Last night I attended a workshop on Autism and the church hosted by the Faith Formation Team of Classis Grand Rapids East. First we heard the story of one family’s journey through a long diagnosis process and some of the daily joys and challenges of raising their young son, who is on the Autism spectrum.
Then Barb Newman, author of Autism and Your Church, and church consultant for the Christian Learning Center Network, led us in a discussion about how best to support families who have a child that is on the Autism spectrum, or an individual with Autism in the congregation. She offered many helpful ideas but the one that stood out to me was and idea I hadn’t heard before: hire a special needs coordinator.
Barb said that finding a volunteer to fill this role is good, but to have the person on staff makes a big difference—even if it’s just for a few hours a week. Then that person will be represented at staff meetings. His or her voice will become part of the planning and visioning process so that right from the early stages of events, programs, and projects there will be someone focused on shaping the plans to be meaningful and to every member of the body.
Barb cautioned that a special needs coordinator wouldn’t be the only person concerned about making the church a hospitable community. Instead, he or she would be the point person for families or individuals—the one who would coordinator a team that would develop a plan for making church a comfortable and nurturing place where learning, worship, and growth could happen. That plan would include involving the whole community in understanding how best to worship, learn, and grow in faith and friendship with individual members who have special needs and their families.
Churches can develop excellent family plans without having a special needs coordinator—the Christian Learning Center has a workshop and training in how to do that. But the idea of a special needs coordinator resonated deeply with me. When I worked on staff ministry as a youth director with oversight of the children’s ministries I felt inadequately trained to establish a plan for the faith nurture of children and teens in our congregation with special needs. We did our best to support families, nurture the faith of kids, and provide opportunities for everyone to use their gifts. But having someone on staff—even for just a few hours a week—would have given me confidence that we had access to the best information, strategies, and opportunities for congregational growth. It would have given families confidence that we were really serious about helping their sons or daughters find their place in the church to serve, worship, and grow.
At a time when the diagnosis of ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and learning disabilities is on the rise, it seems wise for churches to consider investing in someone who can help us understand how best to love one another in Christ.
Has your church hired a special needs coordinator? What changes has it brought about in your congregation?