Apr 14, 2016: KLICE Comment Apr 2016

Growing up with Joshua: including an adolescent with special needs in the church

Kirsty Jones is a KLICE Research Associate working towards an MPhil in the Divinity Faculty, Cambridge, focusing on a biblical ethics of disability and issues of inclusion in the Old Testament.

n the November issue of KLICE Comment, I introduced you to Joshua, a child on the autistic spectrum, who arrived at a hypothetical church. I raised a number of considerations for including children like Joshua in your church children’s work, and his family in your church family. By ‘growing up’ with Joshua, we will chart the ways in which churches can support children, young people and adults with special needs – not only ensuring their presence in the church, but equipping, inspiring and engaging them to fulfil their God-given potential.

Imagine that Joshua is now 12 years old. After being at a mainstream primary school, he is now at a special secondary school, and attends the youth group at church on a Sunday morning. Some of the suggestions in this, and my previous piece, will place demands of time and energy on individuals in the church. By now, I hope it is clear that special needs work shouldn’t be the role of one individual, but a team. It takes a whole church to include a Joshua!


Earlier I raised the importance of boundaries and routine. These are also central when considering the transition between groups at church. Hopefully, Joshua has become familiar and comfortable with some of his peers, and the church setting as a whole, but moving into the youth group will pose a different set of issues. New leaders, new routine, a new room, all may disorientate Joshua. Prepare for the transition by introducing him to the leaders, the room and by discussing the routine of the session well before the move occurs. Perhaps record a session for him to watch at home (with permissions). Be mindful that the initial sessions may be difficult, and have a back-up plan in place. Try to avoid having returning to the old group as part of a back-up plan, however, as this will generally prove more confusing for someone with autism.

The transition to secondary school, in Joshua’s case a special school, is challenging for all families. When a parent is concerned about their child’s special needs, the issues are complex, especially if a decision between mainstream and special education is made. Support from the church, both spiritual and practical (prayer, babysitting, attending meetings) is invaluable, as is having an awareness of the procedure and how it is progressing.

Awareness and communication are as important with teens as with children. For example, a positive change in behaviour in the school context which is not mirrored in the church context may signal a new behavioural regime at school which is working well, and which you could implement. It may be possible to arrange a visit to the school to meet teachers and specialists who can advise on how best to support an individual, and give some ideas about teaching systems which could be used in church teaching sessions. Additionally, consider asking parents if you could consult their home-school communication diary. Being open minded, and listening to a range of individuals involved with the care of a teen like Joshua can greatly encourage and equip leaders to come alongside him at church.  

Social Navigation

Joshua is starting to become more aware that, while he looks the same as his peers, he feels, thinks and acts differently, which they don’t always understand. Social situations are difficult; like many people with autism, Joshua often misinterprets words and actions, with potentially awful consequences. Jostling boys become threatening when he can’t ascertain if they are playing, or fighting; giggling girls become mockers when he doesn’t understand why they are laughing. Orientating himself and interacting within a group are difficult, and he may often appear withdrawn.

For Joshua, social skills need to be learned; they don’t come naturally, and unwritten social rules are complex. Staring is negative, but eye contact positive; honest comments about a person’s ridiculous outfit are encouraged, dishonest comments discouraged; touching a stranger is wrong, but shaking a stranger’s hand is right. If children with special needs attend a special school, church is a valuable opportunity to interact with neuro-typical peers, but care must be taken to avoid social difficulties that might prevent church being a positive experience. It is difficult territory to navigate, especially as the adult ‘helper’ may start to become something of a barrier to integration. Consider asking a few young people in the group to ‘buddy’ Joshua, to help explain things to him and to include him in their activities, and encourage older peers to help as a 1:1 aide to Joshua, and be an appropriate role-model. Ensure that social events outside of the Sunday routine, including camps and trips, have inclusive frameworks, find people to help Joshua out, and, importantly, make it known to him and his parents how welcome he is whatever the church is doing.

Two years down the line we have a 14-year-old boy, who is non-communicative, moody, awkward and unpredictable – sound familiar? The truth is that Joshua’s autism does not prevent adolescence. What it does inhibit, however, is appropriate responses to hormones, and reactions to physical and psychological changes. Sensitive communication with parents is vital, and it is better to raise issues before problems occur. People with autism may, for example, be unable to gauge which behaviours and topics are private and public, and how to interact with people of the opposite gender. Be mindful too that unwanted behaviour may either be adolescence or autism showing itself, and discuss procedure for dealing with behavioural issues relating to both.

Form and Content of Teaching

As children grow into teenagers and move into youth groups at church, the intellectual demands placed on them in sessions tend to increase. This can prove problematic when members of the group have special needs, though not all members with special needs will find the same things difficult. Think about ways to make the teaching more accessible: if you have a reading element and then a spoken message, perhaps provide easy-to-read versions, and a simplified video of the message which someone can watch on a laptop and then discuss with a leader. By doing so, individuals are involved in the group, but receiving stage-appropriate teaching.

Don’t expect stage-appropriate responses though, or limit what is taught unnecessarily; the format, not the content of teaching frequently needs to be changed. It is easy to forget that knowledge is not necessarily cognitive, but also relational – John’s Gospel frequently speaks of knowledge (οἶδα/γινώσκω) in this manner (e.g. 14:7, 20): inspire both. Model relationships, love graciously and outrageously, and teach love as well as facts. Time spent in church for individuals with special needs should not only be a time of fun, or an opportunity for parents to have a break (though, of course, these are essential). We do Joshua an injustice if we fail to teach him about Jesus Christ, his life, love and teachings, and lived responses to him.

Does all this seem like a huge challenge to your already stretched team, or individuals within it? Remember, prayer is essential. God cares about building communities, and having relationships with everyone, even those who find inter-personal relationships difficult. We must always be mindful of our roles as facilitators of God’s message. However hard we try, it is ultimately the Lord who will work through what is being taught to bring cognitive and relational knowledge. Our only duty is to be faithful and to let him work through us to draw people, including Joshua, closer to himself.

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