Refusing to Ignore Teenagers with Special Needs

Photo by David Thiel.

Every kid has special needs. But John’s quirks were a little different than his church leaders were accustomed to. As John aged out of children’s ministry and into his teens, his leaders worried about how they could weave him into the student ministry, in particular how he’d fit in a small group.

John’s nearly constant desire to recount stats from his beloved sports team wavered between fascinating and irritating. And when John wasn’t giving a play-by-play of a recent game, it was hard to follow his train of thought, creating labored interactions for his peers. So they tended to avoid him.

Other times he became an easy target for jokes.

His youth ministry leaders tried to connect with John, but struggled to read him emotionally. It wasn’t uncommon for John to show visible signs of frustration or anxiety whenever there was a schedule change or new visitor. Yet when discussion turned to a sensitive or emotional subject matter, John seemed lost or distracted. This “disconnect” could create awkward moments for his small group. More than once, John blurted out a random sports fact, interrupting the group dynamic at an inopportune time. And his interjections could come off as disrespectful, especially if they happened on the heels of a peer’s vulnerable prayer request.

Admirably, John’s parents were committed to his regular church attendance. However, John’s youth leaders silently wondered how they could include John in the student ministry environment without compromising the other students’ church experience.

John lives daily with a diagnosis of autism. And if he’s not already in your youth group, he will be soon.

The Rising Rates of Teenagers with Disabilities

More kids like John are becoming part of church youth groups everywhere. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports a 16% increase in the prevalence of childhood disability between 2001 and 2011.[1] While the number of kids with physical disabilities decreased (notably), the diagnoses of mental health and neurodevelopmental conditions jumped a whopping 21% for this same population. We know from other studies that these changes are largely attributable to the escalating rise in autism specifically. It is currently estimated that 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a 120% surge in diagnoses between 2002 and 2012[2].

Keep in mind these numbers only account for children who have been identified after being tested and then receiving a formal diagnosis. So the real number of kids with autism is likely somewhat higher. With each new promotion year, the growing number of children with autism are becoming teenagers with autism. That means they’re entering your church youth ministry.  

As with any special needs diagnosis, autism spectrum disorder is complex and requires a largely individualized approach. A broad range of learning styles, behaviors, disabilities, and abilities (that are sometimes unusual) fall under the ASD umbrella. And the degree of impairment varies widely. One individual with autism may require assistance with basic life skills while another needs little, if any, support. As result, many high-functioning students with autism have more in common with their typically developing peers than with other kids sharing the same diagnosis. For this reason there is no one-size-fits-all solution for including students with ASD. Autism doesn’t always show up in the form of a physical or intellectual disability. In fact, almost half (46%) of individuals identified with ASD have average or above average intelligence levels.[3]

Oftentimes, autism presents itself in the form of awkward social interactions and unexpected behaviors. These attributes can present unique challenges for a youth ministry environment, where nearly every aspect of programming revolves around personal connection and relationship. But there is hope for kids like John who have autism, and for their student ministry leaders.

Is Inclusion Even Possible?

While “John” isn’t his real name, John is a real student at a real church in suburban Atlanta. When John transitioned out of children’s ministry and into youth group, the student ministry team worried about including him.

But that was four years ago. John has since become an integral part of the same circle of boys, now sophomores in high school. One of John’s small group leaders, Ben Nunes, reflects on the early days: “Before we figured out a few key strategies, there were weeks we spent more time managing John than doing anything else.” But Nunes quickly points out, “John needed time to acclimate to us. And we needed time to figure out what makes him comfortable as well as how to avoid or overcome what makes him nervous.”

Nunes acknowledges, “Interruptions and awkward moments still occur.” But he quickly asserts that he would no longer call them interruptions or awkward moments, “It’s just what happens with John.” Everyone in the group has grown past the discomfort. The unexpected is now expected and rarely do John’s “quirks” get noticed anymore. Nunes insists that the quality of the group’s interactions have not been compromised. Instead, he contends that the guys have bonded partially due to the shared experiences that John has serendipitously created.

John’s integration into the student ministry hasn’t been without hiccups. Small group outings and youth group events nearly always pose a challenge. And the solution is different every time. Sometimes John participates after his parents have coached leaders through anticipated obstacles and prepared him for the new experience. Other times John will skip the event because his parents and leaders have determined he is not yet ready socially or developmentally. John is more likely to attend short, structured group events and forego the more fluid or open-ended get-togethers. And when John does come to extra activities, his father often comes along as an additional adult support.

John’s small group leaders hope he can join the rest of the group on next year’s youth retreat. But the ministry team also appreciates that his parents have taken a thoughtful approach in years past, electing not to send John because he wasn’t ready for sleepless nights and cafeteria-style serving lines. The small group leaders respect that John’s parents have a good handle on their child’s growth pace. And by sometimes taking the hard decisions off the shoulders of the student ministry team, John’s parents consistently set everyone up for success.

Best Practices for Inclusion

For the past five years it’s been my mission to help churches successfully include children with special needs. I’ve conducted dozens, if not hundreds, of interviews with ministry leaders and credentialed professionals working with individuals with disability. And I’ve hopped on planes to visit churches across the U.S., going into Sunday settings to see first-hand what’s working when it comes to including kids with neurological differences. A number of best practices continually resurface in my research. And below are a few favorite ideas worth sharing. Please remember that every student with special needs is unique. The strategies that work for one individual may not work for another who has an identical diagnosis. And an approach that fails the first time can yield success after repetition. It’s all about getting to know the student and trial and error. While these ideas are shared with autism in mind, they are transferrable to a wide range of disabilities and unique needs.

1) Develop a good relationship with parents.

When church leaders demonstrate a genuine desire to include a student with special needs, they increase the odds of having a healthy and trusting relationship with the parents. An honest line of open communication between the church and the family can be critical for success. Many problems can be solved (often before they happen) when a parent does not fear being turned away and shares more openly about their child’s obstacles.

2) Prepare the student ahead of time.

We all know that it’s difficult to enjoy what’s going on around us when we are preoccupied with worry. This is an ongoing problem for many students with autism because anxiety and autism often go hand-in-hand.[4] In fact, anxiety can be the root cause of undesirable behaviors sometimes associated with autism. If a student tends to run away, hide, or show visible signs of agitation around the time of a change, odds are high that the student is anxious about a current or upcoming activity. With careful observation, leaders can usually identify the cause of the undesirable behavior and then prevent or resolve the trigger. However, it is always smart to remove any element of surprise for the nervous student. Advance preparation eases worry and reduces the likelihood of negative behaviors whenever unfamiliar faces, different rooms, or new activities are going to be introduced.

The following tools and strategies may help some students:

  • Offer an advance tour of ministry space and other relevant church environments.

  • Send pictures and names of key faces the student can expect to see.

  • Provide a map of the church campus, labeling rooms and highlighting travel routes.

  • Create a visual schedule with activity times, locations, and brief descriptions.

  • Use a stopwatch or visual timer as a countdown for current and upcoming activities.  

3) Provide printed guidelines for each ministry setting.

Every board game comes with a set of printed instructions. The instruction sheet establishes the purpose of the game and the rules for play. Ambiguity is removed and all players start with an equal understanding of what they can and cannot do during their turn. Some kids with neurodevelopmental disorders need the same type of instructions for “how to play” in the church youth group. Concrete guidelines can help the student who does not catch on to the unwritten rules of play that are typically communicated through social cues.

Because kids with ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, OCD, and many other disabilities are simultaneously dealing with internal tension (e.g. overstimulation, hyperfocus, nervousness, impulsivity, physical pain, hyperactive “running motor”), they easily miss what’s going on around them. A list of clearly stated “Do’s and Don’ts” along with a simple objective statement for each ministry setting may seem insulting, but is actually helpful for some students. Keep in mind that the rules should not be used as a way to shame or embarrass an individual who needs things spelled out literally or who requires regular reminders. In some cases it is best to provide the guidelines discreetly through email or private conversation.

4) Facilitate interaction for the student who struggles to communicate.

While ministry leaders can’t remove every obstacle, they can prompt and model interactions between the student with special needs and their peers. This often requires a leader to learn more about the communication abilities of a particular student and to create some out-of-the-box solutions. For example, a leader may learn that a student who rarely speaks during small group is actually an extrovert on social media. Odds are high that this silent kid in the corner will interact more with the small group via text or group chat. So in addition to asking discussion questions when the group is gathered, the leader also challenges group members to respond to posted discussion questions via text or a shared (and parent approved) chat app. This type of interaction is helpful for a student who:

  • Processes auditory information at a slower pace (i.e. doesn’t think fast on her feet)

  • Struggles to articulate thoughts

  • Speaks with inaudible, mumbled, or labored speech

  • Experiences distraction or overstimulation in the live group setting

  • Fails to interpret subtle, non-verbal, face-to-face communication

5. Remember that inclusion is more about a mindset than a perfect set of strategies.

Like John, not every student with special needs can successfully participate in every ministry activity. And that’s okay. What the student with disability really needs from a youth group is a sense of belonging. Inclusion happens when an individual feels known and accepted for whom God created them to be.

Action Points:

  • As you read this article, did a student’s face come to mind? While reflecting on their unique traits or needs, create one action step to follow up based on these ideas.
  • Do you have a student with challenging behaviors possibly attributable to a disability? Many behavior dilemmas can be prevented or eliminated once you identify the “trigger”. Take a sheet of paper and create 3 columns. In the middle column, note the undesirable behavior. To the left, describe events preceding the incident, and to the right note what happened after or in response. Keep an ongoing log for recurring behaviors. Journaling the behaviors and surrounding facts will either help to identify the cause or serve as the starting point for solution-oriented conversations with parents.
  • For a student unable to do all the same activities as their peers, write down two possible action steps to help them experience a sense of belonging inside the ministry.
  • Identify a knowledgeable person in your community whom you can approach to ask for guidance related to special needs inclusion. Write down their name and contact information. Good sources include:
    • Speech language pathologists
    • Occupational therapists
    • Pediatric physical therapists
    • Special education teachers
    • Social workers

Stay tuned for more in this series, as we address questions like, “Is it ever okay not to include a student?” And “How do I handle other kids, or other kids’ parents, who complain about the effect of special needs kids on themselves/their kids?


[2] The possible cause(s) behind the surge in autism is the subject of much debate and research.