When you sit behind that special needs family at church, here’s what you should know

For many parents of kids with special needs, it’s hard to be at Mass. Just being there is hard. It is the one place they ought to be welcome and feel at home, but instead, it’s often stressful and exhausting, and they feel judged and misunderstood, burdensome, or just plain forgotten. 

Some of that has to do with how adaptive the parish has become. Many parishes have made good accommodations, offering ramps and ADA compliant doors, several pews with lots of space for wheelchairs and for caregivers, and even changing tables designed for heavier kids, not just babies. Some parishes offer adaptive religious education and other activities that attempt to include kids with different abilities; and some priests are ready and willing to provide the sacraments to Catholics who can’t express themselves in typical ways. 

When a parish pulls together and offers these accommodations, a special needs family knows they are truly welcome, and it’s a beautiful thing.

But the other thing that really makes a difference is how other people behave in the pew.

When a special needs family shows up every week, how are they received? Sometimes people who don’t have experience with special needs don’t mean to be hurtful; they simply don’t know better. Here are some things special needs parents wish their fellow laymen understood. 

A kid with special needs may may moan, growl, gesticulate, or sing wildly off pitch. He may shout “JESUS!” when he sees Jesus. Fellow Catholics should try not to stare, scowl, or sigh. A pro-life parish welcomes individuals even when their special needs aren’t cute or photogenic, and special needs Catholics are entitled to participate in the Mass according to their abilities. 

People with special needs may need more time getting in and out of pews. Please be patient. If not when we’re in the presence of God, then when? 

The kid who’s fiddling with a toy, wearing a peculiar hat, or dressed in casual or seemingly inappropriate clothing may truly need to do so in order to be there. What looks like irreverence may be what’s allowing them to make it through Mass. And sometimes phones, handheld devices, or juice boxes are true medical devices, and may be saving a child’s life.

Some kids cannot sit still. They are literally physically incapable of it.  This is how God made them, and they should not be banished to the cry room or the foyer every week for their entire lives because of that.

Disabilities and special needs are not always visible or obvious. A child who looks “fine” may have completely invisible struggles, and just getting to Mass every week may have been a huge effort for the family. Things that come easily to typical families may be monumental trials for families with special needs, and their parents are very aware that their kids are being judged as undisciplined “brats.” Fellow Catholics should strive to provide a place where this kind of judgement doesn’t happen.

People with special needs don’t always look their age. Others should simply assume that their parents are dealing with them in an appropriate way, and leave it at that.

If you’re stopping to chat, go ahead and chat with people with special needs, too, or at least smile at them. Even if they have some intellectual disability, they still have human dignity and deserve to be greeted and acknowledged like anyone else. Even people with profound disabilities can have their feelings hurt (and their parents definitely can), so it’s also important to be careful what is said in their hearing.

People with special needs are individuals with dignity, and their possessions are private property. Resist the urge to move them or their wheelchairs or devices without permission. If you need to touch something that belongs to them, always ask first, just as you would with any kind of personal property.

Parents have tried the obvious solutions to their struggles. They are experts, and even if you mean well, they don’t need to hear a suggestion that just popped into your head. Even if you happen to know someone else with that same condition, your understanding is not going to be comprehensive, so it’s not a good idea to belly up to a special needs parent and act like an expert when you’re not living their life.

Families vary, but in general, they probably do not want to be pitied, they probably do not want to be lavished with praise as saints or heroes, and they probably don’t want to hear anyone’s reassurances that God will heal their children. If you see a special needs parent struggling, you can always ask if they need a hand — but don’t be offended if they decline. And you can’t go wrong by offering a sincere word of encouragement, like, “You’re such a good parent” or “You’re doing such a good job” or “I love seeing your family here.” 

Most likely, special needs kids and their parents simply want to feel like they belong, just the same as any other Catholic who takes it for granted that there is a place for them in the pew.



For more information, resources, and community for Catholic special needs parents, visit acceptingthegift.org, an apostolate founded by Kelly Mantoan
Many thanks to all the parents who contributed ideas to this essay. 

A version of this essay was originally published in Parable Magazine in November of 2021. Reprinted with permission.

Image: Wheelchair ramp up to the cathedral entrance, Coventry – start of the handrail
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Robin Stott – geograph.org.uk/p/5028944