By Adron Dozat
I think the first time it happened was in kindergarten. My special needs son came home from school and said he “had joy in his heart” because he made a friend that day. Later in the week, when his newfound friend realized my son was too different or weird, my son came home from school and said that his friend didn’t want to be his friend anymore. His social disability had cost him another friend. It was heartbreaking to see this replay over and over throughout his life. Now, as an adult approaching his thirties, he has become isolated and alone.
There was a time when an adult at church reached out to him and engaged him in conversations about Pokémon cards, dragons, anime cartoons, and other aspects of “nerd-subculture.” Unfortunately, this individual joined a new church plant elsewhere, and without this connection, my son stopped attending church and lost a valuable aspect of social life.
A “herculean commitment.”
It takes herculean commitment to befriend an adult with special needs. They do not have the same resources as non-special needs adults. For example, my son has been able to work at different retail jobs with the help of social services, but since he is unable to drive, it means that another family member has driven him there and back most of the time. As you befriend an adult with special needs, you may provide transportation to church or their job training resource center. Be aware, they may never get a driver’s license, so you cannot expect them to give you a ride when your car breaks down. If you take them out to dinner, they will not have the money to reciprocate, or if they do, you’ll find yourself at the restaurant that only serves mac and cheese.
You will listen to them complain about parents and siblings but never be able to share about the argument you just had with your spouse. You will give hours of your time, including some Saturday nights and the patience it takes to listen to them talk for hours about a cartoon, a comic book, or train schedules.
A typical healthy relationship goes two ways. Befriending an adult with special needs may feel like a one-sided relationship.
You can respond by saying, “Just look at all the spiritual value, the emotional benefits, and all the blessings of serving an individual with special needs.” Proverbs 19:17 says, “Kindness to the poor is a loan to the Lord, and He will give a reward to the lender.” Yes, there are blessings, spiritual and emotional benefits – but after you give of yourself over and over for months and years, you may have nothing left to give them or anyone else.
Counting the cost of friendship
Adults with special needs want friends. They need friends who will choose them, who will give time and emotional resources, whatever it takes, and who will forgo the usual benefits of friendship. They do not need friends who will become cops and tell them what they have to do, friends who will become counselors who tell them how to think, or friends who will become coaches who tell them to toughen up. They need friends who will accept them.
You will see the special needs adult do things that you think are wrong, but you have to keep it to yourself. We have spent thirty years taking our son to medical professionals, counselors, psychiatrists, and doctors. Our son has heard it all. He doesn’t need more of it from someone who is supposed to be a friend – that would only be an affirmation that he is broken and unaccepted. My son does not need friends who try to fix or change him, but rather, friends who accept him. (You must use wisdom. If your special needs adult is hurting himself or is suicidal, you must speak and act quickly. Do not hesitate to call 911 if someone expresses suicidal intentions or thoughts.)
You must be a friend who stays. For my son, the cycle of losing friendships is devastating, as it is to anybody, but to people with special needs, it may even be deadly because it reinforces all that is bad or wrong (in their view) about themselves and it proves to them they are not worthy.
Being a friend to a special needs adult means making choices. Are you willing to take a day off from work to drive them to their social services meeting? Are you willing to have a person with Tourette Syndrome in your home when he blurts out offensive words in front of your family? Adults with special needs populate mental health clinics – will you visit them two or three times a week after they’ve had a crisis and are in confinement? Will you do their laundry? What will you tell your family when you can’t come home for dinner because your friend has a crisis over cleaning their room and needs your help?
Making a place for adults with special needs
It is becoming popular to have a special needs department in your children’s ministry, but soon you will have adults with special needs in your Sunday service. Do not assume adulthood means they are not needy. They are still needy and lonely and struggling to cope. Ministry to adults with special needs is not always the same as ministry to children with special needs.
As our son aged out of the children and youth departments, we looked to see where he would fit in. Many churches have a youth group, a senior citizens’ fellowship group, a young adult or college group, a young married group, a mom’s group, a men’s group, but where is the group for adults with special needs? The special needs adult sees the church throwing parties for other people, but not them.
Could churches offer a group for adults with special needs, or could small groups effectively reach out and include them? Maybe, but without real friendships, it will only be another program.
This could be the Luke 14:13-14 opportunity for us: “On the contrary, when you host a banquet, invite those who are poor, maimed, lame, or blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
The church should be about relationships as much as anything else. Be mindful of adults with special needs. Look for them and accept the challenge to patiently befriend them.
Resolve to be a supernatural friend, one who gives on many levels without asking for reciprocity. Isn’t that the essence of friendship?
Remember the words of the King. “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:40).