Help! I Can’t Be a Missionary with a Special-Needs Child

Missionaries facing a child’s diagnosis can find encouragement with these practical suggestions.

I’ll never forget the day I stopped by our son’s school in Budapest.

When his second-grade teacher saw me through the window, she quickly came to greet me. She’d heard I was a teacher and asked if I’d be able to assist with a child struggling in her class. Then she asked if I’d ever heard of dyslexia.

My mind immediately imagined building a friendship with a Hungarian family, helping their child, and eventually introducing them to the gospel. “Of course!” I said excitedly. As I peered into the room, I asked, “Which one?” She leaned close and gently replied, “Joel.”

In response I asked, “So, you have two Joels in your class?” With a confused look, she said, “No. I’m talking about your Joel.” I was stunned. I stood there wondering if she could be correct. How could I have missed the signs?

The life and future of our family changed that day. We’d arrived two years earlier and were starting to speak the complex Hungarian language. We knew God didn’t want us to sacrifice our son on the altar of ministry. We needed to make a decision that would be the best for our son, our family, and our mission work.

This is a situation many missionaries face when they hear a diagnosis like autism, Asperger’s, or dyslexia. In such situations, what can missionaries do?

God’s Purpose

At that moment, you can’t allow yourself to play the blame game—feeling or assigning guilt for something completely outside your control. For a while after our son’s diagnosis, I wallowed in the pit of my own feelings. What did I do wrong? It’s probably somehow my fault.

The first thing we must recognize is this situation is an opportunity for God to show his power.

When Jesus encountered the blind man, his disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2). At that moment, our Savior offered an answer that emphasized the sovereignty of the One who made the eyes of the blind and the brain of your child: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).

The first thing we must recognize is this situation is an opportunity for God to show his power. The struggles your child faces didn’t take God by surprise. He works all things for our good and his glory. Once we recognize this, we can take some practical steps.

Practical Suggestions

1. Get assistance.

First of all, get a valid diagnosis—then get help! There are wonderful international agencies that exist for the sole purpose of assisting missionaries with the educational and developmental needs of their children, such as TCK Training, SHARE Education Services, Services in Asia for Family Education (SAFE), and Anchor Education. Many provide diagnostic testing, recommendations, and extended support for a minimal cost to ministry families. Larger mission agencies also typically have an educational consultant. This person stands ready to support you and your child.

2. Get intervention.

We live in the 21st century where there are robust speech, occupational, and educational therapies as well as counseling and tutoring services accessible online. Research the available options. You might also consider finding a professional who can come alongside you in your field of service. Consult with your mission agency or personal supporters regarding leads on special educators who are interested in using their skills on the mission field.

3. Get trained.

Consider enrolling in online college or graduate-level courses. There are special training options available for parents and teachers. When our son was diagnosed, I never imagined returning to university to train as a special educator or educational therapist. However, after much prayer and counsel, I enrolled in courses that prepared me to provide intervention for Joel. Soon, we saw God use that training as I helped not only our son but also other families who faced similar challenges. Since then, I’ve helped numerous missionary families with the educational needs of their children.

4. Get perspective.

So much of a child’s self-perception is formed by what others model. Be the positive example that displays belief in God’s sovereignty. Don’t make excuses for your child. Instead, develop and nurture a growth mindset that inspires confidence. Encourage your child by providing opportunities to shine in a unique area. For example, even if your child struggles in one area, perhaps he or she has interests and talents in others, such as computers, music, sports, or art.

It’s also important for parents to stay unified and to schedule times for appropriate breaks or Sabbath rest alone to recharge and renew. Children flourish in an environment where parents are unified and loving, and this is especially true for children with special needs.

Pray with Thanksgiving

When our children face difficulties, trusting God takes on a new dimension. Pray faithfully and intentionally for patience and wisdom. Pray for the proper intervention and assistance for your child. Intercede for your child’s self-perception. Ask for God’s powerful intervention in all facets of your child’s life—cognitively, spiritually, emotionally, and socially.

Don’t make excuses for your child. Instead, develop and nurture a growth mindset that inspires confidence.

As you’re praying, don’t neglect to thank God for the blessing of this exact child. Face the hard facts of disabilities, disorders, and differences with a heart of trust and gratitude. Cry out to God with honesty and even disappointment. But take comfort in knowing he’s in control and that our heavenly Father has a loving purpose for this trial.

As I write these suggestions, I have stopped to pray for you, the readers. You probably wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have a burden for a child or missionary family struggling with a special need. I wish I could offer a quick fix. But parenting a child with a special need is often long-term and all-consuming. Accept Jesus’s words of invitation: come to him and he will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). Hang in there! He’s with you wherever you go.

ABWE MK Education is available to assist ABWE missionaries with the educational and developmental needs of their children.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition on October 6, 2022. Used with permission.

Cheryl Winget

Cheryl Winget (EdD in special education/educational psychology—Regent University) is the MK education coordinator for ABWE. She and her husband, Steve, have two adult children and served as missionaries in Budapest, Hungary, for almost 28 years. She taught at the International Christian School of Budapest for 12 years where she directed Supplemental Services.