Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Faith Community - Walking Alongside the Family Living with Special Needs

Families raising and supporting children and/or loved ones with special needs live unique lives – lives filled with many blessings and unexpected joys - but often face greater challenges that those living a so called “typical” life.

Like their loved one with special needs, they are often living on the margins of society. Their first obligation is to family – just like your family but with additional responsibilities which leaves less time for friends and social gatherings.
What can you do to walk alongside families?
Meet them where they are outside of the faith community. We only capture a few moments when we gather together as a church family. They live 24 hours per day with their loved one with special needs. We can be in relationship with them as they deal with the their everyday lives away from the church. A little effort goes a long way!
Acknowledge they are dealing with more than the typical family.
We acknowledge that every child/individual is special but some deal with challenges beyond the typical family which impact their lives, marriages, typically developing children, and relationships in the community. Often times, they work endlessly to find ways to meet the needs of the child/individual with special needs and spend many more hours per day meeting individual’s needs to help him/her reach beyond their challenges.
Do not be afraid to approach the family.
Many people just do not know what to say or do. Let the family or the individual lead the way for you. As you get to know the family, you will probably be surprised by the blessings they know as a parent of a child with special needs or supporting the individual with special needs.
You will discover that their lives are more than the individual with special needs diagnosis. They, as a family, are much like your family. Beyond the challenges they face, they have the same dreams and hopes for their loved one...and share many of the same problems.
Don't be afraid to inquire about the individual’s special needs.

Most families are quite willing to share – they live with those special needs day in and day out. Special needs are normalized over time and quite often easily spoken about.
Do not be afraid of the individual with special needs.
They may look different or act differently but they are always people first. Treat them with the same respect, friendliness that you would show anyone else. A little genuine interest in the life of the individual with special needs and their family are precious to them.
The nonverbal individual will appreciate a smile, a light touch and friendly conversation – just like every other individual. Some will have ‘invisible’ special needs and are also in need of your support and understanding.
Educate your families about people with special needs and encourage friendships.
It is important for individuals with special needs to have friendships with those we view as typical. Individuals with special needs learn a great deal from peer relationships. The peer will learn a great deal about befriending those who really are more like them than different and valuing all of God's creation.
Include the family openly and lovingly in group activities.
Your kindness will be deeply appreciated. Giving exposure to the individual with special needs and their family will promote acceptance into the faith community.
Allow the family the opportunity to educate your congregation on the special needs of their child or loved one.
This may help others feel more comfortable with them. Knowledge will breed compassion and the ability to welcome them fully into congregational life – to help them see beyond the diagnosis and to be valued for who they are.
Mentoring opportunities.
Many opportunities exist in meeting the everyday needs of the individual with special needs and their families. A little companionship for the individual with special needs – perhaps going for a cup of coffee or to a movie which may contribute to their future independence – is quite meaningful to the individual and their family.
Do remember the siblings.
At times, people forget about the devoted siblings/family members. Growing up alongside a child with special needs or supporting a loved one with special needs comes with many blessings but sometimes they need to be acknowledged for who they are individually. No one really wants to be known only as the sibling/relative of an individual with special needs.
Invite the parents/caretaker out or over for an occasional social activity.
They need to just be grownups sometimes and away from the usual daily responsibilities.
If you are so called, offer respite care on occasion.

An hour or two on occasion will provide refreshment for the overwhelmed parent/relative. Perhaps you have a teen willing to be trained in meeting the family’s needs for a short time. Helping with some light household tasks or entertaining a toddler will be huge for a family dealing with an individual with special needs.
Do not feel sorry for them.
Many families will not welcome sympathy. In fact, they might find it condescending. Most families feel abundantly blessed to have the opportunity to have the individual with special needs in their lives. At times, the family may need a friend during crisis or episodic grieving that normally occurs when living with a child or individual with special needs.
Empathy is genuinely needed at times.
Offer your ear and an open heart when we do struggle. Sometimes all that might be needed is someone to listen. Even if you can’t truly understand, a compassionate heart might be all that is needed.
Pray for the family as you feel led.

All need prayer but these families might have different specific needs to be brought before the Throne. Ask how you can pray for them. In asking you show support which brings comfort that they are not dealing with challenging issues alone.
What can the wider community do?

This needs to be a ministry to an often marginalized group of individuals/families. A little extra effort to support families will go a long way.
Don’t expect families with loved ones with special needs to have the time and energy to give to the wider faith community on a regular basis. They are too often overwhelmed by what they have been called to do – especially in the early years where they are dealing with their loved one’s or child’s diagnosis, seeking answers to why the person/child isn’t developing typically, frequent visits to physicians and/or therapists, dealing with behavioral challenges and/or meeting the needs of the rest of their family. This is the time when support is needed most.

I promise you will be blessed in giving a little or a lot. When you reflect God’s love for all of His creation – especially those with special needs – you will discover a heart more inclined to love as Jesus calls us to love. Bless and be blessed!

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful info! Would you mind if I put a link in my blog to point over here? My email is sewjoyous@yahoo.com .