Saturday was World Autism Awareness Day. 1 in 110 children (1 in 70 boys) are affected. I know this has a number of folks in children's ministry thinking about special needs ministry. One champion in this area is Brenda Fischer, the Disability Ministry Director for Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN. The following are notes from a breakout session that she led at CDG11 entitled, "Disability, Autism, and the Tender Mercy of God." I enjoyed attending the session, and I've included my notes below as well as links to some resources that she sent me after the fact:
God in His tender mercy brings heart challenges to our ministries. Disability has a way of stirring things up, in the heart and in the classroom. Brenda outlined three major heart challenges that take place when God brings a child with a disability into your class.
1. Ministering to the Child with a Disability.
- Ask God to put His hand on your ministry and help you to bless this child.
- Remember to ask God for wisdom.
- Ask the parents for advice on caring for their child. They may provide lots of advice. They may say, "I don't know." You may even want to ask the parents to model for children's ministry volunteers how to work with their child. Here is a copy of their intake form that provides great questions to ask.
- NEVER try to guess or assume a diagnosis.
- Learn what you can about the child's disability. You don't have to learn everything, but you can learn something.
- Be willing to try out proven tools like picture schedules or headphones to help with sensory difficulties. Try pencil spinners or "pokey" stress balls to help with focussing attention. Bethlehem uses the Boardmaker software program to make picture schedules as well as visuals to help with Scripture memory.
- Children with special needs at Bethlehem are all included in regular children's ministry classrooms, but parents decide which age group class their child will attend. Bethlehem has found that it is often helpful to recruit a helper to work with a child one on one.
- Like all people, those with disabilities are sinners and in need of a Savior. Children's workers should use discernment about behaviors that are the result of a disability and those that simply flow from a sinful heart. Many times, this is not clear cut. Sometimes kids need to be led to adapt. Other times, they need to be led to repent through prayer or asking another child for forgiveness.
- Here is the copy of the Bethlehem handbook for their disability ministry team.
2. Ministering to the Family of the Child
- Disability is both a part of the curse and within God's control and plan (Exodus 4:11). Parents of disabled children are blessed when the body of Christ reaches out and loves and accepts them and their child.
- Take time to ask parents about their life and how you can pray for them.
- Don't give advice to families about caring for their child. NEVER say, "Have you tried..." This can sound like a personal attack. Parents of special needs children today go to workshops and doctors. They read blogs, and most have tried just about everything.
- Families living with a disability often struggle a great deal with intense day to day challenges. People who are hurting have a tendency to draw inward. True ministry draws the hurting outward and toward Christ.
- Disability can become all-consuming in a family. Helping people see life from an eternal perspective is a critical role of the church.
- Seek to get to know families and pray for them. Also meet some practical needs so that they are able to be a part of the body of Christ.
- It is important of parents of a child with disabilities to be able to go to church gatherings and be filled so that they can return home refreshed.
3. God's Work in the Hearts of the Team and the Typical Children in the Classroom
- This child is with you for a God-ordained purpose. God allows tough situations in life and ministry, because of his mercy toward us.
- God wants you to find out what pleases him and do it.
- God works in the hearts and attitudes of volunteers through disability.
- Some are not called to work directly with a child with disabilities.
- God works in the hearts of typical children as they see others model love for people with disabilities
Our role in ministry is to help people grow a tender, unshakable love for Christ. God gives us tough situations that seem hard, but in fact, they are merciful.
Other Resources recommended by Brenda:
Books about God, Suffering, and Disability
A Lifetime of Wisdom--Embracing the Way God Heals You by Joni Eareckson Tada
Wrestling with an Angel--A Story of Love, Disability and the Lessons of Grace by Greg Lucas
Disability Ministry Resources
Exceptional Teaching--A Comprehensive Guide for Including Students with Disabilities by Jim Pierson
Same Lake, Different Boat--Coming Alongside People Touched by Disability by Stephanie O. Hubach
Resources Specifically About Autism
Autism and Your Church--Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorders by Barbara J. Newman
Finding Your Child's Way on the Autism Spectrum--Discovering Unique Strengths, Measuring Behavior Challenges by Dr. Laura Hendrickson
Too Wise to Be Mistaken, Too Good to Be Unkind by Cathy Steere
The Unexpected Gift by Michelle Schreder
For more information about special needs ministry, check out The Inclusive Church.