My church continues to think about how to welcome all people, which means we have to think about what it means to welcome others, not merely as attenders or members, but as friends. Part of God’s intent for church life is community. This is more than simply showing up at the same time each week. Life is meant to be lived together (Heb 13:1). Encouragement and admonishment occur in the context of relationships (Heb 10:24—25).
But this isn’t always easy. Some people are easier to get to know. Our interests and their’s overlap and our personalities “click.” We enjoy spending time with likeminded people. But what about those who are not quite as similar? This could be due to differences in age, life experience, preferences on parenting, doctrine, and even sports(!). For many, the biggest differences will come between us and those with special needs. People who have had and continue to have a very different experience in life.
But friendship is essential. God not only made us in his image to be relational, communal beings, he wants us to live in community and benefit from those friendships. As the father of a son with special needs, I can tell you how heartbreaking it was to hear him say on more than one occasion growing up, “Dad, I just want a friend.” Even now, years later, it’s hard to type those words. Friendship comes easy to many of us. But it’s often not that easy for others, especially those with special needs.
I’ve talked before about some general ways to welcome people with special needs and why this is important. In this post, I want to spend some time thinking about practical ways to reach out in friendship to people with neurodiversity or special needs. Much of what I have to say has been gleaned from observation and experience with my own son who is on the Autism spectrum. These will be somewhat general in nature because no two people are the same.
1. Move toward Others
I love the way Ed Welch talks about this principle of moving toward others. Just as God moves toward his people, even in sin, so we ought to move toward others (Ezek 34:11). Welch says of God, “He says ‘I love you’ first, then, even when we respond with an indifferent shrug or the equivalent of a passing, ‘Oh, thanks.’ And in this we discover why it might be hard for us to move toward others: the on taking the initiative in the relationship—the one who love most—is the one who risks humiliation.”* Maybe we are afraid of getting close to someone who is unlike us or we don’t understand? Maybe we’re afraid of getting close to someone who requires more time and patience than we’re used to? Yet, as a Welch notes, moving toward others in loving friendship is part of putting on Christ (Col 3:12—14). Don’t be afraid to move toward others, seeking out friendships with those who have special needs.
2. Ask about their Experiences
This is part of any good friendship. We want to know our friends. We want to understand their emotions, experience, and more. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about how someone different from you sees the world, what their struggles are, or what could be helpful to them. Their answers might surprise you. This part of the reason Proverbs describes a person’s words as “deep waters” reflecting the heart. Only a wise person can “draw out” what’s there (Prov 18:4; 20:5). Asking about a person’s experience and how they think about it can give you insight into the person’s heart. This will not only help you better understand them, but be a better friend to them.
3. Be Patient
Everyone has quirks and idiosyncrasies. Often these things can be interesting or something we pass over without much thought. But neurodiverse people or those with special needs may have issues that are more obvious and friendship-threatening. But part of loving people is being patient with them (1 Cor 13:4). Some are unaware of their actions’ impact on relationships, making it even harder for them when people walk away. We should extend some of the kindness God has shown to us by being patient with others through any social awkwardness.
4. Think about their Needs
Every individual is going to have specific needs. On one level, we might say our “needs” are perceived and we really talking about desires or preferences. That could be true and that would land us in the next direction for friendship. But for many with special needs, they really are needs. Someone in a wheelchair probably needs someone to open a door for them because they are incapable of doing it themselves. Others may not be so obvious. For some, sitting through the worship service can be taxing. The cacophony of sights, sounds, and personal interactions overwhelms them. For them, a need may be stepping outside during some of the music. Or, only interacting with people before or after the service, not both. Being a good friend will mean not assuming everyone is like you. It will also mean being flexible to help meet the needs of others.
5. Don’t Forget about Discipleship
Earlier we talked about patience. If you embrace that direction, you may be tempted to give a pass to those with special needs when it comes to spiritual things. Please don’t. Just as with anyone, we can still be patient. But that doesn’t mean a concern for spiritual growth is off the table. Just as with anyone else, gently prod where sin is seen; come along side to encourage during times of difficulty. Do all of it with wisdom, remembering what Paul said: we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thess 5:14). The best friends are those that walk with us, helping us better know and love the Lord.
* Ed Welch, Caring for One Another (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 18.
I love this post. I am on the spectrum as well, and I can relate to your son deeply when he said all he wanted was a friend. This stuff makes a huge difference to those of us who find these things difficult.
Thanks for the comment, Erin. Blessings!