What I Learned Working with Special Needs Teenagers


By Paul Martin

From the very first day I started youth ministry, I’ve worked with people with special needs. That early ministry had one person for more than eighty youth I worked with. It seems lately—at least in my setting—that the special needs population has grown. Maybe better healthcare or diagnostics have helped ministries to make the leap, but I just see more people in this crowd, and more intentionality and thoughtfulness required.

As I’m writing, I’m in the middle of a camp designed for about 130 special needs children and teens. It has been a surprising experience. This event relies on pairing a non-special-needs teenager with a special needs camper. That’s a lot of young people doing a lot of work. It takes a lot of planning, effort and expertise.

Probably the most helpful part of the camp comes from our staff of teachers, therapists and nurses who volunteer. They help us serve every person who walks through the door, from the campers to their families and even each other as we all learn that we have special needs. We have special training for each need we see, so that our teenage helpers are prepared to meet campers where they are. Here are a couple of take-aways:


Time for many of our campers is different. Most of them have to be a lot more patient than we do. Schedules help with this, but our camp doesn’t follow their regular schedules. What I’ve found is that they’re used to waiting and taking life as it comes instead of how they want it to go. Sure some of them get frustrated; but when we take to time to empathize with them, their frustration is almost always understandable. Most of our campers are much better at going with the flow than the rest of us. They simply have to take life as it comes to them.


Many of our campers are nonverbal. They can’t speak and only hear simple instructions. Our camp helpers have to become extra good at listening. With those who can’t express themselves with words, we have to pay very close attention to their posture and mannerisms. We watch for as many clues as we can to see what they need. They might need to go to the bathroom or eat but have no way to express that. So our listening skills with both our ears and our eyes have to be super attentive. I’m realizing that increasing this skill would benefit all of us!


Gather over 100 special needs people in one room and try to give a talk, or sing a song, or do anything without getting interrupted. I dare you. It just happens. With few exceptions, they aren’t as bothered by those intrusions as we are. Anything that changes their expectations is an interruption, and they cope with those regularly. I need to grow in flexibility!


From what I’ve seen, our campers have a very simple faith that I’ve found refreshing. They believe deeply in a Creator who wants the best for them. They trust in a Savior who died for them to have eternal life. For many of them, their perspective is still very concrete, so they easily accept mysteries in our faith. Mostly, they just believe whole-heartedly that they are created special to do all the things God has planned for them. Their faith is pure and beautiful.

I have learned so much about my own faith and myself from our camp. It still blows my away to have one of the campers tell me about their faith. Just today one of our campers shared his lunch with me because I forgot mine. He didn’t even hesitate. After giving me half his lunch, he started telling me about how Jesus shared everything he had. I was touched. And, honestly, I was challenged when I considered my own hesitation to share so freely.

What I found through working in this camp is that we all have special needs. We all need help when the things in this world that don’t make sense to us. Every one of us has a special way of looking at life. Challenges—physical, mental or emotional—are a part of all of our lives. Maybe the best thing we can do is be patient, listen more, try to empathize with others, and strive for a simple faith.