At some point in time, most churches will end up having people with special needs come through them. By this, I don't just mean those who have physical disabilities or handicaps. I also mean those who have special needs that are on the mental, psychological, and learning disability or handicap spectrum.
Why does God allow for a special needs person to come into the church?
I think it is to help provide a picture of who He really is.
Most of these special needs individuals are some of the most loving individuals there are and just really need someone and some place to love them well and help them get on a level playing field as their "normal" peers.
For the special needs individual, getting and maintaining a job (for adults), relationships, conflict in relationships, and health issues seem to be some pretty heavy challenges.
A lot of churches that do offer ministries for special needs individuals only offer such ministries for children through the age of 21, but if the individuals live past the age of 21, they still need help. Special needs do not go away just because an individual turns 21.
Some of the special needs that need to be addressed in churches include: ADHD in children and adults (this special population tends to exhibit a high intelligence, but may not be socially adjusted and may not comprehend things in the same way or even on the same level as their normal counterparts; sometimes dubbed the trouble makers for their hyperactivity, obsessed for their hyperfocus; often blamed on bad parenting, too much television or screen time; seemingly impatient (comes the impulsivity side of the diagnostic scale); might seem defiant); autism spectrum disorder (affects social skills; can be either high or low functioning which primarily stems from intelligence and acquisition of communication skills; might seem aloof or like they don't care about what a speaker is saying); hearing impairment or deaf (might benefit from having sign language interpreter or assistive listening devices available for listening to the sermons depending on severity); those with environmental/chemical allergies and asthma; OCD; oppositional defiance; dyslexic; Down's syndrome; and MR.
Fact is that ALL churches may end up facing these special needs and more at some point in time.
How can a church respond to this?
If the church is technologically advanced, they can find assistive listening devices that easily connect with their existing sound systems. Offering programs not just for children but also for adults that helps to socialize them and let them learn age-appropriate social skills while providing necessary respite for their caretakers; this can also mean offering programs to help them acquire and keep jobs.
See, here's part of the premise.
While a person with special needs is birth through 21 years of age, there are services to help them available through just about any agency including Vocational Rehabilitation Services. This is a good chunk of time and can get the person through preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school and even perhaps the first two or three years of college if the person manages to get acceptance into a college or university. Voc Rehab is supposed to be there for adults with special needs making the transition from school to work and seeking employment but who might need assistance obtaining any adaptive technologies or accommodations that can help them be on a level playing field as their normal peers in transitioning to the work force.
Parks and Recreation Services often have special programs for children with special needs to help them with any physical challenges as well to help with social skills. Even churches that offer respite care tend to focus on families with children with special needs.
But there are very few, if any, options for adults with special needs. And most special needs start in childhood and persist throughout an individual's entire life. So for those children with special needs who surpass life expectancy and live beyond 21 years of age, there are suddenly few if any programs for them to help with physical challenges and social skills development.
What can the church do to help bridge this gap?
Churches have the best positioning in community to be able to not only advocate for more community services and programs (free or low cost) for the special needs adults. They might even consider possibly extending their respite care programs for children and opening it up to adults who have special needs as well. Of course, there may have to be a sort of intake process so that there won't be a sudden overwhelming number of people as opposed to workers/volunteers. They could offer a Sunday school or other small group class that is geared more the challenges of the special needs adults, including VBS activities for adults with special needs. They could offer creative arts programs for those with special needs as many individuals with special needs have a high level of creative energy to expend. Puppetry is a great asset. Music therapy/art therapy type of programs. Assistive listening devices. Interpretation ministry.
Other ways might even include having a designated zone for the special needs individual to "escape" since a lot of the special needs lead to a sense of overwhelming and frustration due to the fact there is already a challenge to their attention and processing, but then there is also the social challenge side of things. For instance, if there is an event at the church that the special needs individual might attend, having a quiet room apart from the activities might be a good way to allow the person to get some alone time in order to regather and recompose so they can later reintegrate and re-engage.
Understanding too that these needs exist and developing more awareness about them and having the staff go through sensitivity training might even be important as sometimes the staff ends up saying something that comes across as hurtful or mean to the individual with special needs. Telling someone who has ADHD that they are impatient could be an attack on their impulsivity that is part of their ADHD. And if handling an ADHD individual in discussions and meetings, giving them too much information all at once and not allowing them time to process things or giving them options in order to have questions heard and answered or even to express grievances and frustrations or seek clarifications, is doing them a great disservice.
If we are supposed to love even the least of these, consider the fact that the special needs individual is one of the least of these, especially the special needs adult who often ends up having no resources to help him/her be a functional member of society or the church.
Peer mentorship is another good option as is a strong discipleship program so that the special needs individual can be "adopted" by another more mature individual and have someone to sit with them in church services and even meet with him/her on a regular basis.
Education and mobilization.
*October is Mental Health Month and the week of October 16-22, 2011 is ADHD Awareness Week.