How do Amish deal with special needs children?  We’ve often had questions here about how Amish approach individuals with disabilities, and children in particular.

I confess the meaning of “special needs” has never been totally clear to me. From what I understand it can cover a broad variety of situations, from moderate learning issues to much more severe handicaps.  English society attaches a stigma to the term, which by its broad nature can obscure a person’s specific situation.

Amish views of special needs children

As for the Amish, there is quite a bit of information on how they handle special needs situations.  Amish have commented on the issue in a variety of venues. John Stoltzfus recently presented the perspective of his community, noting among other things that “it is still a general consensus within our community that a Down syndrome child, slow learner child or any child is a Blessing from God.”

There is also at least one publication giving voice to families of special needs children.  Below is a photo of two issue of Life’s Special Sunbeams.  The reader who sent it in comments:

Special Needs Children are viewed as gifts from God by the Amish.  It is considered a blessing to have such a child and though difficult one can learn much by caring for such a child.  “Life’s Special Sunbeams” is an Amish publication containing stories from parents and teachers of special needs children.

amish-special-needs-publication

The authors of The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World describe Life’s Special Sunbeams:

Parents of children with Down’s syndrome, autism, deafness, dwarfism, muscular dystrophy, and other disabilities publish Life’s Special Sunbeams, a newsletter that is distributed nationally.  In it, parents share essays in which they describe their challenges, exchange ideas and insights, and often reveal their heartaches. Threading through all the stories is a belief that having such a child, despite the difficulties it entails, is firmly embedded in God’s larger purpose for the world (p 167). 

Sharing stories is no doubt one way of coping and helping families with special needs children.  But what about the classroom?

Amish and special needs education

Amish also have more formal educational tools to help special needs children.  The first Amish special education schools were opened in Lancaster County in the 1970s, followed by similar efforts in Indiana and Illinois.

Special needs children may be taught by Amish teachers–the daughter of a friend of mine is a full-time teacher of three special needs students this year–or in English settings.  One reader observes:

I was a special needs teacher, in Central PA, and I had an Amish boy, who had severe cerebral palsy. He had a top of the line electric wheel chair and a computer to help him communicate, and he went to the school districts special education classes. In my experience, Amish and conservative mennonite don’t shy away from medical intervention and special needs education when it will benefit the child.

Karen Johnson-Weiner addresses special needs schooling in her study of plain education Train Up a Child: Old Order Amish & Mennonite Schools.

In the mainstream Holmes County Amish settlement, she finds that a number of schools provide regular special education classes.  Amish children with such needs may be transported to a school providing a special education class (Train Up a Child, p 120).

One informant estimates there being “16 or 17 Special Ed classes throughout Wayne and Holmes Co” (p 265 footnote 12).  In one teacher’s school, special education students are included in school-wide activities, participate in games and prayer, and receive discipline like other children (p 121).

Some Amish teachers’ meetings also address special needs issues.  Johnson-Weiner shares a former teacher’s words at a “Special Needs Session” of a teachers’ meeting in Canada: “‘Every child has special needs, but also has basic needs that should not be neglected.  These are the need to be accepted, loved, and be made to feel a part of'” (p 120).

Perfect situation?

Do Amish special needs children always find themselves in ideal circumstances? While the above is probably a pretty fair overview of the ways many Amish approach special needs children, an individual’s experience, as with anything, may vary.

One reader commented on challenges he’s seen faced by special needs individuals in Amish and Old Order Mennonite families:

…usually special needs children are integrated into the families. I had an aunt who was pass[ed] from one family member to another. She was given the opportunity to contribute to whatever extend she could. Beyond that she was looked after by family and made to feel accepted and useful or at times pitied.

A greater problem occurs for those who manage to fend for themselves. Their struggles are mainly ignored and never talked about. If it can be ignored then it does not exist. This is a very sensitive and painful issue for me.

I’ve had limited direct experience with special needs people, but I’d imagine pitying and/or ignoring someone can also be a response, maybe a not uncommon one.  Are special needs children ever teased by other Amish children?  Children being children, it probably happens enough.

It should also be noted that plainer and more traditional groups may also have less access to, or acceptance of, resources designed to help special needs children and adults.  While special needs issues have in general received increased attention, just as with many other issues in Amish society, there is no universal approach.

Blunt talk about special needs

English people sometimes struggle to talk about people with disabilities.  Interestingly, one reader observes that there seems to be less of the squeamishness about special needs issues among Amish:

In my experience with the Amish, I always find it interesting how they bring up others challenges from the start. They might, at introductions, explain that a couple has sixteen children, or two sets of twins, or three in diapers. They always point out those types of exceptions, including children with disabilities. For example, it would sound something like this: You haven’t met my neighbors, the Millers? He is a farrier and they have eight children, one girl is a “special needs.” Or: “The woman who sat in front of us today has a son with downs syndrome.” Or: “Their oldest child is in a wheelchair.”

I have never been able to detect anything less than love and acceptance of more challenging situations, however, the Amish seem quicker than the English to identify where others “have their hands full,” which is a term they use often. It seems like that sort of information is typically withheld and is only gradually revealed in the English world, instead of being what is often the identifying factors of Amish families. I think it’s just that – ways to distinguish other families in the community.

Maybe being able to address the problem head-on is a healthier way to approach special needs situations? The authors of The Amish Way reflect on the way special needs individuals are integrated into Amish families and communities:

Because children and adults with congenital disorders and other disabilities live at home and find work within the community, they are an ever-present reminder to those with whom they live to slow down or modify routines and expectations, and to include those with different abilities in the tasks of everyday life.  Amish people are frank, often blunt, when they talk about disabilities, with little of the professional vocabulary found in polite quarters of modern society.  But the belief that God places special children with specific families fosters remarkable inclusion.  Amish-published directories of those with disabilities typically list an occupation–from store clerk to “help around the house”–alongside each person’s name, no matter how severe the person’s limitations.  This underscores the conviction that everyone has something to contribute (p 168).

There is much more that could be said on this topic, but I hope this is a useful start for anyone interested in the subject.

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