By Elizabeth Crawford

Special needs is a term used to describe “individuals that require assistance for medical, mental, or psychological disabilities”. Yet, not all special needs are the same. Those with special needs, or learning challenges, may be deaf or blind, have autism or Down syndrome, live with cerebral palsy, or face a number of other physical, psychological, or mental challenges.

Though those with disabilities are often welcomed and loved at church, school, home, and community, that hasn’t always been the case. In the past, many disabled individuals were believed to have been cursed by demons, and they were shunned or locked away in institutions with little or no care. Today, people have become more accepting of those with special needs, even though many still mistreat, berate, or ignore this segment of society. Although special education and other support services have become more readily available, there are still many things Christians can do to serve these neighbors in need.

First, we remember and confess that all people – regardless of age, mental ability, physical condition or psychological state – are beautiful, beloved, priceless children of God. We Christians should be actively serving these dear ones with the same attention and care we devote to the unborn or the elderly. We are commanded by God to love all people, and it is the fruit of faith that leads us to seek to serve our neighbors.

There are many ways to help those with special needs, such as providing financial support, tutoring, volunteering as a conversation partner, praying for, and befriending those with special needs and their families. Some people are wary of reaching out to these unique friends because they are not sure how to handle different physical, mental, and psychological needs. However, as Christians, we see past the differences when we remember that the person with special needs is also a child of God. Physical limitations, social differences, mental challenges, and other ability differences may make us seem different on the outside, but on the inside we are all dearly loved and treasured children of God. In fact, the reality is we have much in common. We all long for friendship, a sense of belonging, and the love of friends and family. We are all created in the image of God and for His purpose. God has given each of us different abilities, gifts, and talents to use in the various vocations that we are called to fulfill . . . no matter how we look on the outside, how our minds work, how our bodies work, or how we think.

A very dear friend of mine is autistic. We attend high school together and have known each other for years. She is minimally verbal, so her main method of communication is touch – she frequently gives a gentle hug, squeezes my hand, and sometimes even rests her forehead against mine when we are standing face to face. Of course, this is not how most people communicate, so to others this may seem odd. However, over the years, I have come to understand that these physical touches are the ways that my friend expresses joy, love, frustration, excitement, pain, heartache and much more. It is joy to continually learn from her and understand her ways of expressing herself. She speaks volumes through her smile, her actions, and her joyful personality. Since she struggles with certain aspects of school, I have had the opportunity to tutor her and help her in social situations where she sometimes struggles. And I am rewarded with her smiles. She reminds me every day that there is always something to be happy about.

Not everyone is blessed with the opportunity to support a special friend like I have been able to do, but service opportunities abound in communities across the globe. Even if you are unable to donate funds, collect goods, or physically volunteer, it is important to remember to pray for the differently abled and their families. Despite the great strides our society has made in supporting and aiding these special friends and their families, many still feel lonely and unwanted, and the financial burden of medical care and the emotional strain of physical care may be great. It is important for us to pray for strength and endurance for the families, friends, and medical workers caring for these special friends. Pray also for the differently abled that they may always remember that Jesus loves them, they were created for a purpose, and that they are redeemed by Christ.

Each and every person is absolutely priceless in God’s eyes. As Christians, we are called to love one another by serving our neighbor. Our special needs neighbors are just some of the many people God gives us the opportunity to serve. We are all created in His image, and we are all precious in His sight. May God grant us the courage, humility, and steadfastness to serve all of His dear children at all ages, stages, and ability levels.

“What is it to serve God and to do His will? Nothing else than to show mercy to our neighbor. For it is our own neighbor who needs our service; God in heaven needs it not.” – Martin Luther

Elizabeth Crawford is a senior at Faith Lutheran High School in Plano, Texas. She is a leader of her school’s Y4Life team. In the fall, she plans to attend Concordia University, Nebraska, to study music, elementary education, and classical liberal arts.