Church should be a welcoming, safe place for every child. But
for many families of children with special needs, it’s yet another
place for their children to stand out or be a burden. I know
because my son, Ryan, has autism. I’ve gotten the looks,
well-meaning advice, and blank stares from churchgoers and
My son doesn’t have a disability that’s obvious. This is almost
more challenging. If he were obviously disabled-blind, in a
wheelchair, or with Down syndrome–there’d be an understood “rule”
that people must be patient, understanding, and supportive.
It’s not apparent that he has a disability, and he’s not alone.
The Centers for Disease Control recently reported the staggering
statistic that one in every 150 children nationwide is diagnosed
with an autism spectrum disorder. My son is one of them.
He falls into the category of high-functioning autism, very
similar to Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder
characterized by difficulties in social interaction and specialized
interests. He’s bright, funny, and loving. He’s just not like other
His language was severely delayed, and potty training was
extremely late. He can’t hold a conversation like other kids his
age, and, with the exception of his brother and sister, he prefers
to play alone much of the time.
At 6, he’s taller and bigger than his 8-year-old brother, but
often unable to participate in children’s church like other kids.
He’s making progress, and my prayer is that one day we’ll help him
realize the plans God has for him. But for right now, he acts
“off.” He’s hard to talk to, and his lack of listening may appear
to the casual observer as though he’s just a child in need of
I love my son fiercely. I’ve had him tested and evaluated. I’ve
sacrificed time and energy to make sure he gets the therapies and
classes he needs. I’ve patiently worked through his fits of
frustration when I couldn’t understand what was wrong. I’ve wept
for him, fought for him, and prayed for him.
And one of the many difficulties I’ve faced is trying to tell
people in the church what to “do” with my son.
So I write this in the hope of helping children’s ministers get
a glimpse of what we–families and kids with special
What’s It Like to Have a Different Child?
If you’re going to successfully work with a child with special
needs, you need to understand the emotions the family deals with.
If you walk for a moment in our shoes, you’ll be less likely to
step on our toes.
• We feel defensive. No parent wants something to
be wrong with his or her child. It’s a natural instinct to want to
prove to everyone that the child isn’t “that bad.” I still struggle
with this. Ryan’s different–not defective. Trying to decide what
to tell a Sunday school teacher is painful. He’s not a label–he’s
my son. Some parents admit there’s a problem and seek help.
Some–unfortunately for the child–hide from the fact that their
child is different. They refuse to admit there’s something wrong
and get angry when someone says otherwise.
• We feel frustration. We get frustrated with our
child when he or she can’t do what we want or what other children
are doing. We get frustrated with ourselves for not being more
patient, intuitive, or perfect. We get frustrated with other kids
for not playing with our child. We get frustrated that sometimes
those who are supposed to care for our child see him as a burden.
We get frustrated with people for not understanding, for staring,
or for offering advice without knowing the entire story. People can
be insensitive when they assume they know our situation.
• We feel embarrassed and isolated. What are
people thinking of me when my child won’t sit still? Or when he
doesn’t listen to my directions? What are they thinking when my
child doesn’t act his age? One reason we feel so isolated is that
parents of typical kids can’t relate and often withdraw. When Ryan
was young, I found tremendous support in an online group of parents
with kids like him. We wrote when our kids had breakthroughs or
when they regressed. And most importantly, parents with older kids
with special needs wrote to encourage us. They pointed out that our
kids are normal for who they are and that we’re not alone. This
community was truly a gift from God that helped ease my feelings of
isolation and gave me hope. We need other people to understand-or
attempt to understand-how we feel and what our reality is.
• We mourn the loss of “normal.” I did. I do. I
love my son, and I’m so proud of the progress he’s making. He’s
worlds away from where he used to be. But one day when he was 3, I
watched him with a group of his peers. The thought occurred to me,
My son’s not normal. He’s not like the other kids. And I wept. I
felt the deep loss of not being able to relate to him like other
moms of 3-year-olds. I mourned all the things he missed out on; I
sometimes still mourn for what the future may never hold for him.
It’s necessary and healthy–but it’s mourning, nonetheless.
• We feel unspeakable joy. When kids reach a
milestone, every parent is happy. When a child with special needs
hits a developmental milestone, his or her parents want the entire
world to celebrate. We take nothing for granted. I cried when Ryan
first said, “Goodbye, Mom”; when he made a friend at school; when
he first tried to tell me about his day; when he first told me he
loved me. I wait so much longer than other moms for these things to
happen that, when they finally do, I tell everyone I know with
ecstatic glee. Every step forward gives us hope and indescribable