Overview

Impact Feature Issue on Faith Communities and Persons with Developmental Disabilities

Children with Autism and the Mass:
Tips for Parents and Teachers

The following is from the newsletter of the group God’s Love Embraces Autism in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Written by parents of children with autism, it is designed to assist other parents and teachers in the religious education of the child with autism. In this article, three mothers share what they’ve learned about including their sons in the Mass, the Roman Catholic service of worship.

We started with the assumption that if our children with autism were acting up at Mass, it was not necessarily due to bad behavior. Taking into consideration the “sensory” and “rigidity” issues that accompany autism, acting up could be due to our children’s unfamiliarity or discomfort with their surroundings. Churches, most often, are large, cavernous, “echo-y” places which can create all kinds of auditory processing discomfort for our kids.

We found that it helped if we took our sons into the empty church and let them wander freely and touch everything. Of course they were drawn to the altar area, which should be the focus, but is also an area deserving of great reverence. Since our children show their reverence in non-typical ways, a talk with parish priests is a good idea before letting the kids loose. We found that one visit like this is far from enough. Often, you’ll need to visit over and over before the child is comfortable.

Doris’ Experiences with Michael

Doris is a cantor at her church. While she rehearsed with the organist, her sons, E.J. and Michael roamed around the altar area (Michael has autism). After that exposure, she noticed a marked difference in Michael’s comfort level and calmness at Mass. Of course, Doris, right from the beginning would reinforce the concept: “At practice, we are on the altar. At Mass, we sit in the pew.”

She also discovered that Michael’s behavior was much better if they sat in the first row, with no other people or distractions between him and the altar. The front pew is not necessarily the first place a family who has a child with autism would pick. But it can truly make a difference in the child’s ability to focus and thus participate in the Mass. Again, a talk with the parish priests, Eucharistic ministers, lectors, ushers, etc. is a good idea to garner support and understanding for your child’s attendance at Mass. Also, Doris found that Michael was less “fidgety” if he had something in his hands. She’d bring a small packet of “fidget items” – rosary beads, a decade, a worry stone. You could also include a “koosh” ball or other item for variety.

Anita’s Experiences with Michael

Anita, the mother of Michael and Jason, introduced them to their church a bit differently (Michael has autism). She also wanted Michael to be more familiar with the church and would bring him for explorations in the empty church. She found it helpful to bring a list of items for him to find. This list helped him to focus on where he was. The list might be something like find the altar, find the pulpit, find the Bible, find the chalice, etc. This list could be as long or as short as the child’s attention span. Lists could vary from visit to visit. Some children may need the interaction of placing a sticker or checkmark after each item found. If a child doesn’t read, a picture list could be made. You could individualize a list for your own child.

Anita found that here Michael didn’t respond as well to “fidget items” in his hands as he did to books. He was fascinated with books, even before he could read. She shopped around and found a variety of beginner Bibles and “easy-read” religious stories for him. The books, as well as sitting near the front of the church or close to the choir or organ music, helped Michael to focus and participate. As he has gotten older, he has responded to more of a delayed reward system: “If you’re good at Mass, you can have a video, etc. when we get home.”

Katie’s Experiences with Bill

My son, Bill, has autism. We also brought Bill and his younger brother, Kevin, on visits to our empty church. Along with running up and down aisles, Bill was fascinated by the statues. He would hug them (with supervision) or jump up and down in front of them (a form of prayer, we like to think).

When Bill developed language, our true problems at Mass began. Bill’s language is a mixture of appropriate verbal remarks and completely inappropriate, repetitive “chatter.” This chatter can be constant and is at one volume setting: LOUD! Bill could not lower his voice more than a few seconds at a time. As much as we wanted Bill to be at Mass, we also didn’t want to overwhelm the rest of the congregation. We spoke with our parish priest and he suggested that we try a combination of things. We started by putting Bill in the babysitting program at the 10:00 Mass, even though he was technically too old. Then we’d bring Bill into the church for Communion and the end of Mass. (We did have to give the babysitters a crash course in autism!).

As Bill got older, we dropped the babysitting program and moved into the family room. To focus on the Mass from the family room, Bill often needs more than books. We noticed that he was quieter if he had a more interactive kind of Mass book. We made him a Velcro™ “Mass activity book” that involved matching pictures with parts of the Mass as we went along. We even put Velcro™ on a picture of him so he could put himself next to a picture of the Consecration of Jesus. Also, Bill loves doing puzzles with a religious theme during the Homily.

Father suggested that Bill could go back and forth between the family room and the regular congregation as needed. His loud and exuberant commentary has necessitated that we stay mainly in the family room. We always come out for Communion though, and this can be quite an experience. We never know what Bill may say on his way down the aisle. He may say bits of prayers, which he often combines with his favorite topics – Disney characters and Star Wars. I think his image of the Blessed Mother is a mixture of the traditional “Our Lady in Blue,” Snow White and Cinderella. But he is filled with excitement when he receives the Host. He may jump up and down and loudly proclaim: “My Lord and my God, yup, I ate Jesus!”

Over the years, many people in our parish have become supportive of Bill. Everyone still watches Bill in church (it truly is hard not to). Usually, our family is okay with this, but sometimes it is still hard.

Conclusion

All three of us mothers have also practiced parts of the Mass with our sons at home so that they become routine: repeating and memorizing the Our Father, the Creed, and other prayers that stay the same, hand-over-hand practice of the Sign of the Cross or the “thumb crosses” before the Gospel, even re-enacting the washing of the hands, going to Communion, etc. It does help them focus on these parts during the Mass.

Learning the Mass and participating in the Mass is a life-long journey for all of us. Families who have children with autism just have to be a little more creative as they travel down the path.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from the newsletter of God’s Love Embraces Autism (January 10, 2001), published by the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Secretariat for Education, Department for Persons with Disabilities, 135 First Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For additional information, contact Grace Harding at 412/456-3119 or by e-mail at gharding@diopitt.org.