For the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at the book How to Welcome, Include, and Catechize Children with Autism and Other Special Needs by Lawrence R. Sutton, Ph.D. This book, published in 2013, highlights the success of a parish-based sacramental preparation and religious education program designed to give autistic children an opportunity to engage in learning about their Catholic faith which recognizes and celebrates the traits which distinguish them from non-autistic fellow Catholics. Dr. Sutton is an autism specialist who is also an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church.
The book is a fast read and is organized, as its title suggests, as a practical guide for other parishes to consider implementing programs in a similar fashion. The conclusion points to an actual curriculum which arose from Dr. Sutton’s pilot project and may be purchased through the book’s publishing company, Loyola Press; however, the book stands on its own points quite well and does not come across as a promotional tool.
We thought it would be helpful to review the ideas in this book from the different perspectives of those who are most likely to pursue this topic in the first place. This week, we hear from an autistic Catholic adult.
"Lawrence Sutton directs much of his writing toward championing the children likely to struggle in a classroom setting because their processing styles are not compatible with that mode of teaching and learning. He does so in a wonderfully descriptive and supportive way by discussing behaviors which might be pegged as disruptive, but instead explains how these behaviors function as means of coping with the sensory and emotional overload of being autistic in a large group setting. He never once characterizes these behaviors as problematic. Rather, he emphasizes that autistic children quickly reach their limits in large settings and rely on stimming to modulate their anxiety and increases focus. In many settings, through no fault of anyone involved, stimming creates distraction and discomfort for those in charge and those in attendance. He places no blame on either side, which gives the book a very positive and encouraging feel without compromising anyone’s needs, be those the needs of the child or the needs of the teachers to comfortably maintain focus.
Reading this book brought several thoughts to mind from my own experiences growing up. I dreaded youth groups and religion classes because the setting overwhelmed me and I made minimal connection with the material being presented. I was more the type to hide in the background; my anxiety did not create any disruptions or distractions because I coped by trying to be invisible. As a result, the sense of being part of the parish community was never real to me. I felt like a visitor in my own church, week after week. Dr. Sutton’s approach addresses this need equally well. From the very first chapter, he emphasizes that religious education and sacramental instruction, at their very foundations, are based on relationships: between parish staff and parishioners, between parishioners, between teachers and students, between mentors and mentees, and, ultimately, between each individual and God, who is revealed ever more fully in each sacramental encounter. Group instruction, in his estimation, should come together only by leaders and attendees knowing each other as individuals in the same community. Therein lies the greatest value of this book, in that it does not attempt to fit autistic children into yet another group – it spells out how to know each autistic person one at a time, and thus celebrate their presence by meeting them wherever they are in their ability to participate.
I am far past the age of sacramental preparation and religious instruction, so I read this more as a spectator than one who would benefit directly. That said, Dr. Sutton’s philosophy inspires me to the point where I would gladly help implement programming like this in my own parish… which speaks volumes, since I am just as reluctant now as I ever was to be visible among large groups. The program described in this book would be wonderful to see in action, and I would gladly volunteer my 'autistic expertise' in teaching others how to understand people like me. In that sense, then, Dr. Sutton’s approach benefits all, including autistic adults like me, who are still seeking new ways to experience God in the life of the parish."
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak