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Churches reach out to children with special needs

Lora Hinkel grew up going to church with her family. Now that she has her own family, she has continued this tradition. But her son found it difficult to sit through services.

Her son, Blake, has autism. She tried to make accommodations by taking her son out into the hall or into another room. But eventually, they stopped going to church altogether.

“I’m someone who grew up very Catholic, I did sign language interpreting at the churches, I was involved in the Newman Center, and in college I went faithfully, but for the first time in my life I quit going to church, and we didn’t go for several years,” Hinkel said.

Hinkel is not the only one facing this challenge. She runs a support group for other moms who have children with autism. Many members have told her similar stories – some of them have even been asked to leave church.

Hearing these stories broke Hinkel's heart. So when Tim Carson, the senior pastor at Broadway Christian Church in Columbia, came to talk with her about a completely different program, she brought up the problems she and the people in her support group faced. Carson could clearly see a need.

“Of all of those parents who have children with disabilities maybe a third of them have the interest in participating in a religious community but they’re kind of marooned," Carson said. "They’re just out there because they don’t have access."

But Hinkel's concern started a conversation, which led to the church creating a program for children who have special needs. It's called "All God's Children."

Carson also has a personal connection to the program – one of his children has Asperger syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. His perspective helped give Broadway Christian Church a greater understanding.

He said churches of all sizes can – and should – have programs like this one.

“You can devise some meaningful kind of ways to accompany those children,” Carson said. “But you have to be willing and aware. It’s not enough to be friendly.”

All God’s Children is for kids in kindergarten through 5th grade. It meets during worship service from 11 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. Many of the volunteers and interns come from health and education departments at the University of Missouri.

Cassidy Shannon is one of those volunteers. She heard about the program through a professor in the occupational therapy school. She hopes to get experience for a future job and enjoys that she gets to do so in a church setting.

“It’s just nice to have a place where they’re definitely accepted and they can act out. Like if they do act out it’s not a big deal and there’s people that understand what’s happening,” Shannon said.

Stephanie McGee runs All God’s Children. To accommodate for the children, she says the curriculum is the same as the one their peers are using – just modified a bit.

“We want the kids to be involved in the same sorts of activities because kids are kids are kids,” McGhee said. “So these children that participate in the All God’s Children program, first and foremost they are kids, and they’re kids going to Sunday school. So, I want them – we, the program, want those children to have similar if not the same experiences as their peers.”

Now, the church is working on a program for older students. The program will include peer mentorship and adult support within the youth group. McGhee said that integration programs don’t only help the children with special needs but their peers, as well.

As children are integrated with each other, they learn that "people are people are people," McGhee said. They learn, "Okay, you’re just a little different. My friend over there has red hair, she’s a little different, my friend over here wear’s glasses, he’s a little different and my friend back there uses a wheelchair to get around. It’s a slight difference but it’s just a difference."

Broadway Christian Church has also been a guide for another church that wanted to start a similar program – The Crossing Church. At The Crossing, each child with special needs is paired with an older buddy, to help guide them in the same classroom as their peers.

Ariel Morrison is a buddy in the second grade room. She enjoys the times when she's not necessarily needed, because it means her young buddy is doing well listening and working with the other kids.

"You can kind of watch from a bit of a distance,” Morrison said. “And they’re still identifying with you as a buddy, but they’re adjusting more to seeing themselves as an active part of class rather than having the child buddy unit all the time. And that’s really encouraging, as well, to see the progress. “

Some churches that want to start special needs Sunday school programs of their own don’t always know how. To meet this need, a Mormon church in Olathe, Kansas, hosted a conference to help faith communities of all kinds better serve people with special needs. Karin Thomas was in charge of the conference.

“Basically the information was just the same as that given out in a school classroom,” Thomas said. “It’s just the schoolteachers, the Special Ed teachers and the parents are so much better trained, and the church teachers are not.”

Danyelle Ferguson spoke at the conference. She co-authored the book “Disabilities and the Gospel: How to Bring People with Special Needs Closer to Christ.” Her son has autism, and she said it’s important to start talking about these needs in churches.

“If the pastor and the church leaders don’t know that there is a need, then it’s not something that they will make a priority to find out, because there are so many other needs within a congregation," she said. "Not because it isn’t important to them just because, it’s just, they’re meeting the needs that they know of."

Broadway Christian Church has plans to hold a conference of its own in March. Carson hopes churches in the area will use this as a resource.

As for Hinkel, she hopes her son will continue to enjoy going to Sunday school and creating his own church family.

“The more people that we have behind him to support him in this loving environment, to know that he is loved by God, to know that he has a church community who loves him – I would just like for him to be in that kind of environment,” Hinkel said.

*Editor's note: Tim Carson and Ariel Morrison, both sources in this story, write for Columbia Faith & Values.