"I never felt like we could just join a small group," the mother said. "People wouldn't understand if my sons acted out. I felt it would cause a lot of disruption to any group we would join. The same would hold true if I started a group. But this new invitation fit us just right. I could do a group with people who already knew us. If my boys' behavior was off, the group would understand. They knew this went with the territory. For the first time, I felt like we finally had a way to join a group."
In my family, when our oldest was very young and our only child at the time, we would host the group at our house. We would put our son to bed, but have a baby monitor close by in case he needed us, then the group would start around 7 pm. He usually stayed asleep, but if he needed us, one of us would slip out. Granted, our son was the only child with special needs in the group. Children of the other group members were watched by a babysitter in another room. Creating a group that allows for this kind of flexibility and accommodation can mean a lot to parents of children with special needs.
3. Support Groups
When a family welcomes a child with special needs into the world, they enter a new normal. When the baby first arrives, everyone is anxious and asks about the baby a lot. Friends and fellow church members want the baby to get fixed and be normal. When that proves not to be the case, people eventually back off. It's too much for them to think about.
Everyone needs a place where they feel accepted and understood. This is especially true for these families. If, say, your child has a g-tube and needs to be fed during the meeting, it's better to be in a circle of people who understand than people who try not to look.
When you've had a terrible day because your child had an autistic meltdown in the middle of Target, this circle will understand that it wasn't a result of bad parenting or a lack of discipline. Sometimes it just happens.
Sometimes we just need a community of people who struggle in the same way, who understand, and who can encourage us with their own similar stories. That doesn't mean, however, that the curriculum for the group always has to be about special needs, or somber topics. It can simply be enough to go through any study—whether on relationships, parenting, or spiritual practices—with a circle of friends who get it.
4. Separate Groups
Another way to serve these parents is through men's and women's Bible studies. Dad goes to a men's group, and Mom goes to a women's group. One parent can take care of the kids while the other is at group. This allows families to stay with their children rather than try to find someone who is qualified to take care of them. It's also great for new parents or parents new to small groups. This experience can help them feel more comfortable with trying other types of groups.
I wish I could offer every church an easy process to duplicate to help the parents of special needs in your church, but I can't. Every family's situation is different, and the variety of special needs is huge. Start by talking to the families who are currently part of your church and see what they need. Once their needs are accommodated, then you can begin to embrace the needs in the community. Talk to educators, counselors, and therapists in your area to begin understanding how you can serve these families. It's always a good idea to pilot a few groups, too. Once the word is out, you'll likely draw more people than you've anticipated.
Note: This article is excerpted from our training tool Eliminate Barriers to Community.
—Allen White is a pastor, teacher, writer, and speaker.