Special Needs: Creating an Inclusive Church Culture

Special Needs: Creating an Inclusive Church Culture


A Lesson from Sesame Street

In 1969 Sesame Street introduced a cast of everyday neighbors to carry minor plotlines as teaching tools for millions of American preschoolers. The groundbreaking children’s television series demonstrated how people with disabilities integrated into the everyday lives of the show’s other characters. Introducing Linda the librarian who was deaf and Tarah the child who used a wheelchair helped the juvenile audience appreciate the unique qualities and needs of these special characters.

Forty plus years after Sesame Street’s inception, our everyday culture is still evolving in its understanding and inclusion of individuals with special needs. Laws require public schools to work with families for creating individualized education plans for many children with a diagnosed disability. However, helping families of children with special needs assimilate among families of typically developing children remains a challenge. Any mother of a child with special needs will tell you that invitations to shared play dates and birthday parties with typical children are rare and highly valued. Sadly churches can be yet another forum for disappointment to the family affected by special needs.

Churches and Special Needs

With 19% of Americans classified as having a disability (U.S. Census Bureau), churches are increasingly faced with the request for special needs accommodation.  The bad news is that churches are currently societal stragglers for successful inclusion. The good news is that discussion has begun inside American congregations and the trend for special needs accommodation is quickly gaining cultural favor and significant attention.

The following quotes provide tremendous insight into how a family yearns for their church’s support after their child’s diagnosis and throughout their life.  These quotes are largely representative of the sentiments expressed by the dozens of parents I have interviewed for the purpose of writing on how churches can successfully include children with special needs:

  • Texas mother of a preschooler with Autism:
    • “After our son’s autism diagnosis, I struggled for a time with bitterness toward our church family for their lack of response. I wanted to talk about what we were processing. I think people didn’t know what to say and so they mostly remained silent. “
    • “My desire was for our friends to accept and love my child for who he is. I wanted them to see him as a unique creation, treasured by God.”
    • “Another couple in our congregation with an older, similarly diagnosed child sought us out after our child’s diagnosis. Their offered words of hope and encouragement were invaluable to us.”
    • “Everyone had an acquaintance with a child with autism. So they felt what they knew about that child automatically applied to my newly-diagnosed son. And so many people had an opinion on what causes autism. I only wanted guidance from professionals. I simply needed empathy and listening ears from my church friends.”
  • Georgia mother of an adult child with Cerebral Palsy:
    • “Many people offer to help. Most mean well but they don’t think you’ll take them up on the offer. I learned that people who inquired for a way to help a second time were usually sincere. The ones that suggested assistance options (babysitting or a meal) could be counted on to follow through. “
    • “I was constantly offered well-meaning but unasked for advice from people who weren’t educated professionals. And many people followed up their advice with the question ‘have you prayed?’ Of course I had prayed!”
    • “A painful moment for our child came in school when another child from our church shunned her for her disability.”
    • “One of the greatest gestures and gifts our church offered was providing an annual picnic for the families of children with special needs.”
  • Alabama mother of a preschooler with Down syndrome:
    • “Our son’s Sunday school teachers and special needs buddy have been great about treating him like all the other children. They see him as a child and not a diagnosis.”
  • Georgia mother of three children with special needs including Down syndrome, Apraxia, and Auditory Processing Disorder:
    • “We left our church after our son with Down syndrome was born. The nursery workers were so afraid of him.”
    • “Women from my weekly Bible study group have mentioned in passing that they would assist me if I ever asked. I treasure my fellowship with these precious women and I sense they do pray for me. However none have ever offered an act of service or invited dialogue where I could share a specific request for help.”


Amy Fenton Lee writes to equip churches for successful special needs inclusion. Amy administers The Inclusive Church Blog.


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