Left to their own devices, children with AD will often go through life like a train on a track: one way, straight ahead, never varying, and avoiding the unexpected. It is hard to live a life of faith without the flexibility to take-risk, something that is difficult for an Apsie. Aspie’s need to learn how to go off-roading.. Telling the child – and showing them through many experiences over the years – that taking risks and steps of faith is a good thing and to not be controlled by fear. Compliment the child when they are flexible, bending and changing and trying new things.
Youth workers can partner with the parents by helping these children develop skills at surviving in the world. Plan to take them places they might enjoy, such as restaurants, on public transportation, and to age-appropriate entertainment during youth group outings but be aware, that too much pressure to read so many pieces of sensory and social information at once can be exhausting and stressful. Plan you activities accordingly. It is appropriate to increase your expectation as the child gets older and working in partnership with the parents makes discerning this easier for the youth worker.
This really is an issue of teaching the Aspie how to have faith. Faith is a gift that is given to some of us by the Spirit in a supernatural way but a child with AD may struggle with the flexibility needed to respond to Spirit’s promptings. Walking with and modeling way to do this will reinforce in the Aspie a healthy expression of faith where one can take risks in following the God who loves them and allows them a seat at the kingdom table.
One of the Apostle Paul’s most famous speeches took place at Mars Hill, the Areopagus, in Athens. He noted that they appeared to be a very religious lot of people due to the sheer number of statues they had to their gods. In a brilliant move he identified the one statue that was for the “unknown” god and he saw his bridge. Paul then launched into his epic sermon about the “unknown” God and described our Father to the Greeks. He masterfully used a technique called bridge building to connect with his audience.
Kids today are completely enmeshed in pop culture. We could, and should be aware of what is shaping our youth today and much of what we see and hear impacts them more than we know. But I’m not simply talking about knowing what the newest Katy Perry song is blazing up the charts, what I’m talking about is building a bridge with a language of the soul.
In order to connect with young people they first have to know that you’re interested and trustworthy. They are most likely already suspicious of adults anyway. Too often we have an agenda for them and they know that. It’s what drives them underground many times. What we’re talking about here is a fundamental belief that we have something in common with the young people we love and hope to reach.
If we say things like, “Teens today are just so much more _________ than we were.” or “Kids today are just lazy and apathetic.” we create distance between us and them. If we fail to see that they have the same longings that drove us then and drive us now there will be no bridge to walk across. All we will have to work with is a shallow relationship and all the change we’re likely to affect is shallow compliance to an empty belief system. We have to find common ground and that common ground should be our shared humanity.
In his ground breaking book Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, Chap Clark identifies six intrinsic longings of all students. Those longings are: to belong, to matter, to be wanted, to be uniquely ourselves, for a safe place, and to be taken seriously. Who among us can’t relate to those longings? I work with drug addicted emerging adults. Daily they express to me their desire to satisfy those very longings and that much of their behavior was an attempt to do just that.
After some small talk I usually ask a student where in their life do they feel they belong. Where do they and what do they do that makes them feel like they matter? Who takes you seriously? Where are the safest places for you to just be yourself? These are the questions that matter to students even if they don’t have the language to articulate them.
What the Apostle Paul did was provide an opportunity for those in the crowd to have their longings satisfied in a permanent manner by depending on the One true God. A civilization that worships everything is an empty civilization desperately searching for meaning. They apparently hadn’t found that in the many false gods they worshipped.
We have the same opportunity to connect the kids in our community to the very God that Paul preached about to the Greeks but first we must take to time to build a bridge by learning about them and their longings. There is ALWAYS a bridge and it’s up to us to find it.
It is not enough for a youth ministry program to simply be ready to serve the Disabled Youth Community. Rather, the ministry should be proactive in making the Disabled Youth Community aware of it’s accessability. It is hoped that any ministry targeting youth with disabilities will be in contact from the outset with any known families or organizations serving them. It would not be a bad idea to contact such agencies to present your willingness to provide ministry opportunities for students and families that are interested, thereby providing a person contact for any of the referring staff. Of course, the best promotion for your youth group are students with positive experiences of interacting with your youth group.
Outreach material should assure potential students that your ministry gatherings are able to provide accessible, age appropriate youth ministry experiences for persons with a disability. In addition to stating that accommodations and alternative communication strategies can be provided as needed, you may wish to assure the students with disabilities that they are welcome by including the universal accessibility symbol on your literature or website.
There are many facets of an outreach ministry that can be modified to accommodate the needs of youth with disabilities:
- Tailor marketing materials, including signage, messages, brochures, website, and yellow pages ads to people with disabilities. Have all such material state that accommodations are available.
- If the ministry is committed to serving persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, have a dedicated line for a TDD, and have that TDD number printed on all outreach communications.
- Provide a sign interpreter if one is available.
- Create and use mailing lists of organizations that serve people with disabilities.
- Conduct specialized training and presentations (include students with disabilities in the creation of) for adult volunteers and student leaders.
- Adapt conference trips, camps, retreats, etc. with the disabled youth in mind.
- Recruit students with disabilities to the student leader team or hire an intern/staff with a disability.
- Work with family and support agencies (if necessary) to determine style of learning for students with cognitive impairments.
- Link with particular disability groups for their expertise and to create staff training opportunities.
- Be conscious of intersections (e.g. Latino youth who is gay and disabled)
Every ministry should expect to have students for whom they will have to make accommodations, but many of these accommodations will not require extensive or expensive changes. Perhaps even more importantly, making accommodations and adapting your ministry for youth based on their functional limitation should create and environment in which they can be restored to community. Often these disabilities carry with them stigmas that separate and isolation occurs. God’s purpose for all of us is to participate in the restorative activity of God in this world. This is just one of many ways we can do that.