This week, we are very grateful to be able to share this conversation about inclusion, autism and initiatives underway in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to meet you! Can you please tell us about yourself, your position in the Archdiocese, and how you arrived here?
I am a graduate from the University of Dayton with a BA in Religious Studies and a minor in both Women’s Studies and Social Work. Beginning in 2004, I served as Coordinator of Youth Ministry and married my college sweetheart, Andy. After our second child was born, I felt called to be a stay-at-home mom in order to focus on our family. I am now a mom of four children (Ava- 12, Ella- 9, Andrew- 6, Greta- 4). Last year, I started to feel the pull to re-enter ministry work. I applied for the position of Associate Director for Respect Life Ministries for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and was fortunate to be offered a job-sharing position with my now colleague Kara. I love my job and have really enjoyed working in this position for the last year. Currently, I am working towards certification in Special Needs Ministry.
My position in the Respect Life Office is very versatile. Our focus is the God-given dignity of the human person from conception until natural death, so as you can imagine, we have a lot on our plates. We cover everything from abortion to disability awareness and advocacy to human trafficking to capital punishment. To see the whole range of topics that we minister to, check out our podcast: Being Prolife at www.catholiccincinnati.org/being-pro-life/
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati offers an impressive collection of autism and special needs resources on its webpages, particularly relating to inclusion, social support and optimizing learning styles. How did the Archdiocese go about compiling these resources?
We have researched other pages to find useful resources and have also created some original materials based on feedback from families who have members with special needs and those who work in the field. Our goal is to provide as much as possible for those with disabilities: the deaf community, the blind, those with autism, and those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“Autism” is a construct that has been defined and redefined several times since it was first recognized as a diagnosis in the 1940s. How would you characterize the philosophical approach taken by the Office for Respect Life with regard to autism?
Our goal is to help those with Autism realize how very needed and wanted they are in their parish communities and the church at large, and to encourage meaningful participation in the Sacraments and parish life. We are all part of the Body of Christ and we need everyone’s inclusion and participation for us to truly work towards creating God’s Kingdom here on Earth. Those with Autism have just as much to contribute as the rest of society. The important focus is for us to grow in our understanding of one another so that we can love and embrace people for who they really are.
We are also working towards advocacy and awareness within our parishes. Through our Sensory-Friendly Liturgies (which are held during regularly schedule Mass times) we are trying to eliminate the stigma that is often felt by those with Autism and other special needs.
Do you have any personal ties to autism?
When I was in high school I baby-sat for a five year old boy who was on the spectrum.
I also had a young man in the youth ministry program at a parish that I worked at who had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. He was very near and dear to my heart and we are still in touch.
While I do not have any immediate family members who have been diagnosed as on the spectrum, two of my children have been diagnosed with significant sensory processing issues.
Have you collaborated with any other Diocese in developing parish-level resources for the autistic community?
We are currently in conversation with the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan and the Diocese of Fort Wayne, Indiana in order to share resources and information. Our office is also in communication with the National Catholic Partnership on Disabilities, which has a wealth of resources. The Toledo and Columbus dioceses have also both shared resources with us.
You already offer Sensory-Friendly Masses on a regular basis and have a well-established outreach for families. What other initiatives or ongoing activities are in the works?
We are hoping to create a sense of community and perhaps put together a planning committee that would work towards advocacy within our parishes. Our role will be to act as a resource in helping the parishes within the Archdiocese of Cincinnati do a better job at welcoming those with Autism, and making the appropriate adaptations to provide meaningful participation.
How have the autistic Catholics in your area helped develop these initiatives?
We have several families who have children with autism on the planning team for our Sensory-Friendly Liturgies. We are hoping to reach out to those with Autism and families who have members with special needs to be a part of our planning team. The most important thing right now is for people to share their stories. We want to know how we can better meet the needs of those who might feel marginalized or those that feel that the Catholic Church does not have a place for them.
Have you gotten any feedback from autistic Catholics? Can you share any of that here?
Yes, we have gotten feedback from Catholics with autism and their family members! Here are a few quotes from our Facebook page @specialneedsAoC :
“It is great to go to church with my family. I can attend the sensory friendly mass calmly because I feel I am accepted as I am. Good people coordinate setting up the room and bringing communion. I feel so blessed to know them. Good to participate and learn about our faith and receive the sacraments. Children hear God’s word and learn that they belong to a church family. Meeting awesome friends and talking with them is something I look forward to. We are lucky to have this opportunity and I wish more people take advantage and bring their kids to mass. It is nice to have some place to feel God’s presence.” ~RS
"We really enjoyed the mass. It was very welcoming and we felt we could truly relax and enjoy God's presence with other families experiencing a similar life journey. The picture map of mass was a wonderful tool to help explain the flow of mass. Thank you to everyone who helped arrange the mass and I look forward to attending future similar masses."
"We absolutely loved it, and we look forward to the many more masses we can attend like this in our area....my daughter is starting middle school, and we would LOVE an adaptive CCD or RE program too."
Are there areas (overall, not simply in your Archdiocese) in which you still see needs waiting to be addressed among autistic Catholics?
Yes there are so many. I feel that we are just touching the tip of the iceberg, but I hope that with time and intentional effort, we can work to make improvements across the Archdiocese and hopefully the entire Church. As I mentioned before, the biggest need we have as a church is for those with autism to share their stories. With increased awareness, more change will come.
FREE SPACE: Please use this space to add anything you feel is important or would like to share, personally!
Thank you so much for this opportunity to share what we are doing. I strongly believe that as we connect with other dioceses and work with the other offices within our own Archdiocese we will be able to better meet the needs of those with Autism in our parishes.
I also want to thank you for the work that you are doing. The families that attended our recent Sensory-Friendly Liturgies absolutely gravitated towards the St. Thorlak resources.
SPECIAL THANKS TO NOELLE COLLIS-DEVITO FOR THIS INTERVIEW.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT http://www.catholiccincinnati.org/ministries-offices/respect-life-2/inclusion-ministry/autism-idd/
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