The Inclusive Church

Including Teens with Special Needs – The Challenge

For the rest of this week, we’ll be spotlighting special needs inclusion in youth ministry environments. Today’s post is the first of three posts where Katie Garvert previews the preconference workshop she’ll be leading at the upcoming Orange Conference.

Katie Garvert leads the Access Ministries of Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs. Over the past nine years Katie has helped WVC establish inclusion programming over virtually every age and stage for this multisite church. Access ministry hosts a dad’s support group, regular parent respite events, sibling retreats and respite camp for students with special needs. Katie also oversees the church’s deaf and hard of hearing ministry. Follow Katie on Twitter @wvcaccess.


AFL: I’m hearing from a number of church leaders who are struggling to include older kids and teens with special needs. Why is teen inclusion difficult?

KG: Two reasons come to mind. As our team has come to better understand the root problems, we’ve been able to come up with some good solutions.

1. The very nature of student ministry is social and relationship-driven. The typical student is really into their friends. The tool for life-change is shared experiences and conversation with other students. So, a good youth pastor is constantly thinking about how they can create an environment that invites interaction. But for the student who has poor social skills or struggles to communicate, the idea of conversation and interaction with others is not appealing. For some students with special needs, they literally can’t think of anything they’d enjoy less than having to be social. And who blames them? No one enjoys doing things they aren’t naturally good at.

Students with special needs can be easily misunderstood. One individual might be unfiltered, blurting out the first thought that pops into their head. Another student with disability struggles to form and express complete sentences. Both scenarios create tension for the student with special needs as well as their peers, who may be attempting to interact. Typically developing students sometimes react harshly in these awkward moments. In general, teens don’t exactly have the market cornered on emotional maturity. They’re still developing. So, odds are high that a student with severe ADHD or high functioning autism has already had a number of uncomfortable peer encounters by the time they reach your youth ministry. Perhaps this student was even bullied by some of the others that show up at youth group. You can see why the very tool (social interaction) that a student ministry team uses may be the one thing that a student with special needs associates with failure.

2. Parents and students with special needs often disagree on their goals for church participation. Let me illustrate this challenge. Just before anyone who has come through our special needs ministry promotes from children’s ministry to student ministry, our leadership meets with each family. We bring the parents and student together along with someone from our ministry team. First, we ask parents to share their goals for their daughter or son’s participation in the church youth group. Nearly always, we hear things like “be active in a small group;” “make quality friends;” and “participate in a student ministry mission trip.” After parents have shared their desires, we then ask the student to talk about the student ministry experience they envision for themselves. And it is not uncommon for us to hear this response:

“Nothing. I don’t want to be at church at all.”

We dive a little deeper with the promoting student and the story that emerges is fairly predictable. For this student, moving up to the youth groups feels like a setup for failure. His or her memory bank isn’t full of successful interactions in social situations. Most likely . . .

And to add to this list, nothing sounds worse than traveling on a mission trip, an experience full of unfamiliar environments and changes to their routine.

Mom and dad have their own goals for their son or daughter. And either consciously or subconsciously, the parents are pushing against the grain with their child. This push is causing even more resistance from the student. And as a ministry team, we feel it. (To the student’s credit, they are probably more in tune with their differences and the realities that accompany them.) In situations like this, a church can easily feel like they are in a no-win situation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. At Woodmen Valley Chapel, we’ve found solutions—great solutions—for scenarios like this.

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To read subsequent posts in this series:
Part 2: Including Teens with Special Needs – Parent Partnership
Part 3: 5 Strategies to Include Teens with Special Needs