by Guest Author Valerie Boles
Among Catholic families, few occasions come close to the celebrations of sacraments. Baptism, First Reconciliation, First Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony and Holy Orders are all very special occasions for very good reason. Questions begin to arise, however, when an autism diagnosis enters the picture. Is the autistic person eligible? In most instances, yes. It is the preparation that is more often an obstacle than the sacrament itself.
To validly receive the sacraments, a person needs to have sufficient formation in their faith, information about the sacrament and an earnest desire to seek that sacrament. (Although infant baptism would seem to be the exception, that takes place with parents and Godparents pledging to fill those roles until the child becomes aware of its meaning and graces). There is nothing inherent in autism that would prevent any of these conditions from being met, even in light of the wide range of learning styles, cognitive functioning and communication needs we see in the autistic community.
The one point that repeatedly comes up is the matter of preparation. Nearly every Catholic parish follows the same path when it comes to preparing congregants for sacraments, and this is where autistic children, teens and adults run into difficulty. This week’s guest writer Valerie Boles takes a closer look at sacramental preparation among the autistic community.
The current state of our sacramental preparation is one that emphasizes large group activities and classes. There are ice breakers and crafts and loud games and quiet time. In trying to meet the needs of all backgrounds and all learners, there are frequent transitions and many volunteers.
The world of frequent transitions and many faces and many quick commands is not amenable to autistic people. It is not a learning environment. The most common way that both parish staff and parents approach the faith formation and sacramental preparation for autistics is to ground their efforts in integration, that is to do everything in their power to have autistic children and adolescents participate side by side with their typically developing peers by any means necessary.
This is a heroic, often Herculean task. Involving autistic people in our faith community is necessary for all of us.
This essay is not to say that there is anything wrong with integration; it is to propose a new way of looking at the faith formation of autistic people.
Our first priority cannot be integration. It must be a relationship with Christ.
Integration poses so many extraneous problems which may become obstacles to a relationship with God. The sensory and social difficulties and uncertainties have the potential to dominate the typical formation experience for autistic people. When our anxieties are high and we are just trying to make it through the day without a meltdown, there is a very small chance that we will be able to engage the existential realities our formation encourages us to think about.
Trying to make it through without a meltdown is the reality of many autistic people during our typical, loud, transition-riddled faith formation events. I am not saying that we should allow this to be an excuse for relegating autistic people to the sidelines. Everyone deserves to be a part of this chaotic community. What I am saying is that integration is insufficient spiritual formation for the autistic community. We must first always consider whether or not we are creating the space for autistic people to encounter Christ, especially during our spiritual formation activities.
There are as many ways to encourage faith formation as there are people. All ways must include two components: unconditional, predictable loving relationships and prayer. With Christ at the center in prayer and modeling Christ’s love in our own relationship with those we are trying to form, we demonstrate by experience what our faith is. We must demonstrate the beatitudes, not teach them.
One on one formation
The most easily implemented faith formation model to implement is a one on one relational interaction. This could be to meet and discuss issues of faith or to meet and discuss issues of life. It is important that we view this more as mentorship than tutoring. The person and their mentor (someone older and more mature in the faith) could meet in a coffee shop bi-weekly and just catch up on the events of the week and discuss issues of faith. When I did this, I always had something that was on my mind to bring to my student (the ten commandments, discerning right and wrong, the sacraments, etc.) but I would always start first with prayer and relationship. I have never read a Bible passage in which Jesus began teaching without first relating to his disciples. I would bring up our topic, explain it briefly and concretely and then just chat, allow the topic to sink in and let my student bring it up again when he was comfortable. The core of our sessions was prayer and relationship.
Another alternative would be to set up a community based activity that is more predictable and less fast-paced. This could be a prayer group that meets regularly with children. This could be a prayer group that meets regularly made up of people of different grade levels. The advantages of a program like this is that it is not expensive or exclusive to autistic people. This could be an advantageous program for anyone with or without a diagnosis.
Family based formation
Susan Swanson out of Boston College wrote several articles regarding a family based approach for people with more severe expressions of autism. Her program involves the catechist going to the home of the family and helping children label moments with their family which demonstrate the love of God. God often explains the love of Christ for the Church as a marriage. Swanson’s program capitalizes on a person’s experience of love within their family and broadens their understanding of family love to include God, especially the experience of God in the sacraments.
Parish Based Program
Deacon Lawrence Sutton details a parish based model which includes the entire family and peer mentorship. This is a very specific model in which the principles of the program balance catechesis and inclusion. The specifics of this program are outlined in the book, How to Welcome, Include and Catechize Children with Autism and other Special Needs. This program is more difficult to set up than some of the other alternatives we have discussed but this program is by far the most comprehensive. The program has gotten good results at a variety of parishes so if it is possible to set this one up, it is the Gold Standard.
Sensory Based Play
For younger children, a more multi-sensory approach may be useful. Catholicism includes within it many sensory experiences. The feeling of Holy Water, the smell of incense and the feeling of sitting and standing and kneeling. The faith is meant to be experienced and explored in a sensory way. Using a catechetical method like the Catechesis of the Good Shepard allows children to explore the faith in a developmentally appropriate way. This is helpful for children of all ability levels.
Valerie Boles is a graduate student of occupational therapy at Saint Francis University. She is passionate about finding creative ways to communicate the Gospel. In her free time, she enjoys camping, listening to podcasts and reading.
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