By Doc Hunsley
Stephen “Doc” Hunsley oversees the SOAR Special Needs Ministry at all campuses of Grace Church in Overland Park, Kansas. He lives by the credo, “Always do your best and never forget that through God, all things are possible!” Doc’s favorite things to do include spending time with his family, cheering on his beloved Kansas City Royals, and University of Missouri Tigers, and watching any baseball game.
What do you see when you see an individual with special needs?
Way too many people see an individual who is defined by a diagnosis. I see ausome potential! I see individuals who are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God! I see individuals with amazing abilities, who can do amazing things. I see some of my heroes. I see difference-makers. I see kingdom-builders.
Over the last 13 years, God has developed an undeniable passion in me for individuals and families with special needs. Initially, I was someone who first saw an individual with special needs as someone defined by their diagnosis. I was a pediatrician in a pediatric emergency room, where I cared for many children with special needs. I knew they had lots of love to give, but I didn’t see much more beyond that.
Then God allowed me to become really sick from my patients and almost die; I was forced to go on long-term disability. This happened around the time my second son, Mark Andrew Hunsley, was born. Eight months later Mark had a seizure that lasted more than four hours, and at about 18 months of age he was diagnosed with Dravet syndrome, a rare genetic seizure disorder. By age 2, he had received his second diagnosis of autism.
For the first time, my wife, Kay, and I understood what it meant to be parents of a child with special needs. This was when I realized that I was terribly wrong in my understanding of individuals with special needs. Mark taught us many amazing and wonderful things. Because of Mark I was able to become a children’s pastor at a large church in Kansas City. God then led me to Grace Church in Overland Park, Kansas, where I started the SOAR (Special, Opportunities, Abilities and Relationships) Special Needs Ministry and am now the SOAR Special Needs Pastor.
Mark was cured of his Dravet syndrome and autism on Nov. 1, 2010, when he was born into heaven at the age of 5-1/2. Kay and I were blessed to be Mark’s parents! God used Mark’s time here on Earth with us to teach us and prepare us to be able to minister now to hundreds of other families and to walk alongside them, through the highs and the lows.
Whether you are a parent or working in a special needs ministry, know that every individual with special needs has ausome potential! Never just settle; always challenge your child to become the absolute best they can be! Help them to dream and then help them to accomplish that dream!
If you are a ministry leader, you can tap into your students’ ausome potential and combine it with ministry. Here are two examples of ausome students I have the privilege of ministering with.
Andrew, 16, has Down syndrome and loves to work with younger children and help others. He serves every Sunday in our kindergarten room. He stands at the door and greets all the parents and kids with a high-five or chest bump. His job is to prepare the snacks while the class is in worship. It is pure joy to watch Andrew serve others every week.
Emmitt, 18, has autism. He loves music and kids. As we got to know Emmitt and his family, we learned that he is passionate about doing the actions to the music. Now Emmitt works with our Vacation Bible School and our actioneers team and assists with leading everyone in learning the actions to the songs for VBS.
It is so incredible to watch both Andrew and Emmitt applying their ausome potential in the church setting. They are kingdom builders!
WAYS TO HELP YOUR OWN CHILD
So, parents and leaders, how can you help your child with special needs reach their ausome potential? Here are eight ways:
Observe your child and see what interests them.
Make an effort to be supportive and positive to your child. Make sure they hear you say “Good job,” “I’m proud of you!” or “That is awesome!” Avoid negative comments; encourage them in realizing that they can do whatever their dream is.
Expose them to new things. This will pique their curiosity, which increases their desire to learn. Studies show that children with autism learn faster, stay focused longer and are generally better behaved when they are regularly challenged with fun new tasks.
Go on outings or “field trips” to new places where they’ll see interesting things that will start conversations and jumpstart the imagination and their desire to learn more.
Turn everyday events into learning opportunities, encouraging your child to explore and ask questions.
Allow your child to teach you through different mediums, especially if they are nonverbal!
Encourage them to communicate through music, art, acting, writing or dancing. These are all great ways for them to express themselves and provide great opportunities for them to show their ausome potential!
Use play-therapy to promote self-expression. Also, read books with your child, which for many can open some wonderful adventures and create new passions.
TAKE THE STRESS OUT OF LEARNING
If your child has an interest in learning something new, you can assist them without adding extra pressure or setting them up for failure. Here’s how:
Keep it simple. Find ways to informally encourage your child’s interest. Get some fun songs on CD or karaoke and have fun singing, or borrow an instrument and let them play on it, showing them how to place their hands or play some notes. Get some copy paper and start doodling or sketching with crayons, pencils, or even finger paints and see what develops. Put on your own dance performance in your living room with the music playing. Pick up a basketball and shoot baskets, play catch, or kick a soccer ball around in the back yard.
Get lessons. If your child continues to show interest, start looking for a tutor or instructor who has experience or is comfortable working with a child with special needs. There are great clubs for the sports like Miracle League, Challenger Sports and Special Olympics. Your city may have special dance troupes, theater/acting groups, or cheer teams for individuals with special needs.
Keep it fun! Don’t pressure your child to meet specific goals or to practice constantly. Instead, focus on only giving positive feedback for their effort. Give fun rewards for them meeting their goals or practice time (anything from time on the iPad to a special treat, whatever your child considers a fun incentive). Try changing the atmosphere or location for the practice—move it outside, into a different room or do it by candlelight. This can keep the experience fresh and fun. Do whatever you can to prevent the practice time from becoming boring.
Praise the activity! Whenever your child does the activity, praise them for it, especially if they show enjoyment! Be patient and keep in mind that these skills don’t come overnight. If your child doesn’t practice every day, that’s fine! Don’t push them and make it unenjoyable. Allow them to enjoy it and build their passion for it. As their passion grows, they will naturally want to do it more!
Most important, remember that God has given your child specific skills and talents. Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago” (NLT). The Greek word for “masterpiece” is poema, the word from which we get “poem.” God is saying we are his poem, we are his masterpiece.
He has designed you and your children with gifts—passions, abilities, experiences and personalities. God designed your child to enjoy the things they like to do. Embrace this and remember God has given every person special skills and talents that He desires for them to use for His good and His purposes. How cool is that! God has given every one of our kids ausome potential! It is our job as parents and ministry leaders to help unearth that potential and grow it into its maximum potential—and who knows what legacy that could bring!
When God says you are His masterpiece, nothing can hold you back from your potential, not even a disability. We really can’t even imagine all the plans that God has for these differently abled individuals. Only God knows the scope of how He will use each story and the legacy that each life will leave.
The ausome potential is there; we have only to look to the One who created us to fulfill that destiny. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (2 Cor. 2:9, VERSIOIN). Dream big, because we can’t even imagine how He will use our ausome blessings! —Beth Frank