First, just introduce yourself and say hello. This is especially important if you see a special needs person and parent at Mass.
Second, invite these families to general events in your own home such as birthday parties. There’s no better way for children or adults to meet each other than through activities like this.
Third, one helpful action may mean more to special needs parents than thousands of words. Asking a parent out for coffee, offering a lunch invitation when the children are in school, offering to shop or run errands when the child is sick and the parent must stay at home – all of these are true extensions of the Beatitudes.
Fourth, be an advocate for special needs children and their role in the Church. In one of the documents of Vatican II, the Council Fathers hoped for a day when all children in the Church could be together in school, CCD, Mass, and other liturgies. Rare is the Catholic school that has a program for special needs children. There are, however, many good catechists in the Church who help those with needs that are different from the majority of children.
Fifth, if at all possible, cut families some slack when their child acts out. This doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to put up with aggressive actions that put others at risk. Much more common are the things these children do that are, quite frankly, what we call annoying or obnoxious. Once, I saw a special needs mother with her child sitting nervously toward the back of the church because part of the child’s disability was to make loud and random noises. The priest saw this from the sanctuary and went immediately to the mother and her son. He greeted them with enthusiasm and welcomed them to one of the front pews. Indeed, it was true that day that the last became first, and no one dared to complain that the verbalizations were ruining their prayer time.
Another thing you can do is learn everything you can about different special needs children. There are excellent books and tremendous organizations that educate and advocate for conditions such as attention deficit disorder, autism, mental retardation, fears and phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, learning disorders of many kinds, or deafness and blindness. One day I hope to make a list of these for Aleteia.
Somewhere in the Jewish tradition of the Talmud, there is a legend that God has appointed twelve people to be present at all times and in every era of the world. They are known as the "secret saints”; no one knows who or where they are. Further, it is their innate goodness and simplicity that prevents God from destroying the universe. Perhaps then and now, many of these secret saints came from the realm of children and adults whom we now describe as having “special needs.”