Parents of children with special needs want catechetical leaders to recognize that our children can have great success in learning as long as proper supports are put in place.
These supports take into account the unique learning styles, sensory difficulties, and behavioral challenges characteristic of children with autism and other disabilities. We want those involved in faith formation to understand that special needs means just that—our children need all of us to step out of the box and try things a different way.
One way to think about this is that a catechist should approach our children in the same way their school teachers do. In school, our kids with special needs often have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which seeks to build on the child’s strengths and likewise to minimize those parts of the educational process that make learning difficult. Why not do the same when teaching our children about God and preparing them for their sacraments?
One way to do this is to tailor the program to the child’s needs. Certain children may need very low catechist to pupil ratios. In some cases one to one instruction will be needed. Involve parents directly both in the catechesis and in providing reinforcement, sensory breaks, prompts, and helping the catechist understand what makes the child tick.
If one to one instruction isn’t needed, then small groups of perhaps four to six children can be taught by a catechist and aide. Efforts should be made to incorporate parents as much as possible and to minimize noise and other sensory distractions.
Lessons should be kept simple. This may mean paring down teaching plans and focusing on the essentials. For instance, one lesson might focus on how to perform the Sign of the Cross and perhaps genuflecting.
Proper learning materials are essential. Children with autism and other special needs do very well with pictures and simple activities such as matching.
In closing, parents of children with special needs want catechetical leaders to know that we have seen our children rise to the occasion in so many areas and accomplish things we never thought they would. Religious education is no different. Our children are counting on all of us to help them become informed and active members of the faith community.