Special Needs Parenting: What Does My Child Really Understand About God?

It wasn’t our best parenting moment. But it might have been one of the most important.

We had finished tucking in and saying prayers with our two boys. We were getting the youngest settled in her crib when our oldest, who was around eight years old at the time, called us back into his room. When we returned, he had a major announcement.

“I just prayed and asked Jesus into my heart.” His precious little face glowed with happiness.

We enveloped him in hugs, effusive in our excitement. “That’s wonderful! Oh, we are so happy! The best decision you’ll ever make!”

He nodded, clearly enjoying our attention. “Yeah,” he said. “I prayed and asked Jesus to come into my heart, and then I could feel him walking around in there!”

He beamed, but he was as serious as he could be. My husband and I, caught completely off guard, gave him another quick hug and muttered something about having him talk to the children’s minister soon. Then we rushed out of the room.

And collapsed into a fit of hysterical laughter.

Yep, we handled that all wrong.

Our son has Asperger’s, and one of the characteristics of the condition is the tendency towards literal thinking. Figures of speech might as well have been ancient Greek to our son when he was younger. In our evangelical tradition, people often speak of making a decision to become a Christian as “asking Jesus into your heart.” To our son’s way of thinking, if you asked Jesus into your heart, then of course you would be able to feel him there in a physical way.

For me, this moment was a turning point in parenting my son, and it wasn’t a comfortable one. I became keenly aware that his difficulty in understanding abstract concepts would affect how he viewed God. Let’s face it: ideas like faith and sanctification and grace are hard to understand for even the most learned and perceptive among us. (See the rapidly growing market in the publishing world for Christian books). Because my son was such a literal thinker, I became concerned about his relationship with his Heavenly Father. Would he ever be able to appreciate fully the magnitude of God’s grace and mercy? The enormity of Jesus’s sacrifice? The depth of his Father’s love for him?

It’s a question many parents of special needs children understand all too well. We worry that our child, whether affected by physical, mental, or emotional disabilities, will be able to develop fully a relationship with an invisible God. How does a kid who struggles with an anxiety disorder learn to cast their cares on Jesus? How does a teen with severe cognitive impairments know what it means to be a child of God? And how does a child who struggles to understand figurative language understand the lofty but frequently confusing words she hears spoken in church and in Sunday School?

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

God created us in His image. Each and every person. Take a moment to dwell on that, because it’s one of those truths that we profess rather automatically without really considering what it means. Whether tall or short, graceful or clumsy, intellectually superior or not – He created each one of us to bear His likeness in some meaningful way. This includes, of course, individuals who don’t fit society’s definition of “typical.” The young man with autism and the girl with cerebral palsy reflect God’s image every bit as much as the class valedictorian and the star athlete. We as parents can take a deep breath and rest in the assurance that the God who created our child did so with a purpose, and that purpose, for our child as well as for everyone, is to know Him and to glorify Him. It is inconceivable that a God who created humans to know Him would ever create someone for whom that purpose could not be achieved.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5)

God’s purposes will not be thwarted by our lack of understanding. Yes, I said “our” lack of understanding, not that of our child. It is tempting for us as parents to think we have all the answers. But when we do so, we limit our ability to recognize and worship God for His infinite wisdom and power. We must remember that we serve a God who both knows our child better than we ever could and is able to do exceedingly more than we could ever imagine. (Eph. 3:20). We must not allow our sense of self-sufficiency limit what God can and will do in the lives of our kids.

As a Christian who believes strongly in the idea of my own personal relationship with God, I frequently have to remind myself that mine is not the only personal relationship with God that exists. My relationship with my Father is not the template for everyone else’s relationship with God. My understanding is just that: mine and mine alone. While we as Christians share certain non-negotiable beliefs about Jesus such as his death and resurrection, we must remember that how we process these beliefs is as different as each individual is different. I cannot expect that how I process my faith will necessarily be the best way for my child to do so. This is true for all of our kids, not just those with cognitive disabilities or emotional difficulties.

My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

I haven’t met a parent yet who wasn’t convinced that they knew exactly what was best for their kid. But the truth we don’t want to acknowledge is that we are sometimes, maybe even frequently, wrong. Our instinct when it comes to our children is to protect; God’s instinct seems to be to prepare. And in typical “God fashion,” He turns what is expected in this preparation completely on its head.

While the world may see those with special needs as a challenge, God does not. They are a crucial part of His plan, with a purpose that only they can fulfill. We don’t understand how God uses weaknesses, or those of our children, to make His power perfect in us, but if we believe the promises of scripture, we must take our Father at His word.

None of this is meant to suggest that we don’t bear a tremendous responsibility in parenting our special needs kids, and it isn’t meant to suggest that it shouldn’t be difficult. The challenges of reaching and teaching those with cognitive impairments are monumental, and there will be times when we feel like an abject failure. But we are not. It is crucial that, as we become aware of how our children learn best, we share God’s love in an intentional way. Songs and stories are fun ways to share about Jesus with younger kids; finding ways your teen can help with a service project may impact them in ways that a million words never could. But trusting that God can and will reveal Himself to our special kids means that sometimes, we just need to get out of the way and let God be God.

By the way, my son no longer thinks that Jesus actually walked around in his heart. Which makes me kind of sad, because how utterly cool would that be??

Tracey Rector is a freelance writer in Birmingham, Alabama. She and her husband Al are the parents of three adult children who are reasonably well-adjusted. She is a member of Brookwood Baptist Church where she taught youth Sunday School and plays in the handbell choir. She loves reading mysteries, cooking for her family and friends, and singing silly songs to her grandchildren Joshua and Evelyn.

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