Supporting Families and Children in Special Circumstances
Children with special needs comprise a large and very diverse group of children. The broad term “special needs” includes learning disabilities, language impairments, mental retardation, emotional disturbances, physical disorders, impairment with movement, and difficulty with hearing or seeing. While each disability is different, there are often similar characteristics.
- Learning disabilities. Children with learning disabilities fall within the normal range of intelligence; in other words, they are not mentally retarded. They do have difficulties in school-related areas, especially reading, writing, or math. Children with learning disabilities do not have a problem controlling their emotions, nor do they have trouble seeing or hearing.
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Children with ADHD have trouble focusing on any one things and are easily bored. They show extremely high levels of physical activity, find it hard to suppress their emotions, and don’t spend a lot of time thinking before they act.
- Autism spectrum disorder. Children who are diagnosed with these disorders have symptoms that range from a severe form, called autistic disorder, to a milder form, called Asperger syndrome. However, all children with autism spectrum disorders demonstrate deficits in three areas: social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or interests. Children with ASD do not follow the typical patterns of child development. Some children show differences at birth. In most cases, however, the problems in communication and social skills become more noticeable as the child lags farther behind other children the same age. Some children start off developing normally, but some time between the first and third years, the deficit behaviors become apparent.
- Mental retardation. Children who are mentally or intellectually retarded function at an intellectual level that is below average. They have difficulties with learning and daily living skills, such as basic communication, self-care (for example, toilet training), and social skills. Diagnoses range from mild, which is the most common type, to profound, which occurs rarely. Mildly mentally handicapped children develop social and communication skills during their first five years but begin to have difficulties when they enter school. They usually can attain a level of sixth grade in formal schooling. Moderately retarded children learn to talk and communicate, but usually have poor social skills. With training, they can learn some skills and take care of their personal needs. Severely and profoundly mentally retarded children, who make up about 5 percent of the mentally retarded population, have poor muscle coordination and limited communication and self-care skills during early childhood. Profoundly retarded children do not reach such normal physical milestones as walking and talking. Typically, these children require constant supervision.
- Physical disabilities. The most common type of physical disabilities are hearing or seeing deficiencies, and disabilities that confine the child to a wheelchair.
- Understand that grief is normal. Families of children who have been recently diagnosed with a disability will likely be grieving the loss of having a “normal” child. As the child grows and develops, each new phase of life will bring new challenges, so the family may experience the grief process many times along the journey of raising their child. Remember that grieving is a normal and healthy response to any family change or difficulty.
- Reach out to the family. Families of children with special needs may feel isolated and lonely. Support them through phone calls, cards, and visits to their home. Reassure the parents and children that the church community cares about them. Be a constant and reliable ally—parents need to know that the church will support them now as well as in the future.
- Believe that all children are important. Remind the family often, through your words and actions, that all children are valuable and precious. Look for the child’s unique qualities, and focus on what he or she adds to the family or your ministry.
What not to say
- “Are your other children normal?” Having a child with special needs affects every member of the family, often splintering them apart just when they need each other the most. Make sure your comments are directed to building up the family as a whole, rather than creating more distance with uninformed and hurtful comments.
- “I’m so sorry for you.” Children with special needs have a lot to offer to their families, churches, and communities. Choose encouraging words to help parents find the strengths in their children.
What to say
- “Please know that you’re not alone in this.” When faced with rearing a child with special needs, parents often feel isolated. Gently reminding them that the church is there is a good first step in supporting them.
- “I’ll pray for you.” Knowing that others are petitioning God on their behalf, and are asking God to guide them, can be an immense help to a struggling family.
- “How can I help?” Help comes in many forms. Maybe it’s a dinner after an exhausting day of testing. Maybe it’s an offer to take siblings to a special outing. Maybe it’s offering to take notes at doctor visits, or compile research. The simplest way to find out how best to help is to ask.
- “I trust God has a plan.” Affirmation that God is in control can be a real form of support to a special-needs family.