Six years ago, when Ashley Fruguglietti gave birth to her second child, Jack, she and her husband, Anthony, received surprising news. Their son had Down syndrome, a genetic condition caused by the presence of a third copy of chromosome 21. The syndrome is associated with physical growth delays and mild to moderate intellectual disability.
The California couple, whose daughter, Sofie, was three at the time, had struggled to conceive a second child. While they were temporarily terrified by the diagnosis and what it meant for their family, Ashley says she and her husband were certain God had special plans for Jack’s life.
“Because we had a hard time getting pregnant, it felt like God gave us this baby for a reason,” Ashley says. “We have never doubted that Jack is exactly who God made him to be. We know without a doubt that he is perfectly and wonderfully made.”
Even with their positive outlook, Ashley says the first year of Jack’s life was difficult. Because of fears for his health, the family didn’t return to their church—the Bridge Bible Church in Bakersfield—until Jack was six months old. Even then, Ashley felt nervous leaving him in the nursery.
“I was protective of him,” she says. “I honestly had never seen anybody with special needs at church.”
Finding a buddy
For the first few years, Jack, who is nonverbal, remained in the toddler classes instead of progressing with his peers. He needed one-on-one support in order to attend children’s ministry with children his own age.
When he was three, Ashley learned that The Bridge offered a Buddy Program, through which a child with special needs is paired with a teen or adult volunteer who supports the child through the regular children’s programming. Ashley says words are not adequate to express what having a buddy has meant to Jack, who is now in first grade.
“I always say ‘thank you,’ but I never feel like it’s enough,” she says. “We feel like Jack is seen, and that’s so amazing. He has importance. He has worth and value. To see him being taught and nurtured spiritually really means a lot.”
Supplying spiritual support
In a national study released in 2018, sociologist Andrew Whitehead found that the likelihood of a child with a cognitive disability never attending religious services was nearly twice as high as compared to children with no chronic health conditions. This was especially true for conditions that impacted social interaction, such as autism spectrum disorders, developmental delays and ADHD. The study highlighted the reality that children with special needs and their families lack opportunity to receive spiritual support from the local church. For this problem to be solved, Whitehead says, churches must recognize the barriers they unknowingly create and maintain.
“Most congregations have a desire to help,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean they are meeting these families where they need the most help.”
Amy Birkey, the special needs ministry coordinator at First Mennonite Brethren Church (FMBC) in Wichita, Kansas, has seen this firsthand. “A high percentage of families with a child with special needs do not attend church frequently or at all, because they do not feel accepted or don’t have supportive options,” she says.
Parents appreciate support
Thirteen years ago, twin kindergarten boys diagnosed with autism began attending FMBC. The boys’ parents wanted them to attend Bible classes with kids their age, but it was difficult for the boys to remain engaged and still in a structured classroom environment, Amy says. The twins’ parents would often skip their own class to stay and help out.
Members of the children’s ministry team recognized the need and developed the “buddy system,” pairing the twins with adult volunteers who could support their needs. The goal was to help these parents attend church on a regular basis so they could be connected and grow in their faith.
Over the next few years, the church became aware of many families in their community who could benefit from this type of support, so they made special needs ministry an official part of children’s ministry. Amy believes this decision has been a key to their success.
“As coordinator I get to be a part of children’s ministry meetings and decision making,” she says. “The budget allows me to buy needed curriculum and facilitate times of fellowship and training. By making special needs ministry a part of the team, the church is saying, ‘This is an important ministry that we want to get behind and help to thrive.’”
The results have been encouraging.
“I see our special needs ministry bringing in families who haven’t previously been able to attend church,” she says. “Multiple families have told me that they decided to attend because we were the only church in the area to offer support. This is a huge (evangelistic) opportunity that many churches are missing out on.”
A plentiful harvest
Jeff Gowling, lead pastor of The Bridge Bible Church, also sees special needs ministry as a tool for outreach.
“Life is not easy for these families,” he says. “If we can provide a loving environment for children with special needs, we can also allow their parents to come and worship God, fellowship with other believers and perhaps be exposed to the gospel for the first time.”
The Bridge is focused on growing its special needs ministry in the future. This year the church will break ground on a new children’s building, which will have designated space for special needs ministry.
“I love that our church gets the opportunity to minister to these children and families,” Gowling says. “So many people are excited to be able to serve in this way.”
Although research reveals that overall not much has changed in the past decade in how the church accommodates families of children with special needs, the number of children diagnosed with cognitive disabilities is on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 59 children in the U.S. has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by age 8. And that number keeps rising.
While research confirms that religion plays a positive role in youth development, the families of these children are often weary from advocating for them in other settings, such as school or at the doctor. For some, the church can feel like one more place where they must fight for inclusion and acceptance. And for others, church is not even an option without support.
Milan Dinsmore, who serves as Buddy Coordinator at The Bridge, used to work as a behavioral therapist for children with autism. One family she served could only attend church if she was able to accompany their student.
“The church they attended did not have resources to care for their child,” she says. “That broke my heart. This family’s spiritual development was dependent on my attendance.”
In her current role, Milan is passionate about helping these families have a positive church experience. “God designed the church to function like a body,” she says, “which means every person is important and that includes individuals with special needs. To me, it is crucial that every child is cared for and every family has the ability to attend church.”
A place to belong
The Buddy Program at The Bridge is helping this become a reality for dozens of families.
One of those families is the Frugugliettis. Every Sunday morning, Jack joins his buddy—and his friends—in the first-grade classroom. He spends time playing with his peers before joining them in another room for worship (which he loves) and a Bible lesson. After that, Jack and his buddy go to a sensory classroom, stocked with objects that enhance Jack’s ability to stay engaged and learn. His buddy reviews the Bible story with him and shows him how to fold his hands to pray.
Ashley is delighted to see what her son is learning at church and how connected he feels to Christian community.
“It really makes a difference,” she says. “It makes a difference for Jack and it makes a difference for us too. To be able to go to service and know that there are people there who care this much—that means everything to us.”
Suzanne Hadley Gosselin is the co-author of Grit and Grace: Devotions for Warrior Moms and is the co-author with CeCe Winans of Believe For It: Passing On Faith to the Next Generation. She and her husband, Kevin, have four children and attend Bridge Bible Church in Bakersfield, California.