This is an example of working with a special needs child and how communication is key for the success of reaching the child and the family.
Several years ago, a young boy who we’ll call “J” came to our church and Awana Club. “J” is on the autism scale and though he is what I would call “highly functional”, there are nuances and things that will set him “off”.
He would not always participate in gametime and we sometimes allowed him to “play” off on the side. As we noticed that he was picking and choosing what games he wanted to play, we began to not allow him to play some games and not others. His mother wanted him to participate in all areas of Awana, and so by doing this, we were working with and supporting her goals.
“J” did well in Awana and then one year, he had a TSS (Therapeutic Support Staff) helping him during Awana. I knew the person would be there, but I never knew her role and how to interact with her as she did her job working with “J”. Consequently, “J” began to regress because I, and the leaders, no longer interacted with him as we normally would and yielded that to the TSS. The TSS also had no knowledge of Awana, or how we normally interacted with him.
After a few weeks, a month or so, my wife and I invited the mom to lunch to talk about her son and how we could better minister to him and what the role of the TSS was and how we should be interacting with her. It was a good lunch meeting and the TSS stopped assisting shortly thereafter. “J” would have trouble sitting still during council time (large group time) and so we provided a coloring sheet for a few weeks until he re-adjusted to the night.
Being detail oriented, “J” was used to how the typical night ran and so any deviation (especially backwards night) would be difficult for him, which we experienced at times. I learned to let the mom know ahead of time if there would be any variation to the night so that she could prepare “J” ahead of time to make the night go smoother for him and for the Awana leaders.
TIP: You can post a schedule of the night on a board at the entrance for all to see each Awana club night. The child will get used to looking at the board for potential changes to the night. Place a star or something indicating what will be different. This way, even “changes” become “normal” for the child.
By letting the parent know that we cared about their child and seeking their input, we were able to open up lines of communication to work together to better minister to the child. “Buzz words” that the parent used to teach “J” we began to use, like “space” (he had his personal space, etc) . If we did something to try to help “J” learn a verse, we shared what we did before they went home so the mom could continue that style to keep consistency.
“J” has since moved away, but there will always be a special bond between us. I’ll keep in touch, pray for him and see him when able.
With good communication with the parent, things may not have always been perfect, but they went a lot better than when we did not communicate. So if you’re not sure how, or are struggling, reaching a child with special needs, invite the parent out to lunch or dinner, then ask, “How can I better minister to your child?” and then most importantly, listen and open the lines of communication.