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Training Volunteers To Include Children And Students With Autism

Orange Leaders
Orange Leaders Wednesday December 17, 2014
<? echo $type; ?> Training Volunteers To Include Children And Students With Autism

by Stephen “Doc” Hunsley, M.D.

90 percent of individuals with special needs don’t attend church.

The main concern families have is that the staff and volunteers at the church will not be able to adequately care for the needs of their child, or they just don’t feel accepted.

The church needs to be a place of refuge for families with special needs where the parents know that their child is loved! Here is a very interesting piece of trivia: 75 percent of Jesus’ miracles in the Bible were done on those with disabilities. Jesus ran the very first special needs ministry. Jesus was the first special needs pastor! If we are to truly be like Jesus, we need to welcome and accept these families into our church and minister to them.

The current statistics for 2014 show that one out of every six children in the U.S. have special needs. If you have a church with more than six children, you more likely than not have a child with special needs in your church. Autism is currently one out of every 63 births. These numbers continue to grow at alarming rates, and the church needs to embrace these families and be prepared.



  1. Security, church greeters, information desk volunteers (whoever may be in contact with first time visitors)
  2. Children’s ministry and student ministry volunteers/teachers
  3. Special needs volunteers/buddies


  • Listen to what parents say about his abilities and needs; ask questions if you need more information.
  • Identify their abilities and strengths; find activities they can achieve.
  • Give short, clear instructions.
  • Use extra patience.
  • Be encouraging and give praise frequently.
  • Be firm with limits which are set to provide safety to the individual and others.
  • Limit choices to one to three specific activities/items.
  • Help them if they are frustrated, but let them do what they are able to do themselves.
  • Engage them in activities with their peers.
  • Play! Have fun! Enjoy yourself!
  • Don’t talk about the individual in front of them or other people as if they are not there.
  • Teach other children/students to be accepting and loving by setting a good example.
  • Accept the individual as a child of God who is uniquely and wonderfully made!



  • Be empathetic: Pay attention (get down on their level and talk in a calm quiet voice).
  • Clarifying messages: Repeat what they are expressing to show that you understand how they are feeling.
    • Ask them to tell you what they want or to show you what they want.
  • Sensory stimulation: The individual may need a sensory break (deep pressure, swing or spinning, quiet/sensory room, take a walk, etc.).
  • Set and enforce reasonable limits: Set limits clearly and give choices (if/then or first/then statements).
  • Ignore challenging questions: Redirect the individual when possible.
  • Avoid overreacting: Remain calm (walk with the individual or try distracting them/re-engaging them).
  • Use physical techniques as a last resort: Call for help first! Use the least restrictive method of intervention possible—use only when there is threat of harm to themselves or others.
  • Reminder of reinforcement: If they are “working” toward something they want or like.

We provide training for our volunteers in our children’s ministry and student ministry to know how to handle individuals with special needs. We provide scenarios of real life experiences and walk the volunteers through how to handle the situation, so that they can be successful in the classroom.

The primary goal for a special needs ministry is to allow families to be able to worship as a family and know that their individual with special needs will be included and will learn about Jesus. This can be done in a variety of ways from providing buddies for individuals with special needs during every service to offering respite nights for the family at some point. Every church needs to be more like Jesus and accept and welcome individuals with special needs in their church! What are you and your church going to do about it?

Dr. Stephen “Doc” Hunsley is the special needs and people care pastor for Grace Church in Overland Park, Kansas. Doc started Grace Church’s special needs ministry (SOAR) in 2011, helping it to become a hallmark ministry for the church. SOAR serves over 180 individuals through weekend church programming, family support groups and regular respite events. Doc also leads the Kansas City Special Needs Ministries Network for area church leaders. Doc is a retired pediatrician while his wife, Kay, continues practicing pediatrics. They are proud parents to three beautiful children: Luke, Mark and Sarah. The Hunsley’s middle child, Mark, is presently running the halls of heaven. During Mark’s five-year earthly stay, he gave his family the opportunity to learn from and love a child with autism.

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