By Shana Buck, OFS
When I read about the Holy Father addressing the needs of individuals with autism, I was elated. My husband and I have three children “in the spectrum” — a 23 year old daughter, Luci, with moderate Asperger’s; an 18 year old son, Austin, with what was once called pervasive developmental disorder, and 11 year-old Nicholas, with moderate autism.
Our children are all individuals, with different strengths and weaknesses, and one single “program” could possibly address all of their needs. What families seek from the church is a sense of security and support when their children are at Mass, or in religious education. Our parish has been extremely helpful to our spectrum children, and so — while the Holy Father has people paying attention to this issue — I want to seize the moment and encourage other parishes by sharing the constructive effects of small accommodations.
Our priests have been exceedingly thoughtful to our ASD children. When my daughter made her confirmation, every effort was made by our pastor and our Director of Religious Education (DRE) to help her feel comfortable. Luci cannot stay in the church when there are people moving around; she becomes anxious and has what looks much like a panic attack. When it is time for Holy Communion, she receives and then leaves for the vestibule until everyone else has received, and then she returns to the pew. At Confirmation, she was permitted to sit at the end of the pew, and be confirmed first, so she could sit in the vestibule for the remaining confirmations. Our DRE explained her need to Bishop Michael Bransfield, who agreed to Luci’s unusual request. In this way our daughter’s needs were met without causing a great distraction to the proceedings, but she was still accounted and accepted as part of the group — welcomed, rather than isolated.
Nicholas, our son with moderate autism, also has mild mental retardation due to an oxygen-depriving defect at birth. He actually loves music, but is greatly stressed by our choir. I do not know if it is because the music is too loud, or if it is because some of the older people in the choir occasionally sing off-key, and he can’t handle discordant sounds.
Our previous pastor added two Masses to our schedule with permission of our bishop, and he decided that these two Masses would be music-free. Though we did not request this, we quickly took full advantage of it. One of those Masses is at 7:30 AM, and Nicholas attends it weekly with his father and his brother Austin who — after discovering that he is more peaceful and prayerful when serving as an altar boy — has become the permanent server for that Mass.
Most of the people who attend 7:30 regularly are older folks. They have all become friends with Nicholas. They understand that he has limitations and they are very kind to him; they encourage him and praise him when they see him overcoming his struggles at mass.
So that Nicholas would not have to deal with a multitude of children receiving First Communion — and the choir music which might have lead to a full-scale screaming melt-down — he was the only child to receive it at the 7:30 AM Mass. Those parishioners who worship with him each week went out of their way to congratulate him, and some even gave him small gifts. As regular attendees of an earlier mass, they don’t usually get to share in a First Communion, so the allowance made for Nicholas’ sake was actually a kind of “win-win” for many there.
Because of the kindness of so many parishioners, and the way our priest has encouraged the parish to respond to his needs, Nicholas enjoys going to Mass. He sits as still as he can and listens intently to the readings, quite often remembering particular passages that he wants to discuss at home. He always makes sure he is in bed early on Saturday night so that he can wake up in time to be ready to go to Holy Mass at 7:30 on Sunday.
These small accommodations are not outrageous; they are probably do-able in most parishes, and truly help people with different needs feel like they are part of a community, and not “strange” or strangers. Discovering the needs of parishioners within the autism spectrum and being willing to make some small, supportive adjustments can go a long way toward helping them grow in the faith. It also gives real assistance to their often overwhelmed families, who are not trying to be difficult, but are living in sometimes very challenging and complicated situations. Having a sense that we are seen, that our children’s needs are recognized and responded to, helps us believe that we are all valued members of the parish. It also validates our faith and gives witness to a generosity of spirit that points to Christ’s Gospel.
We are not the only family in the parish with autistic children. In one family, the father accompanies his son to every event that is offered to children his age. He accompanies his son to CCD classes and any other parish events for young teens. Our DRE and Pastor have always worked to make our parish a place that is oriented to the welfare of the different needs of our many parishioners. My husband and I have always been very grateful for the kindness of our pastors and our DRE who — as these men are welcomed and then reassigned — has been the constant assist to families in need. Their efforts have helped my children to love and embrace their Catholic faith and have helped to make real the “universality” of our Catholicism.
I pray that Pope Francis’ pointed interest in supporting families like ours will encourage other parishes to consider how they might identify and meet the varied needs within their communities.