Perhaps our children with special needs are not always at a disadvantage. Perhaps their mental, neurological, and even physical limitations place them at some advantage over their peers, at least when it comes to matters of the Christian faith. Jesus turns weakness into strength. I intend here to speak hope and consolation into the battle-scarred precincts of your home or classroom.
Children with Special Needs Face No Disadvantage in Spiritual Matters
In science, math, language, and physical coordination, our children with autism or other special needs may indeed struggle more than their peers. Reading comprehension, writing, or the abstractions of social understanding might take longer to grasp for children with special needs, but by the Holy Spirit they can become Christian instantly by faith in the hearing of the Word: “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).
Jesus “regardest not the person of men” (Matthew 22:16), as the King James Version so beautifully words this truth. The object of our faith is Jesus Christ, the living Word of God made flesh (John 1:1, Philippians 2:6-7). “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases” (Matthew 8:17). Jesus does not need us to overcome our limitations in order to believe. Jesus overcomes our limitations so that we may believe.
No disability of any sort—blindness (John 9:1-7), deafness (Mark 7:31-34), paralysis (Luke 5:17-26), or any other affliction (Matthew 4:24)—places anyone at a disadvantage when it comes to being Christian. God gives understanding (Psalm 119:169). The Lord gives faith (John 1:12-13). Faith is a divine miracle. In faith we all have weakness because we were all dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1, Colossians 2:13). But God “made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5).
The same health, learning, or behavioral conditions that place our sons and daughters with special needs at a disadvantage in almost every area of life might prove advantageous for their faith. They daily feel in their bodies and their minds the effects of living in a fallen, sinful world. They viscerally understand weakness. They routinely experience the thoughts and emotions that weakness engenders: jealousy, rage, sorrow, despair, grief, denial, desperation. This is more than the “normal” tantrums or fears experienced by their peers.
My son is aware of his challenges. He knows most of his conditions by name, including “autism.” He often asks, when the dust finally starts to settle after particular turmoil, “Why do I have this?” I hope my answers never sound dismissive: “Because our God is gracious. Because He intends for you to bless many people in unimaginable ways, as you already have. Because Jesus gives every Christian a cross and this one is yours. Because Jesus desires for you to live in His strength instead of your own.”
Perhaps because of their challenges, students with special needs might be in a position to appreciate the gospel more quickly or more deeply than their peers.
Teaching Children the Faith
Teaching simple habits can help cultivate faith in any child. These can become models for teaching in all areas of education and life.
1. Have brief but regular chapel or church services during the week, with simple and repeated forms of prayer, illustrated Bible stories, and manageable learn-by-heart verses that can be integrated into a homeschool, cottage school, or day school schedule. Your child’s special needs might dictate the amount of material you cover, the modality of presentation, or the time of day for attending chapel, but these disciplines build a firm foundation for every Christian.
2. Adopt the clear language of the liturgy for your everyday speech. Every Christian home has space available for honest phrases such as “Lord, have mercy!” and “Thanks be to God!” and “I forgive you.” Sometimes children with special needs struggle to express themselves. Your patterned speech, spoken in “sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8), will help to orient their thoughts and guide their tongues.
3. As part of your child’s regular spiritual diet, highlight passages of Scripture that show how God uses weakness, limitation, and need to create blessings for many people. The blind man in John 9 is a particularly beneficial example for children with special needs. “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents,” says the Lord, “but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). Paul likewise carried a daily burden that he desperately asked God to remove. God preferred to make good use of Paul’s burden: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
4. As you continue your own reading of the Scriptures, ask God to open your eyes, so that you may see wondrous things in His Word (Psalm 119:18). Likewise pray that God would give you an instructed tongue, “that [you] may know how to sustain with a word [your child] who is weary” (Isaiah 50:4). Who knows the wondrous ways God will lead you to use Joseph’s imprisonment (Genesis 39-41) and David’s courage (1 Samuel 17) and Job’s endurance (Job 19) for teaching the faith to your child with autism or other special needs.
5. Teach your child to pray. Hardship creates the need for prayer. Children with special needs already have the hardship. (Their families have the hardship, too.) Prayer draws our eyes and ears to the Scriptures, where God responds. In the Scriptures the miracle of the Christian faith begins, continues, and remains.
“To him who has no might He increases strength” (Isaiah 40:29)
Children with special needs often feel isolated. So do their parents. You are not alone; my wife and I live in exile with you. We do not always know what to do, either. Certain Bible verses breathe life into me. They have the power to fill your lungs, too.
“We had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict” (1 Thessalonians 2:2). Earlier I made reference to “the battle-scarred precincts of your home or classroom.” Perhaps I should have included the phrase “war weary.” For our family, the struggle is always mental, usually emotional, and frequently physical. But our Lord Jesus Christ voluntarily chose to enter a world of chaos. The good news of forgiveness and life in Christ creates the very best form of peace, and it does so in places where there is no peace.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Mental, neurological, and physical disabilities carry a dark side. In this darkness, the light of Christ often seems to shine like a tiny candle on a distant hill. But it still shines, and it will not go out.
“Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). In order for God’s good and gracious will to be done, my will must be broken. I owe thanks to my son. He has humbly allowed the heavenly Father to use him as a hammer and anvil to forge a more patient father, a more attentive husband, and a more understanding pastor. We are tasked with teaching our children, but sometimes the student becomes the teacher.