In response to an article I recently reposted about family devotions, there was a comment about the difficulty of doing family devotions when your family includes special needs children. This is a very valid and relevant concern, and one that many families are facing, so I will make mention of a few personal experiences.
While our family currently does not have any special needs members, we did have an 8-year-old girl with severe autism live with us for about a year. I acknowledge that our experience is limited, but here are a couple of things we found helpful.
When Krissy came to stay with us…
Krissy was severely autistic with few words, many destructive behaviors, and endless energy. What we would teach a typical child by accident could be taught to Krissy, but required us to break it down into simple steps and have a rigorous follow-up. We used this approach during family devotions.
During our family devotion time, we did not focus on Krissy’s understanding, but rather tailored it for the rest of our family while insisting that Krissy cooperate by staying quiet and seated during devotions. Starting with short times, we were able to eventually achieve this.
However, a quiet child during devotions does not necessarily mean a spiritually inclined child, so we made sure to include appropriate devotions specifically for her throughout the day.
We went through simple Bible Storybooks, simply read or retold the stories in her language, often demonstrating or acting out the ones we could. We especially liked the Big Picture Story Bible because of its God-centered chronological approach.
During Christmas, we used a picture Bible advent book, each day we reread the previous pages and added a new one.
Because Krissy began to read while she was with us, we also had her read the Scripture passage daily until she had it memorized. Even if your child is not a reader, just reading it to them or having them repeat it line by line every day would be wonderful a way to give them familiarity and eventually memorization of God’s Word.
We also took pictures as we acted out Bible stories and scrapbooked them for her to look at over and over. Our thought was that the more stories she knew by heart, the more we would have reference to and to help her pull together. Eventually, she would enjoy talking about them with us and we could gradually get to deeper meanings the more she grew in understanding.
If we had it to do over again, I think we would also have started using a simple toddler Bible Storybook during family devotions. It would not have hurt the family to listen, and Krissy would then have been able to have a more active part, not merely passive.
So what would we recommend for families with special needs children if we were asked?
Commit to a family devotion time, lay down the rules for participation, and then follow through. This may mean that for a month all you do is try and maintain control. Children with special needs must be shown, just as typical children do, that we were made for God and that God comes first. If we never demonstrate this for them, even in the smallest of ways such as insisting on family devotions, then how can we hope that they will eventually somehow understand?
For an active child maybe invest in some felt Bible figures or window cling-ons and tell the stories multiple times until they can tell/act it themselves.
Don’t over-analyze it; you can grow with the process. Just start, and as you see different ways it could work better, change.
However, don’t neglect the more mature members (dad and mom, etc.) in your family. Maybe you could give the child a puzzle or something similar to work on in the same room during the advanced devotions, and then pull them in with one tailored for them.
Don’t feel like you have to have a “traditional” family devotion time, but do make sure that everybody in your family has the opportunity to learn more about God together so that you can encourage each other, hold each other accountable, and proclaim with your actions that Jesus is your life.