How To Survive Church With Special Needs Children

Most of these tips can be applied to atypical and typical children alike.

Church attendance can be difficult for families like ours to manage. With a lot of kids, it starts from the moment you start having them put on "different" clothes and changing their normal routine, and the issues frequently don't end until much later in the day.

Here are some suggestions that may help. Every family is different and not everything will work for everyone.


1. Frequent breaks.

Both for your child and you. One of the things a therapist had us do, is that we had a little tiny card the size of a credit card that we could velcro stars on. As we sat in church and observed good behavior (or at least them not doing what you are trying to correct), they would get a star. The card would only fit about six stars on it. When the card was full, they got to take a break from church. This consisted of taking a walk around the hallways, or a walk outside, or a few minutes to play with toys, etc. The idea being that the time between giving stars would progressively, over time, get longer and the breaks fewer until your child could handle sitting through the meeting.

2. Frequent breaks for you.

When at all possible, trade off with your spouse or someone in the congregation. Ask for help, before you've reached the end of your rope. Often, someone else stepping in who is less emotionally involved or charged can completely change the dynamics.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Did you see that I"m reiterating this? Asking for help is hard and we are often trained that we should help ourselves. Asking for help IS helping yourself and your family. This also gives other members of your church community the opportunity to serve and help you while learning to become more Christlike. When my son was small and my husband was almost never at church due to work, one of the things I will never forget is that a kind lady would always take my son through one of the meetings so that I could get something out of the class that day. It meant SO much to me.

4. Say "No."

Frequently at church, we get "voluntold" to do things. You know your limits. You have a lot of extra stress you are dealing with, with a child with special needs. Sometimes helping others is exactly what you need to take the focus off of what you are dealing with. Other times, you need to listen to what your spirit is telling you and take a step back. Say no. They will survive.

5. Golden Ticket.

Courtesy of Calleen Petersen

Another trick a therapist had us do: She made our son a "Golden Ticket". On one side was the ticket. On the other side was three basic rules which could be written out or depicted in pictures.

  1. Keep all body parts to yourself.
  2. Use kind words.
  3. Listen to the people in charge.

These were the only "rules" my son had to obey at church because really, they pretty much incorporate everything you want them to do. My son got to carry that ticket in his pocket all day unless he broke a rule. When he broke a rule he lost his ticket. Nothing more, nothing less. But if he succeeded in retaining his ticket during the whole day he would get a special reward, be it ice cream, a movie, anything that is super motivating to him could be the reward.

6. Do spend some time talking with and educating those who will be spending time with your child at church.

They will find it very hard to support you and your child unless you can find the courage to open up and share specific needs and ways they can help.

7. Crayola Wonder Markers.

A suggestion one Mom had so that she could bring items for her child to draw with, without her child destroying the church with his drawings, is Crayola Wonder Paper and Markers. They can't get on anyone's clothes or person, no matter how mad they are at you, and their angry scrawls won't be enshrined for generations to come.

8. Actively work to come up with solutions for the problems that arise.

Because we all know that they will come up. Trying to find a solution that works for everyone before it becomes a big issue will save a lot of heartaches.

9. Know that you and your family are loved.

Every congregation has that one person who just doesn't know how to say nice things. Or the person who thinks that they are better than you simply because their children are sitting there oh so quiet and well behaved. A church is a place full of imperfect people. Unfortunately, frequently, we have to keep a bit of a thick skin to protect us against the unkind comments. But know that for every person or two who is unkind and rude, there are so many more in your congregation who love you and just want to help if given the chance.

10. Start small if you haven’t been going.

Start with just 15 minutes and see how that goes, knowing you will most likely leave after that, then as your child adjusts, add a couple more minutes, and make sure you reward them for the extra effort. Or if the large chapel overwhelms your child with the noise, people and etc., try just staying in the foyer of the building listening from there. We spend a lot of time there ourselves …

Church for our families is possible for most of us. It just takes some creative thinking and some kind people who we are willing to let into our lives to help.

This story originally appeared on Calleen's blog, An Ordinary Mom's Musings. Calleen is a musician, fiber artist, writer, mother, sister, wife, and Christian. She has two children — a boy and a girl — who have their own unique challenges. You can follow her on Facebook and YouTube


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