The other night we attended the required meeting at our church for parents of children in the religious formation program. The guest speaker asked the parents in attendance this question: What are the barriers we face when trying to provide religious instruction to our children?
One mother of seven children immediately responded that her barrier was financial. She meant that the cost to educate all seven of her children is high. Another parent spoke of how the weekly homilies, although beneficial to adults, were not always presented at a level that children understand. A third parent said that nowadays there are so many activities kids are involved in that finding the time with jammed-packed schedules is a barrier. We knew without a doubt what our barrier was. Our barrier was having a child who is profoundly affected by autism.
When we attend Mass as a family each week, we are constantly monitoring and assisting our almost 13-year-old daughter Danielle. Often children with autism have behaviors that are potentially disruptive. Our minds are bombarded by the following questions as we enter the church:
- Will she make it through the entire Mass before one of us feels obligated to step out to give her a break?
- Will she be excessively noisy?
- Will today be the day that at the moment of consecration she loudly shrieks?
- Will we make the correct seat selection? We are visually scanning the pews looking for kind and compassionate faces hoping to find people who look like they will understand.
- Are we too close to the organ? Danielle is hypersensitive to certain sounds so this is another challenge.
While we are thinking of all these potential problems we are reminded of how far we have come.
- Danielle receives Communion so reverently.
- She now ingests a full host and receives in her hands.
- On many Sundays she has sat through the entire Mass.
- She is signing “music” in anticipation of the hymns.
- She is using the baptismal font to bless herself now and not to splash in it!
As parents we all have barriers in our lives. Being the parents of a child with a severe disability has been one of the greatest obstacles but also one of the most inspiring challenges we have known. We have found that the secret to overcoming such a barrier is continuing to attend Mass regularly and not giving up. Since children with autism often thrive on routine, practice and repetition are a must. So is finding the right religious special education program. If one doesn’t already exist, then consult with parish leaders to start a program. The final secret is knowing that some days are simply not going to go as planned, but keep coming back and trust God as you do.