are not known to be abundantly able to handle that type of expense load. Eventually we resigned our position and moved on……..
Going to church with special needs kids is tough no matter what the special need is. It is also difficult on the church, who is mainly staffed with volunteers, to know how to handle children who don’t sit still very well, scare easily, and bolt out of the classroom, or like mine, can’t communicate well.
The churches that I grew up in required children to sit up straight, hands in lap, stay quiet, and not move or make a sound. Not to mention that everyone brought a revered paper copy of the Bible that they would hold, open as directed, and follow along. Well that was definitely NOT going to work!!!! Kam and Kris never sit still, straight, or quiet! If you gave them a Bible, they would throw it, tear it, or maybe even eat it! So no, the traditional ” church” that we had done our whole lives no longer was attainable for us if we wanted our family to go to church together. What were we going to do???? What would you do?
The Statistics for Church Attendance of Autism
In preparing to write this post, I looked through the internet to see if what I felt as a parent was as common across the population. An online article published by Lifeway Research in 2018 states that very few churches across our country are autism friendly. In the article, it states that children who are on the autism spectrum are twice as likely to never even darken the door of a church service. Reasons cited in the article includes the exhaustive amount of energy required to even get out the house to get to church and the point made that churchgoers often have high standards of behavior for church kids which cause a level of shame that most parents of autistic kids find unbearable. You can read the article for yourself here: https://research.lifeway.com/2018/07/30/few-churches-are-autism-friendly/.
A second article was published in 2019 by a group called Church Leaders. This article points out that people with disabilities are the most underserved and unreached people in our entire community. Again stated in the article as in the previous one, parents of special needs kids reported that the exhaustive amount of effort required to get the family to church was a major barrier to attending. There are also several suggestions given in this article to help church leaders brain storm about how to adapt church to be able to offer help and reach out to these families. It’s a great article, and you can read it here: https://churchleaders.com/children/childrens-ministry-articles/333339-special-needs-the-unreached-people-group-that-we-overlook.html
Our Experience and How we Chose a Church.
The truth is we had to visit and try out several churches before we found one that would even work. To be fair, we tried out lots of different experiences, and several different denominations, from traditional to ultra modern. We knew what we believed. While we knew that most likely we would not find a church that was from our previous traditional background, we did try to find a church that most aligned with our belief system. There are a few values we hold dear that we were not willing to compromise on. So it took many months of trial and error, soul searching etc.
The Journey to Finding a Church for Us
During our search, I was attending a ladies Bible study at a church not far from my house. They had a nursery!!!!! It was the first time in a while that I was able to go into a community group and someone else had provided a way for me to take a break, rest, and fill up my own spiritual tank. The ladies running the childcare nursery bonded with my twins and learned how to take care of them on those Thursday mornings.
Eventually the preschool director from the church asked me if we would consider visiting one of the Sunday services with our family since it was so hard for us to find a good fit for our family to go to church together. This church is very, very different from what we are accustomed to, but the doctrine was fairly close to ours ( at least on the most important parts). And they loved our kids.
We did visit around even after this; however , this church is the best fit for us for this current season in our life. They did not have a specially designed children’s program for special needs kids as some churches have, but they were willing to staff extra helpers to sit with my kids and teach my kids.
There was even a teacher at the church who happened to be on staff at my twin’s special needs preschool. She came in to the class whenever the teachers needed her and trained the workers on how autistic kids see the world. She helped adapt the teachers and the rooms to make things work for my kids. Timers and seat markers visually help my kids know where they are supposed to go, and so on. They were even helpful with the diaper situation since my twins did not toilet train until they were 6 and 8.
I really feel that our family helped the church members as much as the church helped us. One day we were sitting as a family in church for the beginning songs. We sit near the front, and our church worship leader was really trying to get the crowd to worship. Kris was so enamored with him that he started clapping and cheering very loudly. The worship leader softened his face in total satisfaction that Kris was understanding the worship experience and smiled in return at us. Kris has enjoyed singing ever since. Of course we can’t understand his sounds, but God surely knows that joyful noise in worship.
That’s why our kids need to be in church. The church needs us to be there. When we aren’t willing to share the vulnerabilities that we have with others, others who do not get to share in everyday special needs life are robbed of that experience. They aren’t as blessed as we are to get to see our kid’s joy filled faces every day. I know that our kids are special to the hearts of our pastors, leader, and members who are blessed enough to watch my kids blossom from babyhood to the rambunctious, fun loving boys they are today.
Choosing a Church for You
Yes, I know you can watch church online nowadays. And there is a place for that . Sometimes. But honestly, there are times when we just need the fellowship of other people. Families need diversity and the chance to hear about faith in our country and around the world. We need to talk to people and let others teach our children for just a little bit, so that we have the chance to be present in a service and refresh our souls too. We need a chance to fill up, so that we can be better parents and spouses.
Our fellow church body needs to see our struggles, our joys, our answered prayers, and our transparency on this sometimes difficult path. I have experienced multiple members of our church, pastors, and just us regular people praying over my children and their needs. Special needs parents and families desperately need this support. It’s just too bad that many of us don’t get to experience this. I encourage you to lay aside your fears, muster up your courage ( you need it) and get yourself to church. Keep looking till you find it. Don’t give up. It’s so worth it.
P.S If you are from my church , I love and appreciate you more than you will ever know. You have saved my faith and my sanity many a time. Blessings. If you are from one of our former churches, we thank you. Many of you that we have known for a lifetime pray for us and our family regularly. I wouldn’t be writing this without all of your love and support. Church changes people. Our faith grows. We are definitely grateful, and abundantly blessed.
Connecting with Me
Visit my About Me page here: https://faithhealthautism.com/about-me/. I also talk about our travel journey and give advice on how to go on Vacation with autistic kids. I most recently did a series on our Disney Trip from 2021. You can read about it here: https://faithhealthautism.com/planning-for-disney-and-universal-with-autism/
I would love to hear about your adventures too: Please leave me your comments so that we can connect.