It has been exciting to watch as more and more churches welcome children with special needs into their ministry environments. To not only create a space where children with special needs are welcomed with excitement and are fully loved, but also where they have access to any special learning aides they need requires a lot of intentionality and preparation. Sadly, your ministry can purchase loop scissors and triangular crayons, train volunteers and build ramps and the words or actions of the other children served by your ministry can cause all of your efforts to be for naught.
It is important to prepare all of the children served by your ministry (and their parents) to be loving and kind to everyone who enters your doors. Children are naturally curious and wonder about anything that appears out of the norm to them. They are also beginning to grow into the adolescent attitude of wanting to be popular and excluding or teasing children who may hamper their social goals. Wry young children may also mistakenly believe that they can “catch” the issues the child with special needs may have – just as they might catch a cold. You may not be able to prevent every possible negative incident that could happen in your ministry environments, but you can educate and help the children you serve develop empathy, not just for children with special needs, but for anyone they view as being different from themselves.
There is a new picture book, When I Go To Church, I Belong, by Rebecca Evans that specifically addresses the reality for children with special needs in a church or ministry environment. The book appears to be written from the perspective of a child with special needs, although at times it sounds as if the self-descriptions are actually of multiple children with different special needs diagnoses.
The first part of the book addresses what a child with special needs might experience in a church setting along the lines of first day at kindergarten or first visit to the dentist books for young children. It does cover much about the general church environment, with a few specifics mentioned. Depending upon the church, these details may or may not actually reflect the reality in that congregation (like pot luck meals). Any discussion with a child getting ready to attend church for the first time could introduce elements specific to your church or worship service.
The book, still supposedly from the perspective of a child with special needs, aLao addresses the challenges some face, as well as a few behaviors that others may find disruptive. For example, on one spread the narrator talks about finally being able to go to church because a ramp was built to help navigate the many stairs into the building. On another spread, the author explains that some children with special needs may make loud noises during worship, causing people to look at the child (the author quickly reassures the reader that the child is still welcome). There are also mentions of eating a special diet, being sensitive to lights and noise and having a special helper in Bible class.
Over all, the book is well made with pleasant artwork throughout. I wish the author had addressed in some way the potential of someone saying something unpleasant to or in front of the child – both to reassure the child that he or she is still loved at that church (I would hope) and to remind all children that their words hurt and should be thought about before saying them. For those looking for a picture book about special needs in a church environment, this is a solid addition to your library that will help facilitate more detailed instruction and practice in welcoming all children to church.