Anyone who is involved in church leadership has had this conversation. How do we get, or in some cases keep, the pews filled on Sunday? I’ll admit, I’m one of the guilty ones who doesn’t always make it to church. Usually, I’ll end up in Bible study while my kids go to Sunday school. Getting to service, and staying there, can be a challenge for any parent. It’s especially hard when you are the parent of a special needs child. That’s me.

Being the mother of a child with autism can be isolating. I’ve been fortunate. Through group therapy, support groups and advocacy events, I’ve become part of a community of parents who share common struggles. Not all special needs parents have this kind of social network. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to many moms and dads over the past several months about the challenges of going to Church with an autistic child. Some, like me, have had good experiences. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Sure, sometimes we don’t make it because of hold ups at home or sheer exhaustion, but the overwhelming reason many of us stay away is because we feel judged. In all honesty, this is the same reason I shy away from the movies and even the grocery store. My son is brilliant, has an amazing sense of humor, and is an absolute joy to be around, but his social development is very behind that of his peers.

Outside stimuli can cause him severe distress which causes behaviors that are pretty common for kids on the spectrum, but are noticeable, and even frightening to those who encounter them for the first time. Sometimes I don’t notice people staring and frankly, sometimes I’m too stressed to care. Sometimes I do notice. I am so thankful that I’ve never felt this way at church, but, at least according to many people that I’ve talked to, many people do.

I certainly can’t speak for everyone, but based on my experiences, there are several ways that Churches can make special needs families (and really all families) feel welcome.

Provide a “Safe Haven”

Like I mentioned previously, I don’t feel like I’m being judged when I’m at church. My son has always been treated like a child of God and I’ve never felt uncomfortable taking him to church. We usually stay close to the back so that we can make a quick escape if things get to be too much. It’s also great to have a place to go where parents and kids can have some space while still being able to listen to or see the service.

Smile

Smiling is such a simple gesture, yet it means so much. When people smile at me, I often feel a sense of understanding. It’s great to feel like someone is glad that you are here.

Offer Support, Not Advice

Sometimes things get hairy, especially for parents of children with special needs. If a parent is dealing with a meltdown or some other kind of extreme behavior, it’s probably not the first time they’ve experienced this. I get feedback from my son’s therapists, teachers, psychiatrist, and neurologist on a fairly regular basis. A great deal of my free time is spent researching techniques that will help my son function and thrive as he grows into adulthood.

Feeling guilty because we haven’t done enough (which is usually not the case at all) is also a pretty common theme for special needs parents. Making suggestions, like advising harsher discipline or blaming a parent for their child’s behaviors is a great way to ensure that they’ll stay away.

There’s a difference between offering advice and offering support. Personally, I appreciate it when someone asks, “is there anything I can do to help?” Sometimes there’s not, but sometimes there is. Asking, and then really listening to the answer can go a long way toward making someone feel comfortable.

Again, this information is based on my own experiences, and everyone has a different perspective. I feel strongly that I would be lost without my faith and appreciate being able to worship in a safe environment. My children love participating in church activities and I feel good about investing in their spiritual growth. My challenge to you is, take a look at your church. Is there anything that you can do to make it more inviting for all?