Ministry and Autism Spectrum Disorder
A few days ago, the Center for Ministry Development received an inquiry for resources to help an autistic child prepare to receive the sacrament of Eucharist. The person wanted to know how he could teach someone with autism to understand the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Honestly, there is not a lot of information and research on this topic. While this blog post won't offer concrete solutions, I think it's important to keep having the conversation. Ministry leaders know that religious concepts are often abstract and difficult to teach in any circumstance. Imagine the challenge of sharing faith with those who are very literal thinkers and have a difficult time understanding symbolism and intangible ideas.
My nephew John is fast approaching adolescence, a challenging time of transition for all young people, but John will be entering his pre-teen years with the limitations of someone who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Blue-eyed and tow-headed blonde, John is sweet, kind and easily has his feelings hurt if he thinks he is being left out of something. Like most boys his age, John loves Star Wars, karate, and swimming in his backyard pool. But, because of his ASD, John can become frustrated and have a meltdown when feeling overwhelmed. While he is not aware of the adolescent and emerging adult dynamics that await him, his parents surely are. Individuals and families living with autism face enormous challenges in assisting their loved ones over the course of their lifetimes. As those with ASD reach early adulthood, families are often faced with even greater obstacles than during childhood, including planning for the successful transition into adulthood and independent life.
Understanding Autism Today
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability and is defined by a certain set of behaviors. It is important to remember that it is a "spectrum condition" that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. According to the Autism Society, some of the behaviors associated with (ASD) include delayed learning of language, difficulty making eye contact or holding a conversation, trouble with reasoning and planning, poor motor skills, and sensory sensitivities. A person on the autism spectrum might follow many of these behaviors or just a few. Teenagers with (ASD) typically show difficulties in two main areas: (1) social communication and (2) repetitive behaviors and interests.
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that the prevalence of autism had risen to 1 in every 68 births in the United States – nearly twice as great as the 2004 rate of 1 in 125 – and almost 1 in 54 boys. If you do not currently have a young person with ASD in your ministry setting, you soon will. How will our Church respond to the needs of ASD youth and their families? Especially when even attending Mass with crowds of people, bright lights, and long periods of silently sitting can be difficult? How will our youth ministries welcome young people with special needs and help them to feel included in peer-driven communities? And like our recent inquiry, how will we prepare young people with ASD to receive their sacraments so that they may fully understand and participate in our faith? Big questions that if we are not already asking, we should be.
"He said also to the man who had invited him, "When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just."Luke 14:12-14
Let's have the conversation by asking and more importantly listening to our families with ASD loved ones. To write this blog, the first person I turned to was my sister-in-law because she lives with the reality of ASD every day. I was amazed at all the suggestions and resources she quickly provided. I also know that church is a big part of John's family life and that he belongs to a faith community that welcomes and supports his family. My sister-in-law told me that just the other day John said, "I love you Jesus and want to live with you forever." She said it was "glorious to witness the Holy Spirit work and guide him." Over the years I have watched John's parents struggle with heath care costs, social interaction concerns, and the demands of raising a child with ASD. However, the one constant reassurance has always been their faith in God and knowing that John is truly a gift and a blessing to all of us.
Following are some suggestions and resources to begin the conversation about welcoming ASD individuals and families in our parish communities.
Example of a Parish Ministry to Young People with Autism: http://stpeterswarwick.com/autism-program/
Autism and the Catholic Life: https://simplycatholic.net/2008/03/05/autism-and-catholic-life/
National Catholic Reporter: https://www.ncronline.org/news/faith-parish/autism-mass-and-religious-education
National Catholic Partnership on Disability: http://www.ncpd.org/ministries-programs/specific/autism
The Autism Society: http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/
CTC Heath Teens with Autism:http://www.crchealth.com/troubled-teenagers/autism-in-teenagers/
6 Ways to Share Jesus with a Child Who Has Autism: http://amamasstory.com/2014/11/sharing-jesus-with-a-child-who-has-autism.html
The Child with Autism Learns about Faith: 15 Ready-to-Use Scripture Lessons, from the Garden of Eden to the Parting of the Red Sea by Kathy Labosh