Ask an Amishman: Special Needs Children

Ruth Anne writes:

As a mother to a young woman who has Down syndrome I am curious as to how people with intellectual disabilities are accepted and integrated into the Amish culture.  I live near Xenia, Ohio and I often see Amish people out and about shopping, visiting the doctor, etc., but I have never noticed an Amish person who has Down syndrome or any other obvious intellectual disability.  

Specifically, I would like to know how the mentally challenged Amish are accepted into their society.  Do they receive an education?  Are they encouraged to work alongside the main community?  Are they allowed to marry if they want to?  Do the Amish consider them to be a punishment from God or do they respect and love them as they are?

John responds:

I haven’t had the personal experience having a family member who has Down syndrome, this makes responding to this question difficult, however 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.

The original question revolved around Down Syndrome children and their acceptance within the community, the community supports and accepts Down syndrome children very well. In the Lancaster County PA and daughter settlements there are Special Needs Schools that these children go too. There are committee men setup in the different districts or settlements that take care of the education side. There is a possibility that the teacher to student ratio is one to one, and they are sent to the age of 15 or older, depending on the child and the overall situation. Almost always, people go out of their way to communicate with a Special Needs person, because a lot of times they are very personal and very upbeat and are a sponge for attention.

I have a cousin Timmy that is a Down syndrome person, I understand that every day he goes to work with his father.  There are also other areas of support like the Lighthouse Vocational Services in New Holland, PA, I had heard that they hold annual support auctions.  I have never heard of them getting married, is it discouraged?? I don’t know.


John Stoltzfus is a father of five and member of a Pennsylvania Old Order Amish community. John works in product design for a local farm supply company. In his spare time he creates computer-generated art, which you can view here.

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    1. I have, just this week, learned of a doctor who researches and treats “special” children of the Amish. Holmes Morton, MD has had a clinic in Strasburg, PA for many years (about 20) where Amish and Mennonite families bring their special children. He has now opened a satillite clinic once per month in Belleville, PA and hopes to raise enough funds to have this clinic open full time. This new clinic office enables those living west of Lancaster County a shorter trip for treatments. I had the honor of hosting them at my BnB this week when they came for this month’s clinic. It’s amazing what they have been able to do and the interest his patients have in getting prime medical attention. Although I had never heard of him before, nor of the local clinic, I was pleased to find much information on his accomplishments by just “googling” his name. Although the main focus has been on Amish & Mennonite genetic dieases, there are also “English” patients and other cultures who seek medical care from his non-profit organization. There are several large yearly auctions that raise money, such as one held in Leola, PA and another in Somerset County. I was surprised I had never heard of this before, but very excited to see his efforts grow in our area (Big Valley, Mifflin County, PA).
      (just read to click on submit, when I see there is already an article on this site of his work).

      1. Claudia another nice addition to your valley. From the info I’ve seen there are plans to expand even further beyond PA. Will likely be paying a visit to Big Valley sometime next month by the way.

        1. Erik…..if you need a warm place to stay, let me know. You can’t beat a free night!

      2. Kurt

        Dr. Morton

        Good to hear that Dr. Morton is coming to the Valley. Here’s a video of his work.

        1. Thanks, Kurt, this is a great movie. Paul Morton mentioned having a dvd he’d share. This tells a very important story.

    2. Robin

      I’d be interested to know how children within the Amish communities with Autism spectrums are educated and receive needed therapies. These children are so bright but “locked in” their minds. My grandson has a high functioning spectrum, PDD, and continues to amaze us.

    3. Autism and Asperger's

      Robin, we also have an autistic child in our family. Otherwise I wouldn’t have noticed the ads in The Vendor (a bi-weekly paper for “plain people” published in Holmes County, OH) for dietary supplements to treat autism in children.

    4. It is always important to point out that there is a great deal of diversity in how each Amish community (and each district within each community) deals with special needs children and all other matters. It is also important to point out that an Amish man who generates computer art and is on Facebook is fairly unusual, at least for the Amish I know… in fact, it would be unheard of. I think it’s great that he is allowed this freedom, but not all Amish bishops would allow such things.

      I am so aware of how much we lump “the Amish” all together. This is just a reminder not to generalize.

      Saloma Miller Furlong

      1. Saloma, of course I am agreed with your point about diversity…it’s one repeated pretty often in the posts here, to the degree where I sometimes wonder if it is necessary to cover it so much, at least for regular readers.

        John made a similar disclaimer about his answers, which I included on his first two posts (and perhaps should go ahead and include on each of these for the sake of it).

        That said, I don’t think John’s “general consensus” statement in his first sentence is one many Amish would disagree with. Though the degree and type of care does vary. Since the topic deserves more attention I’d point those interested to one of the recent books covering Amish education for more (An Amish Paradox, Train Up a Child).

        I’d also say John’s use of the computer in a limited fashion speaks to the point you make about diversity among the Amish.

      2. Special Needs

        Thank you and noted that it is right – every commmunity and home is different and I wonder why no one now respects that we do not communicate online as it is not in accordance with the Amish UN

        Lucia M G Hales

    5. Alice Mary

      God bless Dr. Morton. I’ve read about his work more than once via this blog, and I could only hope he can 1.) clone himself several times over, or 2.) inspire others (but who?) to do his work once he’s gone to his (hopefully substantial) heavenly reward.

      Erik, does Dr. Morton have any Amish proteges? Or would his “replacement” (someday) come from the English medical profession? Do you know of any medical students who are hoping to follow in his footsteps? Do any “English” OR Amish “intern” with Dr. Morton?

      I’ve known an autism spectrum young man (now in his early 30’s) since he was in about 6th grade, and he’s had enough trouble finding a job (he’s high functioning and has earned a bachelor’s degree and is working on another) and learning how to “socialize” effectively. I wonder if he’d have an easier time in an Amish environment (that is, from birth through today–he’s very entrenched in the “English” world, so I doubt he’d find Amish life appealing).

      This is a very interesting aspect of the Amish—their care for “special needs” individuals. We can (should) all learn from them!

      Alice mary

      1. I do not know the answer Alice Mary on Amish working in the clinic, though I would suspect probably not, due to the educational requirements and nature of the work. It is also a fairly high-profile clinic in the community so someone doing this type of work would not only be stepping outside of the bounds of traditional occupations but would be part of a very visible institution.

        I believe at least one of his children has worked with him, this is a nice piece by his daughter on the clinic and their work:

    6. Robin

      Very true Saloma. Until recently, I never realized the differences from community to community among the Amish. I grew up near the Pennsylvania and Maryland communities which are very similar. It fascinates me to learn about the differences in customs and practices, down to buggies and clothing. Also, I am a “fan” of the man who posts his computer art on Facebook and have wondered about this.
      Forsythia, my daughter has not explored supplements for my grandson but does have him on a gluten-free diet. Very interesting theories on all of this.

    7. Carolyn B

      Good post. I bet there shall be many more comments before it’s through.

    8. Bob Rosier (Bob the Quaker)

      One of our Amish friends has a son with Down Syndrome. He is 25, but probably a mental capacity of a 4 year old. He always has a smile, and brightens the day for all who meet him. He does some chores on their farm and is accepted by their family and loved like any other member. I have never heard mention anything about punishment from God. They accept God’s will. We will see them in April and ask if they know about Dr. Morton. What a blessing to have Dr. Morton in their community.

    9. Lattice

      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.

      Since they are often not familiar with the “political correctness” that we are, they often use terms for various conditions or handicaps that were common in society, say 50 + years ago, which sometimes sounds shocking to me today, but there is never any desire to be insensitive, it’s just what they are familiar with. Occasionally, depending on who I am talking to (like if it’s a female friend), I might explain that such a term is outdated and even offensive to the “world.” They always seem very happy to know this, although they forget at times and correct themselves, and I have a feeling word travels quickly.

    10. Katrina

      Question about Amish Doctors

      I was wondering if Amish doctors go to an Amish medical school to become a doctor, do they attend a “regular” med school like the Englishers do, or would a practicing doctor take in an Amish person who was interested in becoming a doctor and teach them everything?- sort of like an apprenticeship? If they attend an Amish med school, are they required to take just as much training as the “regular” med schpools require? I know many Amish rely on homeopathic medicine-we still have the guide from the 1890’s that my great aunts used.

      1. John


        I don’t know about all the different Amish communities, however I have never heard of a “Amish Doctor” or an Amish that practices medicine as an MD.

        I do know of a Nebraskan Amish that practices as a Dentist. People go to him to have their teeth pulled for dentures, however payment is a donation, not billed, and he has a Dentist friend that later fits the dentures. I personally know people that were there for his services.

        Any so called “Doctors” in the Plain community are really Natural Health Practitioners, or what we call Quack Doctors…

        The biggest issue the Plain communities have is the fly by night doctors or so called doctors that sweep through the communities, time and time again. I would highly doubt that any of these guys are licensed and they vanish when their game is up…

        1. Katrina

          Thank you John

          Thank you so much. You clarified some things that I have wondered about for years. Like I said in an earlier post a couple of weeks ago, my grandfather was the first generation of non-Amish on my dad’s side. My great aunts relied on their thick book of homeopathic remedies their entire lives- cannot remember the exact title of the book but it began “Dr. So and so’s and the copyright was from around 1890.

    11. Don Curtis

      Down's Syndrome children

      I asked Mark about Down’s Syndrome children and how they are treated. Mark said that there are three Down’s Syndrome cases in his community. One is now grown and in her 30’s. She is a high functioning Down’s Syndrome. She can read and write, etc. She lives at home with her parents and unmarried syblings. She works at home, as well. She helps with housework, milkingm, etc. When this young woman was a child she was educated in the Amish school by her own Amish teacher. One of the other Down’s Syndrome children is a boy about 13 or so. He is pretty severly restricted in what he is able to do. He, also, went to Amish school and had his own private teacher. He cannot really speak or at least not very well. His tongue is enlarged and protrudes from his mouth. But he communicates. Mark said he was over by that district for church and this boy was smacking the staircase bannister and looking over at Mark. Mark asked him if he wanted help going down the stairs. The boy gave him the thumbs up sign. Communicattion!
      The third Down’s Syndrome child is young. Mark said he has just started school. He has his own teacher. These special teachers are paid for by a special fund that everybody in the community contributes to rather than the regular school tuitions. Mark has never seen any Down’s Syndrome married. He said he imagines it would be highly discouraged.

    12. Deb

      Special Needs Children

      I subscribe to “The Connection” which is a monthly magazine published in Topeka Indiana for the Amish Community. Each month a local school is profiled. In both Novemeber and Decembers issue the articles mentioned having an additional teacher for the “special needs” scolars. In Novembers issue a family was profiled as having handicapped sons. The “Make a Wish” Foundation granted this family a gift of a day house equiped with a day bed, sling, and other equipment.

    13. Linda

      Most Amish would refer to a mentally challenged child as a special child. They go along to church services and weddings. They help with the work what they can, but that might depend on the parents, and the child’s training and capabilities. One Amish Down Syndrome girl in her 20s sits with her mother in church instead of with the other girls.

      Although it’s rare, one Amish “slow-learner” or intellectually impaired couple married in the 1980s. They were not Down Syndrome. They were older than child-bearing age, but then they developed some health issues and needed help from others. The marriage didn’t work out the best and it was kind of “bedaverlich” (pitiful), a poor situation, almost like a disaster waiting to happen. The wife went back to live with her relatives, but she has since passed away

      Faith Mission Home in Virginia takes care of mentally impaired children as residents, with a voluntary staff of plain Mennonites and Beachys. Although I don’t know of any Amish children being residents, in the 1970s one Amish girl volunteered there. They see more and more autism. Sometimes the staff learns a lesson from one of the children.

      I’ve heard it said that in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, they did away with the unproductive elderly, the handicapped, and disabled babies.

      God bless the caregivers for God’s special children!

    14. sarah

      My amish neighbor has a down’s syndrome son… along with 6 other boys. The older boys are very protective of their little brother. He’s out there “helping” the bigger boys in everything they do. From spreading manure to running the sawmill… he’s right there with them 🙂

    15. Dody

      It’s nice to know they do well by them. I sometimes wish we outside of the Amish did as well by our special needs children. I have a daughter that has difficulty walking. She uses braces and must go to physical therapy. It is very demanding.

      1. Carolyn B

        Hi Dody, I wanted to introduce myself directly to you. I am a woman with spina bifida who grew up using braces & a walker. I’m now a full-time wheelchair user.

        I just wanted to say being the mom of a special needs kid is a major full-time job by itself. Thank you for doing what you can to enrich your daughter’s life.

    16. Sara Mandal-Joy

      Down Syndrome

      I have a 37 year old down syndrome son living at home with me, so the subject is one close to my heart. My Amish neighbors have a down syndrome grandchild (back in Missouri) that is about 7 now. He went to public special ed for a little while, but not understanding English it was nearly worthless for him, and it was decided he would stay at home with occasional home teacher visits. The Seymour community, and here in SE Kansas, don’t seem to utilize the one on one teacher scenario. Katy, my neighbor, says that she knew of a down syndrome couple in MO who married – with a lot of help. Sara

    17. Dessa

      Amish and Special needs children

      We have a special needs adult child that still lives with us. We attended an Amish/Mennonite church in KY and these churches have not only accepted us but our daughter as well. They love it that she can use sign language to sing the songs and many are learning sign from her so that they can speak to her. In the dealings with the Amish and Mennonite communities we are close to I only see love and acceptance of children or people that has special needs.

      1. just wondering

        Iwas wondering if a special needs little girl was adopted by Amish or Mennonites and the birth momma worked very hard and straightened up her life would they consider letting the birth mother see her daughter specially if the mother had never abusede her daughter or neglected her