Pope Makes Time for Autism, Can We?

When one of our children was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum disorder shortly after kindergarten at our Parochial School, we were told, “Of course your child is welcome to continue schooling here, but in the interest of full disclosure, he will have better access to services in the public system.”

Representatives from the public school system seconded the opinion, listing among their offerings full-time staff on sight to help enact a child’s individual education program (or IEP), occupational therapy, speech therapy, and group counseling, etc. Their staff is trained specifically in special education, stays up to date on the latest educational, scholarly, and medical developments, and is willing to try alternative learning techniques for students who thrive in non-traditional classrooms.

When faced with such an extensive menu of free services, many parents make the switch from private education to public. But having an education in the faith was important to my husband and I, so we held on at the Parochial school for several years.

It was a challenge, self-educating about our son’s disability and communicating with his teachers respectfully, rejecting the tendency towards defensiveness or combativeness. The school was required by law to make certain accommodations, and I had to collaborate with his teachers to ensure he made progress academically, without undue penalty for things he could not control.  As a parent, I mostly fumbled through these paces with terrible clumsiness.

In all, it was sort of a lonely road, where both my son’s teachers and I were pushing through without a lot of expertise, and after a brief stint of home schooling, we switched to public education. My only regret was not having done it sooner. I think my son might have cut a smoother path through elementary school with a few well-timed and consistent interventions, and I would not have felt the need to reinvent the wheel.

During Holy Week 2013, Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, President of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, made an appeal on World Autism Day (April 2) for members of the Catholic community to reach out to families with autistic members . He called, not only for the spiritual support of these families, but also for faithful engagement with the scientific and educational communities, to seek therapies for people who live with autism spectrum disorders:

“…The Church sees as impelling the task of placing herself at the side of these people – children and young people in particular – and their families, if not to breakdown these barriers of silence then at least to share in solidarity and prayer in their journey of suffering. …In addition to cultivating constantly, and expressing, this sensitivity of the heart and communion in prayer, the scientific world and health-care policies must also be encouraged to engage in and, where necessary, increase, diagnostic, therapeutic and rehabilitative pathways that can address a pathology which affects more people in numerical terms than could have been imagined only a few years ago.”

Archibishop Zimowski’s statement was a welcome addition to the conversation on faith and Autism. It was a reiteration of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement on persons with disabilities that:

“Defense of the right to life implies the defense of all other rights that enable the individual with the disability to achieve the fullest measure of personal development of which he or she is capable. These include the right to equal opportunity in education, in employment, in housing, and in health care, as well as the right to free access to public accommodations, facilities, and services.”

But I wonder how much good a statement of intention can provide if it is not backed up by concrete action in Catholic schools and parishes. While many Catholic schools nationwide have invested much in their special ed programs, the majority simply do not have the resources or personnel to be a “go to” source for students with disability.

When religious practice is itself a chief therapy and quality-of-life measure for people with disabilities, it does not do for Catholic schools and communities to defer families with disability to the public system, even out of a sense of humility and realism about their limitations in addressing those families’ needs. This is an area where Catholic education needs to stretch.

The most critical lesson a child with a disability learns is that God loves and accepts him regardless of his struggles–a message most effectively transmitted when members of his family and faith community do the same.

It seems there is some connective tissue that could be built between Catholics in the pro-life movement, it’s fundraising efforts, its zeal– and Catholic Schools looking to expand their offerings for students with disability.

I have been several times to the annual pro-life march in Washington DC, pumped up on the adrenaline of marching alongside thousands of like-minded people in a movement for change in legislation that somehow never comes. In the aftermath, I have spent the next few weeks filled with indignation that the secular press continually ignored our efforts and voices.

I’m wondering if perhaps it’s time for pro-life people to consider changing our focus from Washington to our own schools and families.

Conscientiously pro-life people are the most likely parents to bring children with known genetic anomalies in pregnancy to full term. They are the most likely adopters of children with disability. They are the most likely to need resources, and spiritual support for their children in the years to come.

Are we encouraging our young people to become educators and specialists in teaching students with learning disability? In our Parishes, could we raise funds beyond the Sunday collection in order to send parochial school teachers for ongoing education in alternative learning methods? In our current Catholic school budgets, do we prioritize access for all kinds of learners over say, having cutting edge technology in every classroom? On the most basic level, are we patient with children at Church and school who behave in unexpected or embarrassing ways?

Maybe it’s not reasonable to expect Catholic schools and institutions to be the vanguard in special education, but at the very least, we should not turn away members of our own flock who already feel confused, judged, and isolated by the ways they cannot conform. So I applaud Pope Francis’s desire to meet with families who live with Autism and other disabilities. It’s a concern of the faithful that deserves broader attention.

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