In an effort to support you in your work providing a foundation of faith for your children that they can hopefully draw on throughout life, I offer the ideas below. While these can apply to all children, I am particularly talking to parents who have children with a disability, because as with everything else, it seems you have to work harder than other parents at the task. At best, this is sometimes without the help of your church, and other times it is seemingly at odds with it. However, it is truly the desire of your church to support you and walk with you on this journey and it is your right that we should do so.
You have probably often heard that parents are the primary teachers or examples of religious faith in a child’s life. No matter how unqualified you may feel about this, the love you give to your child each day: the sacrifices you make, the nurturing of your child’s spirit, the limits set and teaching right from wrong, these are all seeds of God’s love that you plant in your sons and daughters. In fact a child’s image of God typically reflects their experience of their parents love.
The ideas suggested in the section below, “Faith at Home: Some Suggestions” are just some possibilities. Don’t worry about trying to do them all or trying to do them perfectly. Pick one thing that catches your attention and seems easy to do. If it doesn’t go as you had hoped or expected, DON’T WORRY! Faith, like all of life, is a journey and our journey is part of who we are (even though there are often parts we would like to skip!). That applies to how long it takes for your son or daughter to learn a prayer, skill, behavior, or whatever. Whether it takes ten days or five years, it doesn’t matter. The fact that you are doing what you can is all that counts. They, and we, have a lifetime for this journey.
Yours Sincerely in Christ,
Director, Office for Pastoral Ministry with Persons with Disabilities
Archdiocese of Newark
Faith At Home: Some Suggestions
Sharing Our Faith with Our Children – Some Possibilities
Ritual is comforting for people of all ages, and in particular for people with developmental disabilities. The most productive rituals are those in which everyone can participate in their own way. Do you practice rituals of the Catholic faith in your home? (I ask this also knowing that there are some days, that at the end of the day, you look back and wonder how everyone survived!)
Some people wonder about how to explain God to a child who thinks only in concrete terms. However, all children are concrete thinkers. Maybe your son or daughter will always be so, but still share your sense of wonder and awe at God’s activity in your life, in good and bad times.
Develop a picture library of associations you have about God, such as parts of creation, expressions of love, comfort and support, …
Although coming together as a community for Eucharist is at the center of who we are as Catholics, incorporating some of the rituals of our faith into our home helps to join the details of our daily life with our faith and our Eucharistic celebrations on Sunday. It also helps our children grow up with a sense of God in their lives, and experiences of faith to draw from.
Some possibilities to consider are below. Maybe pick one as a place to start:
When you eat together at the table…
- try to encourage everyone to take part in the process of preparation, no matter how small.
- try to include everyone in the conversation, even if by reference.
- try to have a relaxed environment (remember, these are goals!)
Make time to pray together as a family…
- …in the morning
- …in the evening
- …before meals
- … “the bed-time ritual”
- …for strength and guidance in hard times
- …to give thanks in good times
- …just to praise God
- … Does your child see you spending quiet time with God?
Prayer can be spontaneous, a simple conversation with God. However, if your son or daughter has expressive language challenges, maybe focus on prayers that are used in mass and/or that involve the body, such as the Our Father and making the sign of the cross.
Acknowledge special seasons of the Church year such as: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, feast day of a favorite saint…with family rituals.
Have sign(s) of our Catholic faith in your home, for example a crucifix or cross, a Bible…
Find books with stories of our faith that have good pictures for your child. Even if there are too many words, you can adapt the text as you read it. Think of how these stories have been important in your life and share that with your children.
Listen to religious songs with your child.
Play a matching game with pictures of people important in the Church and your parish.
Take photographs of important elements and places in your church. Make flash cards out of them or a “Church Tour.”
Visit your church with your child when no one is around.
Have the child match the picture to the actual object in your church.
Tell the child how long the Mass or liturgy will be.
Incorporate Catholic ritual and expressions of faith into your home and family life as much as possible
Parent to Parent
Inclusion in your Parish: Tips to Parents from a Parent
- Introduce yourself and your child to the pastor before you attend, if possible. Ask if there are other children or adults with autism in the congregation. Explain what autism is, and your child’s limitations and potential. But first, let them know how important participation in a religious community is to your family, and that this is an area of concern for many families.
- Offer to help provide information, educational opportunities, or people who can assist religious educators to include your child. Professionals may be quite willing to give guidance to religious educators and to help figure out how to adapt a curriculum. There may be other ways that you as a parent can volunteer in the religious education program to help overall teaching and staffing resources. There are also on-line resources and materials. (SEE BELOW)
- Find a family oriented parish where a little noise is not uncommon.
- If your child is too young to pay attention to the service, bring books or other engaging toys to occupy the child.
- If the expectations are for children to sit for 45-60 minutes or more, make sure the child is able to do this at home first, or has an opportunity to practice.
- Figure out a way to come to the sanctuary with your child and go through the steps of the liturgy so it is familiar space. Practice can happen outside the Mass and at home. Video modeling, a video of what happens in it and what people do, can be a way of helping a child learn visually.
- Use concrete language and visual aides when instructing your child.
- Use a digital camera to make a picture book of the Mass and church, important parts of the liturgy key people, etc. You can use the pictures to help a child learn the names of the places, actions, and people. Practice at home; reward the child when he/she labels them in public.
- Find something in the liturgy that your child enjoys and can participate in and succeed at to make attending it fun for your child.
- Learn how to use a motivational system and then make it as discrete as possible.
There are already good resources available. They include:
Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities. Barbara Newman. Friendship Ministries. www.friendship.org.
Exceptional Teaching. Jim Pierson. Standard Publishing.
A website, Community Connections, from the University of Maryland, with a section on Spiritual Connections with Tip Sheets for Clergy, Congregations, and Religious Educators. Dimensions of Faith (PDF)
By Mary Beth Walsh and Bill Gaventa, Autism and Faith Task Force. A collaborative effort of Autism NJ (formerly COSAC of New Jersey) and The Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities.
Pastoral Support for Persons with Disabilities Resource List (PDF) Pastoral and Disability Support Service Providers