Embracing Members with Special Needs
August 2005

“Embracing Members with Special Needs,” Ensign, Aug. 2005, 12–15

Embracing Members with Special Needs

It is often difficult to know how to meet the needs of individuals and families whose lives are affected by disabilities, but there are many things we can do to help. The following experiences offer insight into what we as ward or branch members can do to reach out to our brothers and sisters who struggle with mental, behavioral, or developmental disabilities.

Going the Extra Mile

Like many other boys in our ward, my son Adam attends sacrament meeting, participates in his Primary class, goes to sharing time, and takes part in Cub Scouts. But when another ward member saw Adam sitting alone at an activity and walked over to greet him, Adam’s only contribution to the conversation was a periodic yell intended to scare people away. Adam lives with autism, which causes some mental disability and many unusual behaviors. Through our experiences, I have learned some important ways that a ward can accommodate children with mental or behavioral challenges.

Primary teachers can help a child with disabilities have positive experiences in class by being willing to modify their teaching style. One such teacher was Sister Richwine. She did not seem worried about having Adam in her class. She was very interested in learning how to help Adam have a positive experience and asked me for advice on how to best reach him. She cared, she asked, she prepared, and then she went the extra mile to serve my son.

Priesthood and auxiliary leaders can also help by periodically discussing the child’s progress with his or her parents and encouraging other ward members to be patient as the child learns appropriate behavior. As ward leaders have sought to understand Adam’s behavior and learn what helps him deal with certain situations, they show respect and sensitivity and are better able to know how to help our son.

Individual ward members have perhaps the greatest opportunity for helping members with disabilities feel accepted and loved at church. Although Adam may have the mental capacity of a five-year-old, ward members who treat him according to his actual age give him the gift of respect. A ward can also help integrate children with disabilities into meetings and activities by calling one-on-one helpers to attend with them until they feel comfortable on their own. In Adam’s case, his helpers sat with him in Primary, encouraging him and helping him understand what was expected of him.

Ward members who seek to learn from and genuinely reach out to those who are different experience what Sister Virginia H. Pearce described as “a real laboratory for practicing gospel principles like patience, long-suffering, charity, and forgiveness” (“Ward and Branch Families: Part of Heavenly Father’s Plan for Us,” Ensign, Nov. 1993, 81).

Cindy Gaddis, High Point Ward, Winston-Salem North Carolina Stake

What Ward Members Can Do

As my son passed the sacrament for the first time, I glanced around the congregation and saw that mine were not the only tears of joy shed for his accomplishment that day. The loving influence of many ward members had helped him and his brother, who both struggle with developmental delays and severe learning disabilities, to progress spiritually and experience the joy of the gospel. Through the years, I have learned that ward members can do many things to embrace and serve members with special needs.

When my youngest son turned eight and was ready to be baptized, our bishop helped him prepare, even drawing pictures on his office chalkboard to explain difficult concepts to my son during his baptismal interview. Later, when my oldest son was preparing to receive the priesthood, our bishop ensured that the priesthood interview would be a positive experience by taking him out for ice cream during the week and discussing the upcoming interview in a more relaxed setting.

Primary leaders also helped our sons participate. When the boys were younger, it was difficult for them to give talks, so our Primary presidency suggested that the boys hold up pictures while I told a story. Another time, one son was asked to be a shepherd in our ward’s Christmas play. On the night of the program, he expressed his great joy at the birth of the Savior by vigorously waving his hands. And that was OK! Many people told me they were delighted that he had participated. Acceptance is one of the greatest gifts a child can be given.

Most of all, ward members have helped our sons experience the joy of the gospel by showing simple kindnesses. When someone stops to say hi to them in the hall at church, it makes their day. When members ask them to help set tables or serve food at a ward activity, they feel important and needed.

I remember the day I watched my oldest son walk out the door with his father to fulfill his first Church calling—that of home teacher. Now, years later, my adult sons are both active members of our ward. One son serves as the chorister during priesthood opening exercises, while his brother enjoys his calling as Sunday School secretary. Recognizing that each of us wants to feel needed and valued, our bishopric prayerfully chose callings the boys could enjoy and succeed at.

As ward members appreciate and include those with disabilities, all will be blessed with an increased sense of kindness, empathy, and compassion. Instead of seeing the disability, the dear members of our ward see children of God. How grateful I am for the gospel, for the knowledge that we are all children of Heavenly Father with special talents and strengths, and for seeing firsthand what the love of ward members can do.

Jeannie Lancaster, Big Thompson Ward, Loveland Colorado Stake

Growing Pains

Like most girls her age, my beautiful daughter Lisa attends high school and loves to be with her friends. However, unlike most, she has to face the world with the challenge of having learning disabilities.

Learning disabilities are often referred to as the “hidden handicap” because there is no outward appearance of the disability. But like the more obvious disabilities, learning disabilities pervade every aspect of the person’s functioning. Lisa’s disabilities cause her to have trouble with language, arithmetic, reasoning, short-term memory, social cueing, social awareness, and more. Nevertheless, she has faced these challenges head-on with courage and happiness.

We live in a wonderful ward, and you could say that in a way Lisa, our family, and our ward members have grown up together with this disorder. Our family has always encouraged Lisa’s full involvement in the Church as much as possible and emphasized it with a can-do attitude. The ward members have tried to do the same. Over the years, many of our ward members have helped Lisa with such things as Primary activities, girls’ camp, talent nights, lip syncs, service projects, baptisms for the dead, and a pioneer trek. For all this, we are very grateful.

We have found that strategies that have worked in the past in integrating Lisa into our ward’s social fabric are not working as well anymore. We have found that continued awareness needs to be given to the person with the disorder and to their interactions with the ward peer group and ward members in general. Problems can develop from misinformation or a lack of information about the disorder, a fear of talking with the person or family about problems or changes that are occurring, and a lack of recognition of growth and maturity.

In recent months we have noticed that Lisa has become less enthusiastic about what is going on at church. She has expressed feelings of loneliness and frustration. When we could see that she was losing the desire to participate, we talked with her and suggested that she, her ward peers, and other ward members might be going through some growing pains. We encouraged her not to give up and lose all the good efforts and good feelings of the past, but to work through the problems and look for some new solutions. Lisa agreed to be more aware of the impact her learning disabilities have on her interactions with others and to work a little harder, and we agreed to work more closely with her ward leaders and peers, as well as their families, providing them with better information and suggestions.

We are grateful that our ward members are willing to work through problems that come from having a member with lifelong disabilities. Lisa is a wonderful gift in our lives. She is a testimony that Heavenly Father loves and watches over all of His children.

Lori Layton, Cottonwood Third Ward, Salt Lake Cottonwood Stake

Helping Parents of Children with Disabilities

Following are some ways to help support parents of those with disabilities:

  • Ask parents about their son or daughter. Be willing to listen.

  • Don’t dismiss parents’ concerns about their child’s development.

  • Don’t expect parents or siblings to “come to terms” with a family member’s disability quickly.

  • Don’t suggest that parents were given a child with disabilities because they are so strong. This can prevent parents from expressing their true feelings.

  • Make specific offers of help to parents, their child, or their other children.

  • Provide physical arrangements in the chapel or classrooms to make members with disabilities and their families comfortable.

  • Educate your family and other ward members on the child’s disability, and encourage them to set an example of compassion.

  • Bear testimony of the Savior’s love for everyone.

Helping Those with Disabilities

Many people with disabilities feel isolated and would love to have someone reach out in true friendship to them. These suggestions can help ward members create positive interactions with individuals in their ward who struggle with disabilities:

  • Value the person. Treat him or her as a child of God.

  • Engage in meaningful conversation. Ask genuine questions that will allow you to get to know the person better. Resist the tendency to talk condescendingly or more slowly.

  • Offer to spend some time together outside of official Church activities (where appropriate). This will help the individual with disabilities avoid loneliness, and it will help you see personality traits and talents that might not be noticeable at church or in a group setting.

  • Be willing to share things about yourself with those with disabilities. Letting them get to know you is just as important as your getting to know them.

  • Show love. Little things—a smile, a note, a phone call, an invitation to be included—can make all the difference.

Photography by Craig Dimond, posed by models