God made all of us to be relational! That includes children and teens with special needs. Even those on the autism spectrum and don’t seem very social still can’t do life without relationships.
We learned this the hard way. We have done a pretty good job supporting children with various special needs including kids on the spectrum in elementary programming. We have provided buddies… or have helped with a coping mechanism so their hour with us is engaging and appropriate. As these kids age out of elementary into youth ministries, we assumed some kids would do better in elementary, especially if they have mental limitations… after all, we already have the system in place with their buddies. This is where we were wrong. We were more consumed with the mental capacity of these kids and “where they fit” rather than helping them grow in their relationships with their peers.
What we learned was that the kids that are supposed to be in middle school but were held back in elementary programming were no longer thriving. Upon further investigation, we learned that these middle schoolers missed being with their friends that they had grown up with for the past few years. We failed to see that kids with special needs crave relationships just as much as anyone else… They had been with the same friends all throughout elementary programming, but to pull them back all of a sudden didn’t sit well with them.
We sat down with our special needs coordinator, and we started to brainstorm how we could better support and minister to teens with special needs. Since programming for youths is very much different from elementary programming, we started to brainstorm to better meet their needs. Most of all, we wanted to see how we could plan for inclusion as much as possible so that preteens and teens don’t have to be separated from their peers.
We are learning that there isn’t much out there for teens with special needs. A lot of our own research shows that most places tend to group teens with special needs with adults with special needs. There are churches that do ministry well to special needs… but we were most interested in creating a place where kids and teens can be part of the overall group as much as possible without feeling overwhelmed or distracted.
This is still a new idea for us… but we’re currently working to create a sensory room where kids and teens with special needs can easily slip in and slip out as necessary. Our plan is to have a buddy system for preteens and teens that may not be able to sit through the whole student ministries programming. The buddies will consist of adults as well as peers. Our goal is to minimize peer separation as much as possible. We also want this to be a serving opportunity for other teens as well.
So how does this sensory room work? First, we want this room to be therapeutic space with equipment to help students with special needs calm and focus so they can be better prepared for learning and interaction with others. Second, we want this space to feel safe. Everyone is entitled to bad days, and if a student wants to hang out in the sensory room during the whole duration of programming, they can. But we want this room to be fluid where students can come and go. If they feel overwhelmed by noise or activities, they can slip into this sensory room, where they can feel safe. If they feel anxious or bored, and they just need to be away from the group as to not become a distraction to the large group, they can slip into the sensory room to relax and regroup. Once they feel ready, they can easily rejoin the large group in progress. Our ultimate goal is to help students transition smoothly, be included with their peers as much as possible, and help foster relationships. Students with special needs can experience Jesus just as much as anyone else… and while some may have mental limitations, many can still fully experience love and acceptance through relationships. And if we believe that knowing and growing in Jesus happens best in the context of relationships, why wouldn’t we provide that for our students with special needs?
If you’re interested in finding more resources to start inclusion ministry to youth, feel free to contact me as I’m in the trenches along with you! In addition, you may find some great resources from these sites:
Gloria S. Lee – Graduate of UC Berkeley and Talbot School of Theology, Gloria has been in vocational ministry to children, students, and families for over 20 years. She loves equipping leaders and parents to help kids love and follow Jesus. She is a contributor to Children’s Ministry Magazine, International Sports Ministry curriculum, blogs, and few ministry books out there. Gloria loves anything Wonder Woman, the beach, trying out new restaurants, coffee, traveling, and just chilling at home with a good book or a show on Netflix. She’s currently on staff at Menlo Church in Northern California.