Catechesis with Learners with Disabilities: Getting Started*
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 with autism, his or her 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 in the religious education 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 inclusion lasts a lifetime. I am writing out of the Catholic tradition, but am grateful for the review of this article by Jane Eisen-Abesh MS, OTRL, Special Needs Coordinator for Congregation M’kor Shalom and Maysaa S. Bazna, EdD, 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?
So how does a faith community welcome and educate individuals with different disabilities into its life and mission? The long answer to this question is to make use of the resources recommended in this booklet 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 people with autism and their families, begin by welcoming one.
Many faith communities that have successful programs for inclusive religious education began by determining the needs of the one child first presented to them. Then, child-by-child, 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 recommendations for religious educators and congregational leaders. In learning the needs of the child before you, begin with inquiries about his or her interests and gifts, what makes him or her unique, and then proceed to the particular needs for support. (See conversation tips)
We are all people first. Particularly in a faith community, different abilities and disabilities do not determine our personhood, though they do influence what each person is able to do. 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 the child and that privacy will be respected. The information will be shared only with whomever the parent and child allow, which should at least include the people working directly with the child. This will help to explain different behaviors, leading to awareness and improved understanding.
After you have a good understanding of the child, determine what the parent(s) want and the level of inclusion they hope for. There are many possibilities, such as being incorporated into the “ordinary” religious education program with appropriate supports in place, splitting time between the ordinary program and a more specialized setting, or in a totally separate group. However, this should be a last choice. 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. Also, you should continue to work for more integrated levels of participation.
Further, the strategies and goals of religious education 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 understand one person with autism, you understand one person with autism. 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 the Catholic Church, 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. Also, if there is a separate “special religious education program,” there should be a strategy for participation in the worship of the community, as well as ways of interacting with the learners in the “ordinary program.” Even if a separate environment is chosen at first, you should always be working toward increased interaction and participation. We all learn better with people who are different and have differing abilities and disabilities.
Some families are able to bring their son or daughter with autism to worship. Other families may need more support from their congregation. Again, the child’s teachers in school could be very helpful. Because teaching specific behaviors is typically part of the education of a child with autism, some teachers will include behaviors for successful participation in the family’s faith community as part of a child’s education plan, because this experience, together as a family, is so important. If that is not possible, he or she may still be willing to guide you in the process; or you may be able to find a special educator or behavioral consultant 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 their child(ren)’s needs, they should not be expected to be the solution. Be sensitive to the parents’ need for support, affirmation, and spiritual growth as well as 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.
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 children of God. Information alone is not enough. To open hearts and minds, we must remember the theological foundations of our calling as 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.
~ Anne Masters, MA
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. Sense of humor and flexibility are a huge asset.
- Aides/Assistants – Caring adults who can be present in groups to be extra eyes, hands, legs and hearts. Sense of humor and flexibility are a huge asset.
- Teen Aides – Caring teens who can be present in groups to be extra eyes, hands, legs and hearts. Sense of humor and flexibility are a huge asset.
- Buddys – Someone who will support one person in particular in a larger group, in a noninvasive way. Buddies would also be very helpful for modeling/teaching particular behaviors for worship. Sense of humor and flexibility are a huge asset.
- Inclusion Consultants – People with special education background that can serve as consultant/support for catechists.
- 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 or selection or important items in a picture; creating story boards for storytelling.
- People with computer skills talented 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 learners with attention issues or with dyslexia.
- Disability or Accessibility Coordinator or Assistant – This person expands the bandwidth of the religious education director. As an assistant, someone who can make the phone calls to schedule meetings and make contact for adaptive services noted above. As a coordinator, the person could reach out to families who have indicated special needs on the registration form for their child, and/or coordinate the “religious education IEP” process for the program. Sense of humor and flexibility are a huge asset for both. Understanding of education process is helpful for coordinator.
- Remember, people with autism and/or other 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 the creativity of all of you guide you.
1 Previously published with title, “Inclusive Faith Practices for Children with Autism” in Autism and Faith: A Journey into Community, edited by Mary Beth Walsh, Ph.D., Alice F. Walsh, M.Div. & William C. Gaventa, M.Div, May 2008, pp. 20-26. This was a collection of articles and reflections by parents and individuals living with autism spectrum disorders and professionals who walk with them in faith. It is a collaborative product of The Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Department of Pediatrics and The New Jersey Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community (COSAC), funded by a grant from The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation. Available to download in pdf format from https://boggscenter.rwjms.rutgers.edu/resources/publications/autism-and-faith. Though originally published specifically regarding individuals with autism, this applies to catechesis with learners with other disabilities as well.
2 This has been updated to respect evolving language and inclusive practices since it’s original edition in 2008. Individuals with disabilities object to the term, “special needs,” rather than a person with a disability or a disabled person. The first is “person-first language” and the second is “identity-first.” Indeed, individuals with disabilities, like all people, have human needs. Some of us require more intentionality for support, and that’s okay, particularly within the body of Christ. Being human, we are all vulnerable and interdependent, even if to different degrees. However, some people are more vulnerable because of attitudes and practices that marginalize them relative to the broader community.