When a family in your church gets a diagnosis for their child, it can be a challenging time for the family and their church. The family is asking questions about the child’s future and how they will need to adjust. They are also asking what God is doing through this unexpected event in their lives and how their church will respond to them now.
But churches don’t need to feel overwhelmed or unequipped to support these families. They just need to understand what the family needs and how they can meet those needs. From my experience of having a sister with Down syndrome and a son with autism, I can name five important things families like mine need from their churches: their presence, provision, promise, prayers and partnership.
My parents first heard my sister’s diagnosis of Down syndrome soon after she was born in 1977. My husband and I heard our son’s autism diagnosis soon after his third birthday in 2010. As different as our experiences were, one common and important factor for us was the presence of our church families in the days after getting a diagnosis.
When a family in your church receives a diagnosis—whether at birth, later in development or after a child arrives home with his/her adoptive family—how the church responds is important. Hopefully, the church celebrates the child’s life, believing God made everyone in His image on purpose and with a purpose (Gen. 1:27, Ps. 139:13-14, and John 9:3). You don’t have to know exactly what to say when visiting a family who has gotten a diagnosis for a child. What is most important is your presence. Just being there and communicating the love of Christ and the love your church family has for them will be enough.
As a family adjusts to a new normal after receiving a diagnosis, they are going to need the provision of a church through help with practical needs. This may be dinner dropped off after a long day of therapy. It may be a ride to youth group activities for their older children. Or it may be building a ramp at their home, so it has wheelchair access.
One key here is not to overwhelm them with messages like: “Let me know what you need!” This is often met with a blank stare because they can’t even express what they need. It’s more helpful to think of a way to help and offer it directly and specifically. It’s easier for a family to say yes to you dropping off a pizza on Friday night because you’re picking one up for your family anyway than it is for them to decide if it’s OK to ask you for a meal.
Once they get into a good routine and rhythm at home, they will be ready to plug back into church. At this stage, they need a promise from their church—a promise they can work with the staff, teachers and volunteers to meet the needs of the family member with a disability. There may currently be barriers that a church staff isn’t aware of that would keep a special needs family from attending church.
We see an example of this in the last week of Jesus’ life when He cleansed the temple and drove out the money changers and those buying and selling animals to sacrifice. These tables would have been set up in the part of the temple “unclean” people had access to. People with disabilities couldn’t access the temple or the community built around the temple rhythms. But when Jesus drove the money changers out, Matt. 21:14 says the result was, “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (CSB).
Talk to the family about any barriers they see that might keep their family from being able to attend church. And then take steps to eliminate those barriers.
As the child with a disability grows, one crucial way churches can help the family is through their prayers. A caregiving family faces unique needs through the years, from mourning missing milestones (like their child not being able to drive a car) to feeling like the typical siblings aren’t getting the time and attention they need to accepting they will never be empty nesters. Each age and stage can bring new opportunities for God to work in their lives and show Himself to be sufficient for all their needs.
If you don’t know what to pray, you can use Col. 1:9-10 as a guide, “For this reason also, since the day we heard this, we haven’t stopped praying for you. We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God” (CSB). You can also take a minute to write a card or send a text to let the family know how you are praying for them. It will likely come exactly when they need it most.
The final essential thing a special needs family needs from their church is partnership to fulfill the mission God has given them. Eph. 2:10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do” (CSB). That means my family, every member, was created for the good work God has planned for us. But we need a church that sees our value and gives us opportunities to use our gifts and live out our calling.
You can empower special needs families to live like missionaries when they sit in waiting rooms or hang out at Special Olympics practices. You can remind them of the power of their testimony as they comfort others with the comfort they have received through Christ. And you can support their efforts for expanded care and opportunities in your community. Your church’s partnership and empowerment will benefit the family, your church and your community.
I am so thankful for the ways the church I grew up in supported our family and included my sister. Because they meet her needs and our family’s needs, we were all able to attend church and use our gifts. The same is true of my church now which includes my teenage son with autism and our entire family. It doesn’t have to feel hard to support a special needs family. Just take the steps of presence, provision, promise, prayers and partnership. And then praise God together for what He will do in the family and in your church.