3 Ways to Love Your Special Needs Students Well

As I continue to grow, fail, and be challenged in my pastoral journey I have learned a few things about how to love the special needs students in my youth group. These lessons have come as I’ve let go of how I think ministry ought to be done and instead opened my ears to my students’ voices. I am not an expert here but just a person sincerely trying to love and learn.

Faithful ministry looks more like inclusion and less like separation.

This was Ricky’s first Fall Retreat with our youth group. His mom was tentative to sign him up because she wasn’t sure I was “okay with him going.” Ricky has diabetes and Down syndrome. I understand why his mom was hesitant. Ricky’s behavior is different than those of his peers. People often struggle knowing how they should interact with him. But in Jesus’ kingdom, Ricky is not a problem; he’s a beloved child of God with a good purpose and calling. 

Ricky joined us for Fall Retreat. A youth sponsor was trained to check Ricky’s insulin levels, and his small group leader ensured he remained included with the group. There were a few logistics to prepare for, but the most important thing we did was love and include him. The fruit of all this paid off on Sunday morning when we had a testimony time for students to share about God’s work. Ricky shared FOUR TIMES! It is very difficult to understand what Ricky is saying when he speaks so most of what he shared was not intelligible to the group. But every time he finished, our group would break out in big smiles and loud applause. 

The groundwork was laid for all this because Ricky is consistently involved in weekly youth group and small group. He shares his highs and lows, gives his input in group discussions, and prays for his small group. Ricky is loved; therefore, his voice and presence are valued.

Faithful ministry looks like personally entering the world of the student you are pastoring.

Shelly is another student in our youth group. She loves drawing comics, inventing superheroes, and creating YouTube videos for her channel. Sometimes, we need someone to pave the way for others to know how to relate to our students with special needs. Shelly, who has autism, used to stay in the margins when she first entered the youth group. One of our small group leaders began to draw Shelly out more and more as she learned of Shelly’s interests.

As this youth staff member began to enter Shelly’s world through intentional conversations, Shelly began to open up. She started bringing her sketchpad to church to show off her comics and inventions. She shared about her YouTube channel and other creations. This gave other students a way to connect with Shelly. Shelly has moved from being the one off in the corner to having friends with shared interests.

Faithful ministry includes diverse examples of Jesus-followers for students to emulate.

This one was not a masterfully inspired ministry plan but a coincidence that taught me a lot. Ryan was a freshman who struggled to connect with the guys in his class. In Sunday school, we went through “The Chosen,” a TV series about the life of Jesus and the ordinary people that followed Him. Each week, Ryan would talk about how he most connected with the character Matthew (in the show). 

Week after week, Ryan would share how strongly he continued to connect with the character, Matthew. Like Ryan, Matthew is a person with autism. On our last week in the series, Ryan said, “I found it very impactful to realize that ‘someone like me’ was called to follow Jesus too.” I don’t know if the connection is direct, but since that lesson series, I have observed significantly more confidence and participation from Ryan. I have also seen our other students show a greater acceptance of Ryan. Representation matters.

More important than the size of your youth group and the quality of your programming is the size and quality of your love for the students you shepherd. Don’t let your lack of experience with special needs limit you to hold these students at arm’s length; instead, let your love draw you in. 

David Goodwin