Meeting a Real Need
According to a recent CNN report, 1 out of every 68 children has an Autism Spectrum Disorder. That's a lot of families sitting at home on Sunday morning or not joining a group because they don't know if they'd be welcomed. They're afraid of what might happen if their child acted out in a public setting. Most churches don't offer special accommodations, so these people on the fringe feel left out. Even if churches do try to make accommodations, it's difficult to offer accommodations for every possible special need. Most families simply think it's easier to stay home. But there are churches who are offering some helpful solutions for parents of special needs children, and their ideas might work well in your context.
1. Groups at Church
I am a big believer in small groups meeting off campus and in homes. Overall, there are numerous reasons that it's better for the groups, the church, and the community. But there are some exceptions to this, and one is children with special needs and their parents.
At LifePoint Church in Smyrna, Tennessee, Eddie Mosley, Group Life Pastor says, "Special needs kids have a specially painted and furnished classroom. Two adults guide the time, and each kid gets a trained high school student as a buddy. They participate in the class for two sessions while parents go to worship during the first session and then meet in their on-campus small group during the second session."
Andrew Mason, Small Groups Pastor at Real Life Church in Sacramento, California, offers, "We have a group for parents of kids with special needs. It's called, A Time For Me. The group meets for two hours one morning a week at a local coffee shop. Since children are in school, parents are free to come. If they have younger children, they bring their children with them. The group understands if there are any issues during the meeting. There is no set curriculum, but it's a time to offer support, care, and community resources to parents. They pay special attention to the calendar and discuss crucial times of the year like IEPs and seasons which produce a great deal of change and stress like Christmas, summer, and school breaks.
"Real Life also has a designated classroom on Sundays for our Special Grace Ministries," Andrew continues. "Kids with special needs can be checked in there for the morning or just brought in for 5-10 minutes so they can catch their breath and calm down." The walls are painted with a low key, bland color to reduce overstimulation and allow children to recover from anxiety or a meltdown. The classroom is staffed by loving and caring volunteers who understand special needs.
While most groups should meet off campus, parents of children with special needs might need a little more logistical help to make a meeting happen. Providing a room at the church and specialized childcare is a big investment for a church, but it certainly pays off for these families. Childcare workers might not be easy to find. Depending on the children's special needs, some training or expertise might be necessary, but in most cases a loving, understanding person who treats the kids like kids will go a long way.
2. Accommodating Meetings
Pastors Jim and Jennifer Cowart of Harvest Church in Warner Robins, Georgia, invited their congregation to start groups with a new approach. They weren't looking for leaders or asking people to sign up for groups. They invited their members to gather a group of friends to do a study. This gave a mother of children who have special needs an idea.