It’s likely that someone in your parish community is affected by autism. In fact, according to recent studies, one in 88 children in the United States is born with autism. These children and their families may feel isolated in their church community simply because others do not understand. The more you know about children with special needs, the more you can help them and their families grow in faith.
In honor of National Autism Awareness Month, here are a few ideas about autism to share with your faith community.
Social cues can be difficult. Autism affects the ability to understand, recognize, and respond to social cues and social situations. Individuals with autism often cannot distinguish between socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior. They usually have difficulty understanding emotions, and they will often say what they are thinking or feeling, sometimes very bluntly.
Autism does not mean “intellectually disabled.” Some individuals with autism are very bright and excel in music, math, and visual skills such as art. An individual with autism may or may not have an intellectual disability. An intellectual disability is defined as a valid IQ score of 70 or less and limitations in adaptive functions. Many individuals with an intellectual disability may be autistic, but not all.
People with autism aren’t always able to communicate with words or process what is said to them efficiently. Some individuals with both autism and an intellectual disability cannot use verbal language very well. If you talk to a child or teen with autism, it often takes him or her longer to hear what you have said, understand your meaning, and then respond.
Behavior IS communication. For individuals with autism, behavior is their form of communication. What may seem like a distraction to you—repetitive behaviors such as hand flapping—is actually a way they can communicate their feelings, particularly when they are excited or bored and can’t use words to describe their feelings.
Autism presents daily challenges to those affected and their families. The community experiences of Mass, such as kneeling, group prayer, and singing, can be difficult for children with developmental disabilities to learn and understand. Because their autism is communicated differently for each child in each situation presented, parents and families of children with special needs must be constantly attuned to their child’s stimuli and responses. It can be especially challenging in a reverential setting, such as Mass. It is important to remember that an individual with autism is not being deliberately disruptive.
As followers of Christ, we are called to act in his example, sowing seeds of patience, understanding, and empathy to every man, woman, and child. A kind smile, an offer for help, or simply asking the parents for direction will help foster a loving, welcoming Catholic community.