Autism, the Mass and Religious Education

Article excerpt

How does the Catholic church respond to children with an autism disorder and to their families, especially when many parents fear that their child may act out during Mass, causing the family to experience rejection by other parishioners?

Autism is a complex developmental disability linked to neurological disorders in the brain. It typically appears during the first two years of life and affects boys more than girls. Symptoms include repetitive behaviors and difficulty with communication and social interaction.

Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States, with reported cases growing at a rate of 10 to 17 percent a year. The Autism Society of America estimates that there are 1.5 million--or one in every 150 children--with an autism disorder. Autism costs $90 billion a year, according to the society.

Two dioceses have developed programs that model how the church can welcome families with autistic children, with the goal of greater inclusion, and preparation for and reception of the sacraments. One program, designed over the past few years in Newark, N.J., is the work of a determined archdiocesan director. The other, underway in the Pittsburgh diocese, was started after an incident in which two children with autism disorders were denied Communion.

Anne Masters, director of Pastoral Ministry with Persons with Disabilities for the Newark archdiocese, asked religious education teachers what they needed in order to teach children with autism disorders. They told her, "Tell us what to teach and how to teach it."

Masters began researching autism and turned to experts from the community. "Like St. Paul, I tried to identify and use the gifts of the community," she said. She created an advisory board of 15 people with expertise in behavioral science, language, catechetical training and related fields.

Masters said her driving ambition was twofold: to affirm the baptism of people with disabilities as members of the church and to teach parishes and catechists to include disabled people in the celebration of the Eucharist and in religious education.

To foster this, Masters designed learning aids. She created "Attend Mass" materials that parents can download and personalize.

She created 10 "parent-to-parent" tips for inclusion in the parish. For example, the tips encourage parents to meet with the pastor in advance; provide educational materials on autism for the parish; practice parts of the Mass with their child; and come prepared with an effective but discreet motivation strategy to limit distracting or disruptive behaviors.

Finally, a support group for mothers was formed with the help of a psychologist. One issue they deal with, Masters said, is the need "to let go of the child they dreamed of while pregnant by acknowledging the sadness and anger."

In 2007, Masters and her volunteers began working with two kids and their families.

Among them are Regina Cioffi and her 8-year-old son, Thomas, who has an autism disorder. Her repeated attempts to get help from her parish left her frustrated. "I was close to converting to Buddhism," she said. With Masters' help, Cioffi got necessary educational materials and was introduced to the mothers' group.

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Thomas is now scheduled to receive his first Communion next spring. Cioffi's friends from the support group helped her through an unexpected illness. The director of religious education from her parish brought her Communion and became a good friend. …