Catechesis for Learners Who Have Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities: Getting Started

Basis in Faith

A central tenet of the “Abrahamic religions,” Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is that each person is created by God and therefore part of one human family.  However, when a person is marginalized because of autism or any other disability, that marginalization seems to deny this gift from God and our shared human dignity.  This has significant implications for the person, their family, and the faith community.  For these families, the pain of rejection by others can be overwhelming, particularly when that rejection comes from their faith community, a place where we gather to celebrate and draw strength from God’s presence in our lives. 

Inclusion of children with autism and other disabilities within the catechetical and communal prayer life of a community is the focus of this discussion. However, the process could easily be applied to teenagers and adults, because the human need for belonging lasts a lifetime.  I am writing out of the Catholic tradition but am grateful for the review of this article by Jane Eisen-Abesh, M.S., OTRL, Special Needs Coordinator for Congregation M’kor Shalom and Maysaa S. Bazna, Ed.D., who specializes in the area of learning disabilities and Islam. 

When we exclude people from our faith communities because their needs or behaviors are “too different,” we must ask ourselves what we are teaching our children about the validity of those central tenets of faith that form moral behavior.  Most likely, what they will learn is, “Follow those teachings… when it is easy.” Is that the message we really wish to teach?  Our religious education settings have the opportunity to be apprenticeships of faith that allow for the development of behavior informed by faith.  For this to be really effective, children need to see this behavior modeled by the adults in the community.  The saying, “Children will do as we do, not as we say,” applies just as easily to the faith community as to the family.  Is the public prayer life of a community professing welcome for all?

Getting Started

So how does a faith community welcome and educate individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities into its life and mission?  The long answer to this question is to make use of the resources recommended in this booklet (Autism and Faith: A Journey Into Community) and talk to communities who already do so successfully .  However, the short answer is, “Welcome one.”  Instead of worrying about starting an entire program to welcome all individuals with autism and their families, begin by welcoming one, the person before you.  Many faith communities that have successful inclusive religious education began by determining the needs of the one learner first presented to them.

Then, person-by-person, they learned how to respond to the needs, and after a period of time, they had a “program.”  Families and teachers can be the best source of information and ideas for religious educators and congregational leaders.  In learning the needs of the learner before you, begin with inquiries about their interests and gifts, what makes them unique, and then proceed to the particular needs for support.  (See Getting to Know the Person, also on website).  We are all people first.  Particularly in a faith community, different abilities and disabilities do not determine our value as a person.  They do influence what each person is able to do however.  In this conversation, demonstrate an attitude of openness and support.  Assure the parent(s) that your questions are motivated by a sincere desire to provide the most supportive environment for their child and that privacy will be respected.  The information will be shared only with whomever the parent and individual allow, which should at least include the people working directly with them. This will help to explain different behaviors, leading to awareness and improved understanding.

After you have a good understanding of the individual, determine what the parent(s) and they want and the level of inclusion desired.  There are many possibilities, such as being incorporated into the typical religious education group with appropriate support in place, spending some time with those in the typical program and some time in a more specialized setting, or in a totally separate group.  However, even when religious education occurs in a separate environment, the goal is always connection with the larger community in some way, as often as possible. 

Further, the strategies and goals of catechesis should reflect the particular needs of the person and the values and traditions of your faith community.  One of the basic tenets in the autism community is that when you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism (Stephen Shore).  Another is that they often have difficulty applying and using what they learned in one situation to another, even if the two are nearly identical.  For example, being familiar with worship in one location may not translate to worship in another.  In Catholicism, participation in the Mass is very important, so it is important to include comfort and familiarity with the church space, as well as comfort with the actions, words and rhythm of the Mass.  In addition, if a child with autism is in a separate program, there also needs to be a strategy for participation in the worship of the community, as well as connecting with their ‘typically developing peers.’ 

Some families are able to bring their son or daughter with autism to worship. Other families may need more support from their congregation.  Again, their teachers in school (or day programming for adults) could be very helpful.  Because teaching specific behaviors is typically part of the education of individuals with autism, some teachers will include behaviors for successful participation in the family’s faith community as part of their education plan, because this experience, together as a family, is so important.  If that is not possible, teachers may still be willing to guide you in the process, or you may be able to find a special educator or behavioral consultant in your congregation who is happy to assist.  If we accept that all people have a right to be welcomed into faith communities because we are all created by God, then we are morally bound to support the education that leads to participation in the full life of the community.  In fact, you might envision learning how to participate in the worship life of the community as the beginning curriculum.     

While parents have valuable insight into the needs of their sons and daughters, they should not be expected to be the solution.  Be sensitive to the parents’ need for support, affirmation, and spiritual growth as well as for their children.  Do not expect them to design and run the program. There are always exceptions. Some parents may take on a lead role, but do not require it. There may, in fact, be other places in the faith community where they would like to participate, or their gifts could be shared.

Asking Questions When You Don’t Know What to Do

When parishes are not welcoming, it is usually not from a lack of desire, but from a lack of understanding or knowing what to do.  Good information can empower effective caring and action, leading to quick results.  Religious educators in particular have a unique opportunity to embrace a family and model effective inclusion for the whole community. 

The more challenging situations are those in which hearts and minds are closed to what we are called to be as people of God.  Information alone is not enough.  To open hearts and minds, we must remember the theological foundations of our calling is based on being created in the image of God.  We must be willing to recognize new possibilities for celebrating God in our world, the gifts that God has given to each person, and the ways that the whole community can benefit from being open to including and receiving gifts that might come in unexpected and atypical packages.

When discussing challenging situations with the parents or learner, focus on the behavior, not the person.  For example, say something like, “I love George’s enthusiasm, but some of his behavior (and name it) is challenging.  What can we do about that?” Be clear that you are seeking to provide the best opportunity for a good experience for George. Another suggestion is to say that you believe he can learn new ways of being in catechetical environment (or whatever setting you are discussing) that will enhance his active and real participation. Even still, parents often hear “constructive” comments as criticism of their child or them as parents. You may need to repeat yourself, even say specifically, I am not judging Johnny, it is the behavior that I am talking about. If you have a relationship built on trust and respect, this will be easier to do.

One Task, Many Roles

The one task is supported, inclusive catechesis, yet there are many ways that people in your parish can contribute. It is possible for people with a wide variety of skills, time availability and/or interest to contribute to the task. Not everyone needs to be a catechist.  As for any role involved in religious education, training is required to support the level of interaction of the task.

Catechist – Catechist with skills as an educator, particularly special education, although does not necessarily need to be professionally trained. A generous heart, a sense of humor, willingness to learn and flexibility are huge assets.

Aides/Assistants – Caring adults who can be present in groups to be extra eyes, hands, legs and hearts. A generous heart, a sense of humor, willingness to learn and flexibility are huge assets.

Teen Mentors – Caring teens who can be present in groups to be extra eyes, hands, legs and hearts. A generous heart, a sense of humor, willingness to learn and flexibility are huge assets.

Peer Buddys – Someone who will support one person in particular in a larger group, in a noninvasive way. Buddys would also be very helpful for modeling/teaching particular behaviors for worship. Buddys are same age, ‘typically developing’ peers.  A generous heart and natural leader among peers are good candidates, but others could be great buddys as well, growing as they share with someone else.

Consultants – People with special education, applied behavior analysis, or other appropriate disciplines that support learning and/or meaningful community participation can serve as consultant/support for catechists and other pastoral leaders.

Hall ‘Monitors’ – Some facilities have many entrances and exits. It’s good to have extra people around for the restroom, and keeping in those who belong inside and keeping out those who belong outside.

Crafters – Some materials/activities may require extra preparation for children with limited fine motor skills. It can be a huge help to religious educators if someone else can prepare the material once he/she has determined what is needed.

For people with limited or no ability to read, it is beneficial to adapt the materials used. For example make books interactive to allow for matching orselection of important items in a picture; create story boards for storytelling.

For people with computer skills, use graphics software, such as Boardmaker, to make picture schedules or social stories, and/or can use a digital camera for the same purpose or to make a “Tour” of your community’s worship space.

Audio Recorders – Someone with a good speaking voice to record prayers, songs, and other catechetical material. This is especially for learners with visual impairments or who are blind, but also helpful for others, particularly children with attention issues.

Digital Media – video, still photos, and voice: expanding options of above list based on unfolding technology. 

Adapted Supports Coordinator or Assistant – This person expands the capabilities of the Parish Catechetical Leader. They can make the phone calls to schedule meetings and make contact for adaptive services noted above, as well as reach out to families who have indicated adapted education supports on the registration form for their child, and/or coordinate the “religious education IEP” process for the program. A sense of humor, flexibility and good organizational skills are a huge asset. Understanding education process and knowing the community are also helpful.

Remember, people with disabilities are also called to serve, and love to contribute. They can do some of the tasks above, or others in the life of the congregation. Let their gifts and your creativity guide you.

“Faith at Home” Work – Some Tips for Parents

  • Say basic prayers every night with your child.
  • Listen to religious songs with your child.
  • Play a matching game with pictures of people important to your faith community.
  • Take photographs of important elements and places in your house of worship.  Make fl ash cards out of them or a “tour.”
  • Have the child match the picture to the actual object in your house of worship.
  • Visit your house of worship with your child when no one is around.
  • Tell him/her how long the service will be.
  • Incorporate the rituals, practices and expressions of faith into your home and family life as much as possible.

Some Strategy Suggestions

Attend to communication – Receptive/Expressive/Communication

  • Is it happening?  What are her/his capabilities?Avoid speaking in the negative
  • Visualize sequenced directions
  • Using Visuals to Reinforce What We Say
  • Use shorter phrases
  • Wait before repeating yourself
  • Avoid misunderstandings

Preparation for Transitions – Advance Warning Systems

  • Verbal countdown 
  • Concrete language
  • Picture or word schedule

Encouraging Comfort, Development and Flourishing

  • Writing Stories to Help Anticipate New Situations*
  • Thinking Alongside the Person*
  • Schedules (Promote Independence; Provide Predictability; Allow for Self-Management)
  • Making Routines Comfortable*

Behavior Supports

  • Task Analysis
  • Shaping
  • Prompt and Fade

*Autism and Your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual GRowth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Revised edition. Friendship Ministries: Grand Rapids, Michigan. 2006, 2011.

This article is updated version (4/20/2021) of article version of article by Anne Masters, M.A., “Inclusive Faith Practices for Children with Autism.” ed. Mary Beth Walsh, Ph.D., Alice F. Walsh, M.Div., William C. Gaventa, M.Div.. Autism and Faith: A Journey Into Community.  A collaborative product of The Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Department of Pediatrics and Autism New Jersey, (formerly COSAC).  May 2008, 2nd printing June 2011. pp. 20 – 26.