Going to Church — 5 Minutes for Special Needs

Going to Church

by Trish


Many families with special needs children struggle with the issue of church attendance, and we are no different. Going to church has been a big part of my life since I was five years old, and my husband and I have been attending our current church for over 10 years now. Although it is a great church with a lot of wonderful people, there was a time when it was very hard for me to be there.

The difficulty came when Michael turned three and wasn’t ready to go into the preschool program at church. We had just gotten the diagnosis of autism and were completely overwhelmed in every way. And there just weren’t enough volunteers to fill all the regular slots for children’s ministry, let alone have extra people to act as a “buddy” for my son.

By the time he was three and a half, we decided it was time to move him out of the nursery and into the three-year-old room. My husband and I began taking turns going in with him each week, plus I was still working in the toddler room one Sunday a month at this point. This left me with one Sunday each month to attend the regular service, and I often didn’t even make it through that because my emotions were still so strong.

I couldn’t bear to watch the other adults worshiping freely while I was constantly worried about how my child was doing. I cried many times just seeing the other “normal” children who came into the service with their parents at times. Although many of these feelings are a common reaction to receiving a diagnosis like this, my turmoil was also magnified due to the depression that I had been struggling with for several years.

As time went on, things became easier for all of us. Michael made progress and become more independent; some of the teachers in the preschool program took an interest in him and began to learn more about how to help with his challenges; I began to heal inside and find comfort in participating in worship again. We have also seen tremendous changes in the last year with the appointment of a new director of children’s ministry who has purposefully reached out to families dealing with special needs.

I will write more specifically about what we are doing at our church to minister to special needs families next week, but for now, I just want to encourage you that there is always hope for change and growth, whether it is in our children, ourselves, or the communities we belong to. And if you are at a good place in your journey, keep your eyes open for a “new” mom or dad that you can give some support or encouragement to in their struggles.

Photo courtesy of slack12

Trish can be found writing here at 5MFSN every Friday in addition to hosting Try This Tuesday. You can also find Trish at her blog, Another Piece of the Puzzle.

Email Author    |    Website About Trish

Married for over 16 years and mom of a six year old son with autism, I spend most of my time as my Little Guy's case manager/advocate/ cheerleader/everything else.

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1 Alicia October 31, 2008 at 9:19 am

What a great topic! I can’t wait to read more.

2 Maddy October 31, 2008 at 9:44 am

We made numerous attempts before we finally admitted defeat. With hindsight I’d say that it is largely a question of finding the right ‘church’ which is where we went ‘wrong.’

I particularly warm to the sentiment of keeping an eye out for the newbie.

[off topic – I’ll be interested to see what spec needs / picky eaters come up with for the ‘food’ and ‘fun’ contest!]

3 Deborah October 31, 2008 at 10:00 am

I’m with Maddy on this one – I, also, have admitted defeat. I have searched for the right church but so far, have not even come close to finding one.

Very sad….

4 Katie October 31, 2008 at 12:00 pm

Thanks for this post. I totally connect to where you are coming from. I remember feeling the exact same things as you described. One book I read, “The Faraway Child” really helped me out with this. Not because it gave any real answers in solving the problem, but because it made me realize that I wasn’t alone. My feelings were and are the same as many other parents of autistic children. That alone made me feel better, and ready to face the challenge. I love also that you suggested to look out for others. That is exactly what the world needs, a little more looking out for one another. Thanks

5 jollyholly October 31, 2008 at 12:54 pm

I can very much relate to this post. We’ve done the nursery past nursery age…we’ve tried different churches looking for the ‘right’ one…we’ve gone months and even years without attending…we’ve had weeks where Su was able to sit in the service for the whole hour with activities that kept her quietly busy, and other weeks where she got up and completely disrupted the service running around and screaming. And for the most recent 5 of her 10 years these struggles have been compounded by the fact that her daddy is the pastor, trying to lead while his daughter distracts him or his congregation or both. Our congregation has been very understanding about both her distracting presence and my absence when I must care for her at home. I’d like to think all churches are as encouraging but I know from past experience that they are not. But just like any other environment we take our unique kids into, our gentle advocacy can open the eyes and hearts of those around our child. I’m really looking forward to hearing how your church has reached out once their eyes and hearts were opened to the need; maybe some of the rest of us can encourage similar outreach in our own churches.

6 Alicia October 31, 2008 at 1:05 pm

I love JollyHolly’s phrase “gentle advocacy”. My son’s SPD can be so frustrating sometimes that I’m afraid people are not always witnessing gentle advocacy. In fact, I think some at my church have actually shown my son patience when mine is spent. What a good reminder.

7 JoyMama October 31, 2008 at 1:46 pm

Superb topic! This one is near and dear to my family, because we’ve been fortunate to be in a congregation that does a great job with special needs (there’s a committee, there are lots of volunteers, there’s a lot of willingness to be flexible). Even more fortunate, we were in this congregation before we even had kids, so didn’t have to go looking for someplace new when our daughter’s challenges began to emerge.

I’ll be looking forward to your next post and will bring examples from our church too — if there’s anything to add to what I’m sure will be an excellent list!

8 Spring October 31, 2008 at 1:54 pm

I have to admit that we have ceded defeat as well. We are a multiracial family, so we need diversity and tolerance for that as well as tolerance/accommodation for special needs.

After a bunch of failures early on when we didn’t yet know how to manage our newest daughter’s mental illness (including her falling into a catatonic state in front of, well, a few hundred folks…ooops!), we’ve given up for now. We need time to learn how to parent her better before we try again (we’ve only been with our daughter for 8 months).

Later, hopefully, we’ll find the right place.

9 Amazing_Grace October 31, 2008 at 2:34 pm

I posted some articles at my new blog that some of you might find useful. 🙂


Religious Education For Special Needs Children


Ministering To People With Special Needs

10 gail October 31, 2008 at 3:52 pm

this topic just makes me want to cry! not becuz we are in a bad place, but becuz so many of us have given up at one time or another. and i know that is not the Father’s heart.

we recently moved, and trying out new churches with a son with angelman’s syndrome is a nightmare. i tried to come prepared in case we needed to have him sit with us during worship. none were unwilling or awful i’m glad to say, but it wasn’t until we found our church, The Pursuit in boise that we felt like we had died and gone to heaven.

2 spec needs teachers have a special classroom just for our son and the other special kiddos. we visited the first week they had it up and running. they are constantly making it better and the love and care is just overwhelming. when we walk thru the doors now our son runs, not walks (and he only runs for 2 things: swimming and pizza) to his classroom. he sits down and waves goodbye to us before we even get to the room. it is the first church i have felt i could invite a family who has special kiddos to and be able to reassure them that their kiddos will be fine. they’ll be loved and cared for and ahve fun.

i wish there was a church like ours in every town in the country.

11 Amazing_Grace October 31, 2008 at 4:10 pm

You might find using walkie-talkies to keep in touch with your son’s classroom. We have some that vibrate when someone is trying to call you so you don’t bother others. Our walkie-talkies clip to your belt and we even used them during a cruise. LOL!

12 Danette November 1, 2008 at 11:16 pm

Trish – this is a great post on a much-needed topic. I feel like I almost could have written it myself. For the last 7 years, we have spent spent much of our time at church in the hallways or outside the building with our boys because they couldn’t tolerate the all the people, sounds, lights, and smells (perfumes, etc.). Of course, they responded to the overstimulation by becoming even more hyperactive than usual, running and screaming and flipping lights on and off, or worse, dropping to the floor for a screaming, rolling-around meltdown. All of these behaviors are frowned-on at church even more so than other places, obviously. We tried a number of things over the years with limited success, but finally as they’ve gotten older our twins can tolerate church and are even starting to enjoy it.

Little Bitty is less hyperactive, but he wears us out with his fixation on doors (opening and watching them close, over and over) and light switches. He is so persistent, trying to keep him away once he gets his sights on something usually leads to a meltdown but we can’t very well let him turn the lights on and off during church.

It’s just been in the last few months that I feel like we are actually starting to at least semi-participate as a family again, I haven’t felt that way since our twins were babies. There have been a lot of tears and frustration along the way, but I’m glad we stuck it out. We managed to find some other families with autistic children at church and just having someone around who “gets it” helps tremendously.

I’m nervous now though, because Little Bitty will soon “graduate” from nursery and I’m not sure how he’ll do when he has to go to a regular class at church. I still have to go with him to nursery most weeks for at least the first part. I guess we’ll see how it goes…

13 Debbie Yost November 2, 2008 at 9:00 pm

We still have Peanut in the nursery even though she’s nearing 4 years old. I have to admit I’ve been avoiding what to do next. Finding the “right church” isn’t really an option for me since I’m Catholic. However, our church has recently started programs on helping children with special needs in religion class. I just don’t know if she’s ready for Sunday school on top of everything else she is doing. I look forward to your next post!

14 Trish November 3, 2008 at 11:15 pm

Thanks for sharing so much of your stories here. I don’t know how many answers I have, but maybe my story will help someone else go on from there and do even more.

15 Amazing_Grace November 5, 2008 at 9:49 am

I posted at my blog:

Special Needs Students: Information To Gather From Parents

(Just click on my name and the link will take you there.)

16 Steve November 6, 2008 at 4:45 am

I can certainly relate – here’s my own story:


But there are many, many churches (in many flavors) who provide any number of opportunities for our special needs kids. There are also many organizations to help you find one, depending on where you live – Joni and Friends, Young Life, I’m sure there are many others. Don’t give up! 🙂

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