This week, we continue our look at How to Welcome, Include and Catechize Children with Autism and Other Special Needs by Deacon Lawrence R. Sutton, PhD.
From A Catholic Parent of Autistic Children
The first thing which really stands out for me is that this does not read like the other books I have read by autism experts describing autistic kids. Here we have a licensed psychologist and former manager of his state’s Bureau of Autism Services writing about autistic children in a way that states all the same facts as every other book, but does so with the intent of explaining how autistic kids develop relationships – with themselves, with peers, with teachers, and with the world around them. The “understanding autism” section lists all the usual headings – social skills, communication skills, rigid and restricted behavior, stimming – but describes how autistic behaviors are kids’ ways of making sense of the expectations of other people. It reads like a two-way translation guide, rather than a list of “deficits we can expect.” As a parent of autistic kids, it feels great to have an “expert” acknowledge that our kids’ behaviors are their unique and complex ways of compensating for the things they can’t understand!
I also appreciate the honesty in this book when it comes to how it feels to have kids whose behaviors don’t make sense to others. Parents are often told on the one hand that this is how our kids cope with the world, and then, many times, we are told on the other hand that, in settings like church, they have to curb these behaviors for the sake of not bothering others. This book candidly acknowledges that some parishes are not yet comfortable with autistic behavior, and it just as candidly challenges such communities to examine these attitudes from the perspective of autistic children and their parents. If all parishes truly welcomed autistic kids the way the author’s parish does, we would see drastic increases in church attendance and participation, and I know it would bless the entire community.
What I enjoyed best is reading about the program itself, which is described in the second half of the book. A lot of this section applies more to parish staff than me as a parent reading it, but the idea is that parishes can offer individual instruction to autistic kids by having teens (who have been trained and prepared for teaching the faith) act as mentors. I know my children would take to this model immediately if it were offered at our parish. It is positive peer role modeling at its best, and could see my kids coming week after week if they knew their mentors were waiting to greet them and cheer them on. What a beautiful way to make faith come alive! What’s more, the parents bringing kids to instruction also form their own supportive group where we would have the forum to share our own fears and triumphs and realize we’re not alone. So many times I have brought my kids to things and felt like a misfit myself because nobody else realizes what a huge deal it is to get my children there in the first place, never mind the dread I have of the phone call saying they need to get picked up early. It’s very isolating. So, this program also has a support in place for parents like me who really need it.
Overall, this book is an inspiration to read. The only critical point I have is that some people will be put off by Lawrence Sutton’s use of person-first language. The book repeatedly talks about “children with autism.” It is not an issue for me, but I know a lot of people prefer saying “autistic children.” With everything else written in such a positive tone, I don’t think this was meant in an ableist manner, and I don’t think it should be taken that way. I certainly did not feel put off! Thank you, Deacon Sutton, for answering the call of God in your parish in such a beautiful and far-reaching response!
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