April is Autism Awareness month. As a Family Pastor and father of a child with special needs, I want to address a question I often hear from children's ministry volunteers: "How do you start a conversation with parents about the possibility of their child having special needs?" This can be one of the most awkward situations in children's ministry. Often children's ministry volunteers have a background in education. They may have strong suspicions about a child's needs but the parent seems completely unaware. If you've found yourself in this situation, here are a few brief encouragements:
Evaluate your children's ministry registration process. At Sojourn, our intake form asks every family if they have any "allergies, medical issues, or special needs of which we need to be aware." We phrase the question in that open ended way to allow parents to opportunity to share any of their child's struggles. Often this gives us a window to offer help to the family. If a parent is open about special needs, we have a second more extensive form that collects more information. . You can download that form here. At this point, we ask if the child has an IEP (individual education plan) from their school and if they'd be willing to share a copy with our ministry.
Never diagnose a child. My middle daughter, Lucy, was diagnosed with severe Autism when she was age 3, but it would still be a bit jarring if someone began a conversation with me by saying, "I think your child has a developmental delay," or "I think your child has Autism."
Instead, report what you've noticed and ask questions. It's better to say, "I noticed that Lucy has trouble in settings where there is a lot of sensory input--like in the large group worship gathering," or "I noticed Johnny has more trouble sitting still through the story than other boys his age. Is that something you've noticed as well?" You'll be surprised how often a parent will report their own observations or even a diagnosis that they've never talked about with the church before. This is an entry point where you can begin to offer help.
Be sure to offer help and not advice. Never give advice--"Have you tried a gluten free diet?" or "Has he been on such and such medication?" Rather, offer practical ways you can help the child engage in the Sunday experience. "Do you think we could try having Lucy wear these sound deadening head phones during the worship gathering?" "Do you think having a fidget would help Johnny sit still and pay attention longer during the story?" When discussing any difficulties, be open to suggestions from the parents.
When a parent is genuinely asking for advice about a diagnosis for their child, I point them to the professionals in their lives (pediatricians and teachers) who are more equipped than me to make those calls. I just encourage the parents that there is no reason to have shame or fear when talking to their doctor or their child's educator. Asking for help is often the best path to receiving it.
Finally, there is one really important thing to see when working with kids who have special needs: God has given those who suffer as gifts to the church. As Colossians 1:24 says, "Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." When a member of our church body is suffering and we suffer with them (and for them) we have the opportunity to grow in our experience of what it meant for Christ to suffer for us. Having that mindset can make an amazing difference.