5 Ways to Love a Family with a Child with Special Needs
Updated: May 4, 2021
Written by Jina Yoo
Reposted from last year.
As parents of a child on the spectrum, Lawrence and I are thankful for a supportive church family. We are also thankful that Waypoint has become home to other families with children with special needs. I know that it can sometimes feel intimidating to know what to say and do to help those with the unique challenges and blessings that special needs bring to a family. I have put together a list of a few action steps that I hope you will find helpful.
1. Be Inclusive
Parents of children with special needs often wonder if their child will be accepted by their peers and if they will be able to make friends. We worry that other kids avoid them because they are different. We understand the human tendency to gravitate towards those who are similar to us, but we pray our children will not be excluded. Our children with special needs will need intentional support to move into relationships with other children their age.
Action step: Be intentional in greeting every child. One mother of a child with a disability told me, “The thing I appreciate the most is when people delight in and assume potential in my son. I love when people assume that he can learn, feel, and understand even if he cannot communicate or they cannot understand his communication.” When planning a group activity, try to think of play environments that can be more conducive for a child with special needs, such as a secure area with a fence or a place without loud noises. Give the child a chance to participate in activities - do not leave them out because you think he or she cannot do it. If you set an example by being inclusive, the children around you are more likely to be more inclusive. However, be understanding if the parents choose to decline and know that they are thankful to be invited. (Book recommendation: God’s Very Good Idea by Trilla Newbell)
2. Be Encouraging
Parents with children with special needs are often in the process of grieving the loss of certain expectations for their child. In addition to worrying about their child’s relationships, they might carry the weight of worry about their child’s education, basic life skills, and questions about who will care for them in the future. These parents are often unable to attend church services or events because of the extra care and support needed for their child. This combination can lead to discouragement, emotionally and spiritually. Take opportunities to encourage these families, both the parents and the children.
Action step: Think of ways you and your child can encourage a family with a child with special needs (i.e., tell the parent of how you specifically observed their child’s progress or tell them about something their child did during church that brought a smile to your face).
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions
It can be uncomfortable to bring up a sensitive topic, such as a disability or a chronic illness, but how will someone know that you are thinking about them if you don’t ask? With that said, there are ways to ask questions to show you are being thoughtful and aware of their needs.
Action step: Ask how you can be inclusive. Ask how the child is doing without generalizing (i.e., I have a friend who has a child with autism too, and she…). Try not to frame things in the negative (i.e. do you think she is ever going to talk more?) but instead frame things in the positive (i.e., I noticed she is communicating more with me lately, how has she been doing in speech therapy?). Ask how the parent is doing. Ask out of genuine care and love for that family.
NOTE: Parents may sometimes choose to confide only in certain friends, so if they choose not to answer your question specifically, that is ok. However, if they do choose to confide in you about their struggles or their child’s struggles, please keep that information confidential unless otherwise stated.
4. Be Understanding
Our children with special needs may have outbursts or behaviors that can be distracting. Do not judge a parent for any perceived lack of control over their children because they are likely struggling and just as frustrated as an observer may be. And keep in mind that some children with special needs do not look like they have special needs, so always remember that you never know if there is more going on in a child’s life than meets the eye. Try to understand that often parents fear how their children will be received more than anything else. Parents’ previous hurts and insecurities come out when it comes to their children and so much more for those of us with children with special needs. We want our kids to be accepted, loved, encouraged, and esteemed, just like every other child.
Action step: If a child is in the middle of an outburst, be kind and ask the parent how you can help them. Try not to draw more attention to the matter. Kindness and gentleness go a long way.
5. Educate Yourself and Your Child
Families with a child with special needs have to educate themselves in order to navigate their child’s needs. Although it may not be expected of you to know as much about the disability, any effort towards this end is very much appreciated. Also, try to avoid negative-sounding words, such as “weird” or “normal” (the opposite is “abnormal”) - instead use words like “typical” or “neurotypical” or “on the spectrum.”
Action step: Teach your children to be understanding of the issues their peers have. Parents can help their typical children understand how God makes us differently but loves us just the same. (Book recommendation: One Three Nine Inspired books written about various disabilities, like Nathan’s Autism Spectrum Superpowers).
Waypoint’s Buddy Ministry seeks to serve children with special needs and their families. If you would like to learn more about how you can volunteer to be a “buddy,” please contact Megan Klingler (Megan@waypointrdu.com)