Monday, November 17, 2014

Supporting Children with Invisible Special Needs at Church

“The body [of the Church] hath need of every member, that all may be edified together.”
Doctrine and Covenants 84:110

I think it’s safe to say that most people want to be tolerant and loving towards people with disabilities. We wouldn’t hesitate to make accommodations for a person with physical limitations or to someone who is deaf or has a visual impairment. However, there has been a significant rise in the number of young children diagnosed with what can be classified into a group called invisible special needs. Society in general is lagging behind when it comes to supporting these children and their families. What’s worse is that many families are being pushed out of their own churches, the very places that should be the most compassionate and accepting.

What is an “invisible” special need? Autism Spectrum Disorders (Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Pervasive Development Disorder), Sensory Processing Disorder, ADHD, learning disabilities, developmental delays, mental and emotional difficulties, anxiety, and giftedness are some of the most common special needs that would fall into this category. Kelly Priest (a school counselor and mother to a son with Asperger’s) gave the following definition:
“Kids who seem pretty typical much of the time, but have significant trouble, of neurodevelopmental origin, with self-regulation, social interaction, friendships, flexibility, abstract thinking, sensory management, attention, language and communication, and self-advocacy. Special, yes, in some ways … but ordinary kids in some ways too.”
It is likely that in a large church congregation of 200-300 people there are probably at least 5-10 children and teenagers who have invisible special needs. It’s also important to note that not every child with challenges will have an official diagnosis, but they still might need extra support at church just as they would at home or at school. For church leaders, teachers, and church attendees, here are 12 ways you can support children with invisible special needs and their families at church:

1. Refrain from Judgment

I can guarantee that the family is doing the best they can. Having a child with special needs is a challenge every day. It is especially hurtful when families hear negative comments about their children or receive rude stares and glances. Some families know that their children are regularly disruptive and are sensitive to the negative feelings of others. Be tolerant of noises and movements. Try to take a different perspective. Your attitude will directly affect how you interact with that family, positively or negatively. Several years ago, I worked at a children’s hospital and there was a difficult family that received a lot of negative judgments because of the nature for their daughter’s lengthy hospitalization. I saw how the poorly they were treated by the staff and the negativity even got to me. I admit that I dreaded the interactions I would have with them. The whole situation started to bother me and I decided to change my attitude and to start to see the positive things about this family. As I did this, I noticed my love towards them began to increase as I saw them as the Lord would see them. This had a huge impact on how I treated them, which influenced the healing process for their daughter. Upon discharge, they thanked me for everything and told me how much I helped them through the worst time of their lives. 

2. Be Aware

Be aware of opportunities to ease a burden or provide small but meaningful service. Attending and being able to worship at church are a high priority for many families, but it can be very difficult or nearly impossible for families of children with special needs to fully participate in meaningful worship services. Sadly, many families have stopped attending their churches (or have sought out more tolerant churches) because they have felt unwelcome and alienated by their situation. It’s time for a big culture change. Some families don’t come to church because why bother when you have to be out in the hall the whole time or you know you will be pulled from your class to deal with your child. Often times families are hoping that church will be a place of respite and to have an opportunity to fill their own cups. Church should be a place where all are welcome and where all are left feeling uplifted and strengthened.

3. Make Sure the Meetinghouse is Accommodating

Are there speakers on in other rooms so that the family can hear the service if they need to be outside of the chapel? Can the family have access to seating furthest away from the organ if the child is sensitive to loud sounds? Are there places to go to help a child who is over stimulated or to provide room for a child that needs to move his\her body? Each child and family will have different needs and likewise, each building will vary in what is available. It doesn’t take much to provide accommodations, usually just some creativity and thoughtfulness.

4. Be Mindful of Sensitivities

Many children have sensitivities to foods, noises, crowds, and certain situations. Be mindful of children that may have difficulty reading or get embarrassed easily when talking in front groups. If you are going to give out treats or snacks, be sure to check with families ahead of time so that they can provide an alternative treat. Be mindful of the child’s classroom. My son never really liked his nursery class (ages 18 months to 3 years). After some time, we realized that it was the noises that bothered him. With the help of gentle and loving teachers and a simple routine, my son felt more comfortable attending class. Oftentimes there are too many toys in the nursery rooms, particularly loud toys, which can be over stimulating even for typically developing children. It can be a good idea to simplify the room to create a quiet and gentle atmosphere for our most tender age group.

5. Meet Them Where They Are

Pray and consider ways that the child can participate on their level. Be thoughtful about children who are anxious or fearful to participate in their classes. It is not helpful to offer treats or bribes to children to get them to do what you want, but rather be accepting of their feelings and provide ways that they can be successful. One year, my husband and I taught a group of five-year-olds. Our annual primary program was coming up the next month and I knew that this would be a great challenge for one boy in our class. Each child would receive a short part and would have the opportunity to share his part in front of the whole congregation. Many children can memorize their parts, but I knew the goal for our little friend would be to simply be there. I made a social story for him that included all the parts of the program: singing with our class and the details of how he would say his part. He loved his little book and we were able to practice walking up to the microphone and speaking into it. On the day of the program, I stayed with him, as I expected him to not be able to stay seated for its entirety. I’ll never forget the look of pride in his face as he walked up to the microphone and was able to say his part. Since then he has been able to build from that positive experience.

6. Carryover Therapy Strategies Used at School or Home

Sometimes strategies used by the child’s therapist at home or school can also be used at church. Talk with the child’s family about this or if the family is willing, set up a time to meet with the family and their therapist about what other supports can be used. Things like picture routines can be really helpful for a child who has difficulty with transitions. You can also consult with other members at church who might have experience working with children with special needs.

7. Enlist Volunteers

Consider asking for a volunteer to help one-on-one with a child or have people available to sit with the other children in the family when needed.

8. Adapt the Environment to the Child

Don’t expect the child to adapt to the environment, especially if it exacerbates the challenging behaviors. One story in The Ensign magazine talked about a little boy who had hyperactivity. The teacher decided to get rid of the chairs in the classroom and instead set up hands-on learning stations around the room that went with the lesson. Not only did the other children enjoy moving and learning, but the little boy began to be engaged in the lessons for the first time.

9. Practice What You Preach

Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men (Isaiah 29:13)
We are taught to love one another. We are taught the importance of families. We know that families can be together forever even after we die. We sustain practices that support children and families. We know that children are born whole and innocent and that God has a plan for each of His children. We say we believe all these things, but your actions will speak louder. Show your support for children and families by doing things that will uplift rather than weaken. Church should be an opportunity for all children to feel loved unconditionally. The purpose of church is not to get children to sit still the whole time and memorize things, but rather it’s a chance for children to feel the spirit (and learn about those feelings), to strengthen connections as they worship with their family, to learn gospel principles through simple lessons and songs, to witness others bear testimony, and to have opportunities to develop leadership skills. We tell stories about Jesus Christ’s ministry on Earth and how we can be like Him. But what lesson does a child learn when the adults around him are less than loving and compassionate towards him?

10. Consider How You Can Support the Family Outside of Church

Ministry does not begin and end at the church doors. Meals, free babysitting, allowing the family to go to the temple regularly, and helping the family attend church activities are just a few ways you can strengthen a family that has a child with special needs. Get to know the family outside of church. Invite them over for dinner or to play with your children. Many families who have children with special needs find it difficult to go to other people’s homes because it’s not adapted for their child. Find a way you can ease their burden a little.

11. Create a Special Needs Ministry

Many Christian churches are beginning to create special needs ministries that cater to families who have children or teens with disabilities. In some LDS congregations, “disability leaders” have been called to provide support and training to auxiliary leaders and teachers on the unique ways they can improve church services to accommodate and support children with special needs. Leaders can be aware of how they can provide accommodations for week night activities such as Boy Scouts, girls’ achievement days, mutual and other teen group activities, and dances. Because the weekly activities are less formal than church, it is often a great way for children and teens to socialize in a safe setting. As a teenager, I was able to occasionally volunteer with “special needs mutual” in my area. Not only did it benefit the youth we were serving, but it allowed us to gain a new understanding and love for our peers with varying special needs.

12. See the Child’s Unique Gifts

Get to know the child and not just the disability. Although it is helpful to have a general understanding of what a diagnosis entails, each child varies in behavior and personality and may not display all of the characteristics of a particular diagnosis. See the good in the child and look for his or her talents and strengths.

In 1989, the First Presidency of the Church issued the following statement:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is working to provide easier access to its buildings and facilities for people with disabilities. We also are seeking more creative ways of providing religious training for those with physical, mental, and emotional impairments. But there is an even greater need to reduce the barriers imposed by a lack of understanding and acceptance of those who have disabilities.
We urge leaders, teachers, neighbors, friends, and families to:
  • Help increase awareness and understanding of disabilities. 
  • Accept those with disabilities as children of God and help them to feel respected, loved, and understood. 
  • Provide opportunities for members with disabilities to learn about the Savior and pattern their lives after Him. 
  • Assist in the successful Church participation of people with disabilities and the appreciation of their unique gifts. 
  • Provide meaningful opportunities for members with disabilities to serve, teach, and lead others. 
Every child can feel the spirit and should have the opportunity to have a positive experience at church. Joseph Smith taught that “all the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement” (History of the Church, 6:311).


Kelly Priest

Handling Members’ Special Needs

First Presidency Statement


Autism in Our Primary

Managing Classroom Behavior

Disability Resources for Leaders and Teachers

Serving Those with Disabilities

How Do I Help This Child?

Special Lessons, Elder Ronald A. Rasband

Meeting the Need: Helping Children with Developmental Disabilities in Primary

When Your Child Doesn’t Fit the “Mormon Mold”

Jefra Rees is the wife of a loving husband and the mother of a young son with Sensory Processing Disorder.  She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Child Development and also has a Master's Degree in Early Childhood Special Education.  She has worked with children and families in a variety of settings, but her greatest work is that which is done in her own home.   


  1. Thanks for this! I have a daughter with SPD and anxiety and church is so difficult. I often think to myself, "why did I even bother?" after spending the entire three hours in the hall with her.

  2. Thank you so much for this! Tears are flowing from my eyes because finally someone understands!

  3. On the bright side, we recently had a family join the church ... and they stayed interested and kept coming back because their special needs son was treated so comfortably and it was the first time in 15 years the mother had not felt judged and looked down upon in a social setting. Her son went from several seizures a day to not having had one in months ... much because of the reduced stress and place of respite you describe in this article -- so there is progress -- and some things are going well :-)

  4. Loved the article. People can be very exclusionary of even visible needs. My daughter is mostly blind she can only see things within a quarter inch of her face, but we have been unable to get the primary to let her look at the pictures they hold up. How hard is it to pass a picture to her? I have even been told that she is just doing it (being blind) to get attention.

    1. I am SO sorry to hear that! I truly am. Unfortunately there will always be people that just don't get it.... :(

  5. Thank you so much for this article.

  6. Thank you for writing this! I passed it along to the bishop and primary president of our ward.

  7. Thank you so much for this article. It's nice to know there are others experiencing the same things and understand what we're going through.

  8. Thank you for writing this! My eyes bulged and I gasped when I saw the title of the article in my LDS Living email!
    My son ha

  9. The difficult part is when two peoples' needs collide. My daughter suffers from anxiety. There's a little girl in her class who has severe special needs, no invisible there. My daughter comes home from church with bruises all over her feet from being stomped on. I bought nice boots she can wear with her dress but really I'd rather take the cowards' way and just stay home with our Bible/BoM DVDs. I don't want to discourage her from reaching out but she's been physically discouraged again and again. It's hard.

  10. Thank you for writing this well thought out article. I have been on all sides of the equation: as a child, parent, leader, member of the congregation. I hope others can learn from your wisdom.

  11. This is a beautiful article and so helpful. We have 2 boys, 23 & 14, each with different needs. I have to say our ward has been FABULOUS in accommodating and including them. I am grateful and love to help and encourage others.

    Diane McFalrin
    Modesto, CA

  12. Thank you for this article and pls do more. My daughter had a hard time and kids have not shown kindness. I miss my ward. It's hard.

  13. We have so much need for sensitivity about "invisible" special needs in the Church, specifically in the Primary. Most people who teach and lead in the presidency try to do our best, but since we aren't professionals we need all the resources we can get (including the Lord) to help us magnify our callings.