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About 13 percent of children and youth in U.S. public schools have learning or other disabilities. Similarly, over 10 percent of Canadian children and youth are enrolled in special education programs. Some of these children and youth are attending our churches as well, though evidence shows that a smaller percentage of them attend church compared to their nondisabled peers.

Churches can be difficult places for people of any age who have autism; hearing, visual, and mobility impairments; intellectual and developmental disabilities; mental health challenges; or other disabilities. A recent study showed that one-third of all families who have children with disabilities left their congregation because they did not feel welcome. Among these, some left the Christian faith entirely. 

Many, many families are looking for a church home where their children will be welcome, but they haven’t found what they are looking for. A bulletin insert we recently created for churches tells a heart-wrenching but true story of rejection. After Sunday School teacher returned a child with autism to his parents and said, “Please don’t ever bring your child back to Sunday school. We can’t handle him here.” After that, the husband and wife took turns staying home with their son.

A much better response for this frustrated teacher would have been to tell the parents, “Your child had a difficult time this morning. I’d like several of us to meet with you and your child to learn how to include him as fully as possible in Sunday School and other church activities.”

Yet teachers and leaders of youth programs often don’t make this offer because they don’t even know where to begin with including kids with autism or other disabilities. Two excellent books that provide a way forward are both by Barbara Newman: Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities and Autism and Your Church.

Also, Christian Reformed and Reformed Church in America Disability Concerns ministries have recently release five training videos for children and youth ministry leaders:

  • Congregational Student Ministry: Three veteran ministry leaders describe ways that they seek to ensure that all children and youth, including those with autism; developmental disabilities; and physical, visual, hearing, and intellectual impairments, engage fully in the life of the congregation.
  • Church Experience of Parents of Children with Disabilities: Do you ever wonder what it is life is like for parents in your church who have children with autism; developmental disabilities; or physical, visual, hearing, or intellectual impairments? Your ministry will be enhanced if you ask them, and also if you check out this video.
  • Redirecting Challenging Behaviors: Ministry programs and lessons with children and youth can get derailed by the challenging behaviors of just one participant. In this lively video presentation, author and special educator Barbara Newman describes a way to respectfully redirect participants who are having a hard time staying focused.
  • Resources for Disability Awareness and Ministry: Leaders from a local church, from Joni and Friends, and from Christian Learning Center Network discuss tools and resources for engaging all children and youth, including those with autism; developmental disabilities; and physical, visual, hearing, and intellectual impairments, fully in the life of the congregation.
  • Young Life-Capernaum: Youth ministry leaders often struggle how to include high school age participants who have autism; developmental disabilities; or physical, visual, hearing, or intellectual impairments. In the United States, starting a Young Life Capernaum group can be an excellent option.

I hope that many children and youth ministry leaders will use these videos for training their teachers and leaders. Even more, I pray that churches more and more will reflect God's vision for his church as described in 1 Cor. 12:12-27. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Christians were so well-known for their welcome that the percentage of people with disabilities involved in churches was greater than their percentage in society at large? 

What has your church done to train your children and youth ministry leaders to engage kids with disabilities in the church's ministries?


Just heard about this webinar that may be of interest too: Autism in Our Youth Group. Janeen Bertsche Johnson, campus pastor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and parent to a young adult daughter who is on the autism spectrum, names common characteristics of autism, addresses how these factors might affect a youth group, and suggests ways leaders can try to address them.

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