Spirituality and Disability: Raising a Christ Follower Who Happens to Have ‘Special Needs’

Heather Brower • 9 minutes

“Mr. and Mrs. Brower, your son has autism.” Dr. Nordhauser was a developmental pediatrician we were lucky to have gotten to see. She was the final step in our journey of figuring out why our precious 23-month-old son wasn’t meeting his developmental milestones. Her words were clear, firm, and sure—three words opposite of what I was feeling at that moment. I wasn’t a special educator. I didn’t have any training in teaching alternative communication methods or sensory integration. It’s funny, but God doesn’t always give children with special needs or disabilities to parents who are experts in their particular special needs or disability. 

When you’re a follower of Christ and you have a child, the biggest burden you feel is that they would come to know their heavenly Father and accept the love and salvation Jesus has provided for them. That they would live a life empowered by the Holy Spirit! It’s always been my most important goal for my kids—and myself. But, how would I teach my autistic son about Jesus? Would he care? Would he understand? Would he ever be able to communicate that to me if he did? Would my words and love ever get through to him?

It has never been up to us parents to change the hearts of our children. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit—and His work isn’t bound by human intellect or ability.

Ultimately, the questions I was struggling with were all based in my own lack of faith and my own misunderstandings about the power and love of our Father. It has never been up to us parents to change the hearts of our children. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit—and His work isn’t bound by human intellect or ability. His work is supernatural. And, of course, He loves our children even more than we do!

But, still, what’s a parent to do? Is it even worth talking about Jesus, God, salvation, etc. with a child who has an intellectual, social, or communication disability? Is it worth it when you can find yourself pretty much exhausted from just meeting their complex emotional, social, and physical needs each day? And, even if we pour our hearts into teaching our kids about Jesus, can they understand anyway?

Parents of children who have special needs have a lot on their plates. We have a lot of questions about our children’s development. And, we have questions about what their relationship with God might look like. Read on to find four big questions we often wonder about. Then, keep reading to discover five fun ways to teach our children with special needs about Jesus, no matter their age or ability level!

4 Big Questions Parents Have About Teaching Their Children with Special Needs About Jesus

1. Can my child become a Christian even if they have an intellectual disability?

If we’re all born with a sinful human nature, and my child doesn’t have the cognitive ability to repent or accept Jesus’ grace and follow Him as his “personal Lord and Savior,” then how is he supposed to be a Christian? What will happen to him when he dies? Will he go to heaven? These questions are real and can be overwhelming to a parent of a child or children with special needs. But, the good news is that we serve a God whose love and reach toward us is not bound by our cognitive abilities.

None of us understand God anywhere close to who He really is. The Bible describes us as knowing in part or as if we’re just catching reflections of understanding God. We may never be able to understand the mysteries of God and how He’s ordered the Universe. But most of us have enough understanding to choose to accept God’s grace and receive salvation.

But what about our children with special needs? Theologians have long thought that there is probably an “age of accountability” that is different for each person. It’s like the age of understanding. There’s nothing explicit about this in the Bible, but many Scriptures seem to support this thought. Our kids may never reach the level of understanding that grants them the ability to both understand what they ought to do and then to choose to do otherwise.

The bottom line? We’ll never truly know in full what’s going on in the minds of our children. We’re not God! As parents, our mandate to teach our children what is right, to tell them the good news that Jesus loves them and wants to make them friends with God, and to help them walk in God’s path as much as possible is the same for every child, regardless of their abilities. And that much we can do. Keep reading for ideas on how to do that!

2. Can my child become a Christian even if they have a communication disability—what about “confession of faith”?

Okay, let’s look at why this one freaks parents out sometimes. It’s mostly the verse in Romans 10:9 about confessing with our mouths that Jesus is Lord in order to be saved. Um, what if my kid has never spoken and may never be able to? First, let’s just reread the answers given in point 1. Next, let’s remember that we’re talking about a fully just God who saves us through His grace, not our works. If you feel your son or daughter is mentally able to process what you’re teaching them about Jesus, but they’re not able to express their words to you or God verbally, then God is more than able to meet them at their level of ability. He never requires us to do something we’re unable to do. That’s what His grace is all about.

3. How do I talk to my child with special needs about baptism?

This is a great question. And, I’m fortunate that I was able to walk my son through baptism a couple of years ago. When he first asked about it, he wanted a chance to swim at church. I knew the time wasn’t right! But, eventually, he was asking about baptism. Then he asked if he could be baptized. He seemed to understand, so we went for it! It turned out to be a significant day for our family. We still talk about it. If your child expresses a desire to be baptized, then I suggest explaining it and going for it! If you’re worried the experience might be overwhelming, you can talk to your church’s leadership to see if there might be an alternative location or time for your child to be baptized. Maybe being baptized in a pool they’re familiar with would be a great fit for your child.

4. How will I know if my child understands about following Christ?

Such a difficult question to answer, no matter what your child’s abilities are. In fact, I think it’s impossible to answer. So I won’t even try! Parents, no matter what our children’s ability levels are, there are some things we just can’t fully know. I truly feel this answer falls back into “What can I do, as a parent, to help my child find and stay on God’s path?” And, we’ll get there! Keep reading, and you’ll find my best recommendations.

5 Ways to Teach Children with Special Needs About Jesus

1. Be a role model

My friend Alice lives this beautifully. Her son, Caleb, has significant physical and intellectual disabilities due to a rare genetic disorder. I asked her how she passes her faith along to her son, and this is what she said: “I see my faith as my identity, a part of who I am and not an item on my to-do list. I am a follower of Christ. It is the air I breathe, the food I eat, and the rest I seek. I make it a regular, natural and normal part of my day. When I see God work, whether in nature, in the lives of people or in circumstances, I try to make a point to share those observations with Caleb. Every day I have some discussion about God … If you look for God, you will always find Him. I try to make this a normal part of our life—to find God in the ordinary and share it.”

2. Pray together

I cannot stress this one enough. Prayer is real. It may be the most real thing we parents ever do for our children’s spiritual health. Our prayers will outlive us and will continue to bless and petition our Father’s heart even when we’ve left our children for the life that’s yet to come. When you pray out loud, your child may join you in their heart. You may never know the impact your prayers have made on your child this side of heaven. If your child can repeat words after you, let them repeat prayers. If they can communicate with you, ask them what they want to talk to God about. Then, you can talk to God about that together. Prayer is bonding, not just between God and mankind, but also between parent and child.

3. Integrate God into your daily routines

When you’re on your way to therapy, ask God to give your child’s therapists wisdom to understand what will help support your child. When you’re not sure how to handle a difficult diagnosis, your first line of defense can be asking God for wisdom on what your next steps should be. When you’re helping your child get dressed, you can thank God out loud for creating their body and for giving you clothes to wear. When you’re teaching a new routine, you can talk to your child about how God created the whole world to work in order, just like how our new toothbrushing schedule will keep our teeth in order! Give yourself grace, parent!

4. Find curriculum that works for your child

Do you know what your teen would enjoy watching to learn about God and godliness? It surely doesn’t have to be the same thing their typically developing peers would enjoy! There is a ton of free content you can find at www.life.church/kids for your family. I know a group of teens who are currently meeting on Wednesday nights. Each of the teens has a developmental disability. They’re currently using the Early Childhood curriculum and are loving it! They’re learning Scripture and are able to quote what they’ve learned to their families and at their schools. All of the videos and music are available online for you to watch at home. It’s pretty cool to see how God uses the power of fun, imaginative stories to teach His children—young and old, no matter their ability level.

5. Make it musical

One of my family’s favorite ways to experience joy in our walk with God is through music. My son’s first conversation with me (besides just repeating back whatever I just said to him) was when he quoted lyrics to a song he had learned at church in LifeKids. Music affects us in profound and positive ways even scientists scratch their heads over. Is your child having a bad day? Try playing some worship music and watch the mood in your home lift a bit. I’ll give you some favorites to get your playlist started!

Raising a Christ-follower who happens to have a disability can happen just as surely as raising a Christ-follower who doesn’t. Regardless of the abilities our children were born with, we parents need to persevere and let our faith fill in when our eyes can’t see whether or not we’re making a difference. We can lead by example. We can love our children. We can give them an environment where Jesus is a part of the daily vernacular. We can pray. We can extend grace to ourselves when we’re weary and don’t get a single parenting thing right for a whole month! And—best of all—we can watch as God reveals Himself to ourselves and our children in ways we may never have expected.