Special Needs and the Goodness of Dependence

April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day and April is World Autism Month. Learn more about how you can participate here.


Our culture is infatuated with the idea of independence.

Toddlers grumble “I don’t need your help!” while clearly needing their parents’ help. The preteen glows with excitement when he gets to ride his bike to his friend’s house by himself for the first time. The young CEO scoffs at the thought of delegating tasks that he can do himself.

From a young age we all begin to crave independence. The more independent you are the more successful you seem. Asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness, laziness, or even deficiency. But is that really true?

Unpacking Independence

We can describe independence as being free from outside control or not needing someone to complete a task. This, by itself, is a good skill that we should all seek to cultivate.

However, whenever we idolize independence to the point that dependence is seen as a bad thing, we have stepped too far—even into unbiblical territory.

We were never meant to do life or to fulfill our lives’ purposes on our own. In fact, we were actually created to be dependent. Contrary to popular belief, dependency is not a result of the fall. We know this because even before sin entered the world, God declared that “it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). Humans needed helpers before we ever even sinned.

Special Needs and the Goodness of Dependence

This is my seventh year in special education. Every year I teach, I learn something new about the beauty and wisdom of God’s design through those with special needs. My students are great teachers!

Recently, I have been learning about the goodness of dependence. I’ve noticed that many of the same principles of dependence that help my students in the classroom also help believers in our walk with Christ. Below are three principles for healthy dependence that extend beyond the classroom and into the Church.

Principle #1: Ask for Help

Special education teachers continually reinforce the importance of asking for help. Student needs are real, constant, and always changing. While we can’t expect students to know how to do everything, we can teach them how to react when they don’t. Come to me. Tell me what you need. Remember I’m here to help. These are all phrases we use to remind students that we care for them and that there is no shame in needing assistance.

As teachers, we really mean that. We are not aggravated when students ask for help; we are actually excited when they use their resources!

Our joy stems from two places. First, we remember our students’ frame (i.e., children who have special limitations), so we are never caught off guard when they need our assistance (cf. Ps. 103:14). Second, as teachers, we have the power to help, so we are eager to do so! Because we love our students—and because we have the ability to help them—it brings us joy when they come to us for aid (cf. Ps. 50:15).

Principle #2: Lean Into Structure

Special education students are highly dependent on structure. This structure may come in the form of behavioral expectations, environmental setup, a predictable daily schedule, and so forth.

Structure helps students manage expectations and remember what they’re looking for in different contexts. These systems are not meant to hold students back or to make their actions robotic, but to give them pathways to thrive. 

Without exception, it is within the context of structure that we’ve seen student creativity flow, emotional regulation occur, and communication flourish. When students embrace their dependency on structure it does not diminish their quality of life—it noticeably enriches it (cf. Ps. 19:7-11; John 10:10).

Principle #3: Remember the Reward

I’ve learned through the years that there’s a very important (and quite beautiful) distinction between a reward and a bribe. Bribing is giving someone an incentive for an action that only benefits the briber. Rewarding is giving someone an incentive for an action that may or may not benefit the giver, but always benefits the recipient.

The tasks we give in the classroom are designed to give students a more productive and fulfilling life. When a student completes her math assignment or practices reading, this benefits her.

Of course, my students—like all children—don’t always understand why these tasks are good for them (or how it will benefit them for decades to come). What often motivates them is not the task itself, but the reward they get when the task is completed. 

We don’t shame the students for this, nor are we disappointed that they are dependent on the reward. In fact, we frequently encourage students with statements like, “Remember what you’re working for” or “First math, then free choice.”

Not only are we happy to reward students once they complete their tasks, but we actually encourage them to use these rewards as motivations (cf. Matt. 6:1-4; Gal. 6:9; Col. 3:23-24; Heb. 11:6; Heb. 11:24-26). Whenever they do so, they demonstrate faith that we will provide what we’ve promised. This benefits the students and honors the teachers.

Christ: The Ultimate Model of Dependence

The ultimate reason why the dependence that we see in the classroom is so beautiful is because it mirrors Christ’s dependence.

Even though Jesus was perfect, he still made a habit of asking for help from God and those around him (Mark 3:13-19; Luke 5:16). He used structure to know God’s Word, to spend time with God, and to be around God’s people (Luke 4:16). And through it all he remembered the reward that he would receive (and share with all who believed in him) once his task was completed (Heb. 12:2).

Those with special needs have much to teach us, and they are not the only ones who benefit from dependence. Jesus himself thrived not by avoiding dependence, but by embracing it—and he calls us to do the same.


Kassie McDowell is a teacher for Mid-Valley Special Education Cooperative. She holds a M.A. in special education from Aurora University and a B.S. in communication sciences and disorders from the University of Mississippi.

Joni and Friends is a ministry committed to bringing the Gospel and practical resources to people impacted by disability around the globe. Learn more about how to support this ministry here.

Learn more about autism and special needs here.

Read “How (Not) To Pray With A Hurting Loved One” here.

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