Ministering to Neurodivergent Kids

Marie Osborne

Marie Osborne
Updated Aug 03, 2023
Ministering to Neurodivergent Kids

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if... our children can come [to the church] messy and broken and be loved and accepted in the midst of their struggles?

“I am so glad you called. I wanted to talk to you about your son and some of the things that we’ve observed at church.” I wanted to reach out to our church after my son moved up to the next grade level on Sunday mornings. Based on his description to us, I didn’t expect the conversation to go great, but I was hoping for the best. 

I’ve had this conversation before as both a children’s ministry director and the parent of a neurodiverse child. I worked in children’s ministry full-time for nearly a decade before I became a special needs mom (for almost 12 years now). I’ve had this conversation many times. Sometimes it goes well. Sometimes it goes poorly. 

Ministering to Neurodivergent Kids Is HARD

This time, the children’s director proceeded to list the issues my son had in class before I could even get a word in edgewise. Not so great. I felt tears prick my eyes. I know about all of this. This is how he behaves at home, how he is at school, with friends and family. I have lived with his social and emotional issues for years. I didn’t really need them listed out for me. But I also know where she is coming from. I know how hard it is to manage a ministry, to keep volunteers, to keep a classroom under control, and to make sure everyone’s needs are being met. I get it.

It’s hard navigating church as a family with a neurodivergent child. I’ve had good and bad experiences at Bible studies, at VBS, at camps, and at churches on Sundays. It’s hard ministering to neurodiverse kids and their families. These kids have invisible disabilities that often don’t become apparent until they disrupt the classroom. Children and youth pastors are often flying blind ministering to these kids, especially since every kid is so different and every circumstance so unique. However, in my years of experience, there are a few things that have stood out to me as particularly hurtful and other things that have been especially helpful.

Understanding Neurodivergent Kids and Their Families

One of the things that I struggled with when I worked in full-time ministry was wondering why parents didn’t come forward to tell us more about what was going on with the child. Why are you not telling us about their diagnosis or giving us a heads-up about their behavior? This happens for a few reasons, and it isn’t always “denial” or avoidance as I assumed for many years. Truthfully, it can take many years to get a diagnosis. For the first 10 years of my son’s life, all I could say to church staff members was, “he can be a handful sometimes,” or “he’s a quirky kid.” I didn’t have a name for what was going on or an easy way to explain his struggles. Another thing to consider is the child may not want people to know about their diagnosis. They may not want to be known as the kid with ADHD or Autism everywhere they go. This usually stems from having experienced rejection or hurt when revealing their behaviors and diagnosis to others, which makes parents reluctant to share with church staff.  

Neurodivergent kids and their families are coming to you hurt and tired. Our children are often seen as a list of negative behaviors. These behaviors are brought to our attention in the looks we get, the comments we hear, the meetings at school, the conversations at family gatherings, and the appointments with doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, and counselors. We spend a lot of time hearing (and witnessing) how our child’s behaviors are impacting others negatively. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church could be a place where none of that matters? Where our children can come messy and broken and be loved and accepted in the midst of their struggles?

Identifying Our Biases and Goals

Before talking to any special needs family, staff members and volunteers need to address their personal bias in ministering to neurodivergent kids. There are people of different generations and different backgrounds that have different opinions about whether or not these diagnoses are even real. Staff members and volunteers need to identify and set aside their personal biases in this area. They may personally believe these kids need more discipline or a stronger hand. That these issues are made up or overdiagnosed. The truth is these children are struggling. Whether it’s identified as ADHD, Autism, OCD, Auditory Processing, Sensory Issues, or Anxiety. These kids are having a hard time. They have challenges. They are different than typical kids and all of that is real.

Additionally, staff and volunteers need to check what their goal is when they talk to these kids and parents. Is your goal to regain control in the classroom and make sure this child is not a disruption to others? Or is your goal to make sure this family and child feel welcomed, loved, and accepted just as they are? I get it. Neurodivergent kids often exhibit behaviors that could be described as disruptive, disobedient, and disrespectful. That can create a very chaotic classroom environment making it even more difficult to run a ministry. 

Believe me, I understand. Classroom control is important. Showing respect, exhibiting self-control, and being aware of others’ needs and feelings is important. And these are all things neurotypical kids can learn when they see the example of grace, patience, and acceptance lived out in the classroom. Is your goal to make sure every kid listens to the teaching? Or is your goal that every child or student learns to live out the teaching? Having neurodivergent kids exhibit disruptive behaviors in a neurotypical classroom provides a unique opportunity for ministries. Here you have the “least of these” on display, and the other kids in the class are watching. How are they treated? How is the situation handled? If they get to watch the adults in charge show genuine love, compassion, patience, and understanding, well, that is more powerful than any sermon.

How to Minister to Neurodivergent Kids WELL

One of the most helpful approaches I have seen and experienced is when an adult seems genuinely excited to spend time with my child. When I bring my son to youth camp, to small group, to church on Sunday, to Bible study, to have an adult that isn’t just graciously “putting up” with my kid, but one who is genuinely excited to see him and enjoys his company, fully knowing how difficult he can be. This has made a world of difference for me and for my son. I have been able to point this out to my son as a direct example of the love of Christ, an unconditional, patient love, and it has made a huge impact on his faith. 

Oftentimes, neurodivergent kids struggle to make friends and feel welcome. They are rejected on the playground, in class, online, in their neighborhoods, at family gatherings, and even, unfortunately, at church. To have an adult show genuine enjoyment in spending time with them can make a world of difference in this child’s life, the parent's life, and yes, the child’s behavior, as well. Not to mention the fact that this kind of unconditional love and acceptance is a perfect reflection of Christ and His love for us.

Patience, Compassion, and Understanding

If we’re looking at the statistics, 10 to 15% of children are diagnosed with ADHD. That’s not including kids on the spectrum, with OCD, APD, SPD, or anxiety. All of these things present different types of behaviors that can be challenging to manage in a church environment, but these kids and their families benefit greatly from the love, compassion, and patience that should be a hallmark of the church. The primary goal is not that everyone in the classroom behaves properly, sits, and listens to the teaching in its entirety, but that everyone in the classroom exhibits the love of Christ to one another. That may mean handling some disruptive classroom behavior with kindness, patience, compassion, and understanding. 

That is how you minister to neurodiverse kids and their families.

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Maskot