Teaching Children with Autism and Other Disabilities to Attend Mass

Excerpt from Pastoral Ministry WITH Persons WITH Disabilities Parish Resource Guide by Anne Masters, MA, originally published by The Advocate Publishing Corp, pp. 154-159.1 Updated statistics and to respect appropriate language development, 9/22/2023.

Prayer, Worship & Participation

Many individuals with autism learn important life skills and behaviors through intentional teaching that divides the skill or action into smaller groups of tasks.  For example, the ability to participate in Mass consists of many subtasks, being able to: sit or be at an event for an hour or more; enter the church; bless him/herself with holy water; show reverence to the altar (either genuflecting or bowing, depending on local practice); sit, kneel and stand when appropriate; make the sign of the cross; shake hands or share Christ’s peace in some way; walk in line to receive eucharist; and leave the church are the main ones.  Individuals with autism do learn from observing others, but it takes more time than for learners with other disabilities or without disabilities. So it may not be a dependable method for some learners with autism, compared with a systematic method of teaching.  Applied Behavior Analysis is one such method that is very successful with individuals with autism when used appropriately and respectfully, and its principles can be useful in all learning. (It is discussed in more detail with some specific examples in Pastoral Ministry WITH Persons WITH Disabilities Parish Resource Guide on pages 94 to 96.

If a child with autism is not able to attend Mass with their family, it really should be the beginning of the curriculum for First Eucharist preparation, as participating in the Mass to the extent possible is integral to Eucharist.  Although we teach all our families to bring their children to Mass each week, if they do not, and they only attend every so often, a child without a disability can usually attend Mass without drawing attention to themself.  However, a child with an autism will most likely not be able to attend Mass without incident, unless prepared for it and/or taught intentionally.

I have heard from parents saddened when asked to leave Mass by an usher or someone in the pew.  I once heard from the friend of such a family, asking for recommendations of “friendly” parishes after they were asked to leave by an usher because of their son’s behavior.  Fortunately, the parish catechetical leader at this parish enlisted help for First Eucharist preparation by a teacher of children with autism.  However, the Sunday after First Eucharist, the same usher asked this family to leave because of his behavior.  This time the mother responded that they couldn’t leave, as her son needed to be able to work through challenging times and learn to stay through all of Mass.  She moved to the back of the church and was able to help him work through the issue and receive communion that day.  However, she still, understandably, felt horrified.

Today, this family attends Mass regularly as a family, without incident, after working with a behaviorist in a program called “Attends Mass,” developed through a collaborative relationship between this office and behaviorists associated with the Department of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) of Caldwell University, a Roman Catholic institution run by the Sisters of St. Dominic.  More information about the program is on the following pages, which will hopefully be helpful for understanding the process.  This office lacks the resources to provide behaviorists to work with individuals wishing to learn how to attend Mass.  However, hopefully the information here may guide behaviorists involved in his/her home or school program.  Education programs concerned with community inclusion should also be able to provide support for a family’s ability to attend the faith community of their choice.

“Attends Mass:” A Theological Introduction by Mary Beth Walsh, PhD

“Attends Mass” is aimed at empowering parishes, parents and educators to help children with autism access the full beauty and power of our Catholic faith.  The guiding principle is our aim to fulfill the promise of baptism, that all children baptized in the church participate in the new life promised them as members of Christ’s body.  The immediate goal is to promote and enable inclusion in the liturgical life of the Church.   Successful inclusion in the liturgical life of a parish rests on our ability to teach attending and participating in the Mass.  This teaching requires work that is guided by science and animated by faith.

“Baptism makes us members of the Body of Christ… ‘For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.’[1Cor. 6:19]” (CCC 1267)  “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua) and the door which gives access to the other sacraments.” (CCC 1213)  And most critically to our work, the Church teaches that “Baptism is the sacrament of faith.  But faith needs the community of believers.” (CCC 1253) The community of believers gathers in order to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy, “that communion in the divine life and that unity of the people of God by which the Church is kept in being.” (CCC, 1325.)

“The baptismal seal enables and commits Christians to serve God by vital participation in the holy liturgy of the Church….” (CCC, 1273)  The importance of the liturgy is nowhere more clear than in The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, (Sacrosanctum Concilium,) which proclaims that the liturgy is the “summit toward which the activity of the church is directed; it is also the source from which all its power flows.”(SC, 10)  Recognizing the liturgy as the “source and summit” of our Catholic faith illuminates the significance of participation in the Mass as essential to Catholic faith, Catholic praxis, and Catholic identity. Baptism is how we become Christian; liturgy is how we live as Christians.

It is often challenging for the family of a child diagnosed with autism to assure that that child is able to participate in the liturgical life of the Church.  Autism, which is now seen in as many as 1 in 35 2 eight-year-olds in New Jersey is diagnosed when a child shows significant difficulties in three areas – social skills, language and behavior (there may be repetitive, stereotypic behaviors such as hand flapping or making noises.) This can make it very difficult to participate in the weekly Eucharist liturgy.  Therefore, teaching the ability to attend and participate in Mass is critical for catechesis of a child with autism.

This Office formed an Advisory Board comprised of experts both in autism education and catechesis of children with disabilities for the goal of teaching children with autism to attend Mass, on account of the complexity and variability of autism.  The fruit of that labor, Attends Mass, will hopefully help parishes in the Archdiocese (and perhaps beyond), in conjunction with support from trained individuals, keep the promise made to children at baptism remembering that “The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at baptism.” (Catechism 1255)

The focus on teaching persons with autism to participate in the communal rites of the church, as opposed to simply establishing “special needs liturgies,”is based on beliefs that are grounded both in faith and in science.  The U.S. Catholic Bishops have made it clear that “We are a single flock under the care of a single shepherd.  There can be no separate Church for persons with disabilities.” (Welcome and Justice for Persons with Disabilities, 1)  Decades of research in the field of Learning Theory, and specifically in the science of Applied Behavior Analysis, have made equally clear that individuals with autism are capable of learning new skills, even complex chains of appropriate behaviors – like Attending Mass. Faith tells us children with autism are worthy; science tells us they are capable.

Teaching Attending Mass may not be easy, and will not be quick.   (Remember that it takes all children several years to learn appropriate behavior for Mass.) While all children learn most effectively in context and with active engagement, people of all ages with autism require this.  The dignity and humanity of those with behavior disorders fuels our work. The grace of baptism is neither dulled nor diminished by physical or intellectual disability, and the promise of new life as a member of the Body of Christ made at baptism is not vitiated by later diagnoses or behavioral challenges. Teaching the child with autism to attend Mass is necessary to fulfill the promise made at baptism. Individuals with autism have a right to effective teaching that makes inclusion in the liturgical community possible.  They have the right to learn how to attend and participate in the Mass with their families.

As the Introduction to the Rite of Baptism reminds us, “Before and after the celebration of the sacrament, the child has the right to the love and help of the community.” (The Rites of the Catholic Church, 366.)  Some children will simply need more help than others.  Love and faith propel this work, which we ardently hope will increase the appreciation of the reality that “All persons with disabilities have the capacity to proclaim the Gospel and to be living witnesses to its truth within the community of faith and offer valuable gifts…They are not just the recipients of catechesis – they are also its agents.”  (NDC, 206-209, Catechesis for Persons with Disabilities)

Why begin with behavior?

In the details of their lives, people with disabilities share Christ with the world, and have gifts to offer the Church as well.  Participation is the beginning of belonging. By learning to attend Mass, an individual with autism is physically present in the assembly and thus, is experienced to be part of the community.

A basic premise of behavior programs is that appropriate behavior provides the opportunity to participate and be a part of community. For various reasons, some families are just not able to provide the behavior supports for their son/daughter with autism to attend Mass, or at least they need additional support to do so.  Therefore, the purpose of the “Attends Mass” program is for the Church to be aware of what may be involved when individuals with ASDs learn to attend Mass so that it may be supportive of the process.

Many people with an autism spectrum disorder learn important life skills when taught intentionally. So learning how to attend and participate in the Mass could be considered the beginning curriculum for children who are not attending Mass yet.  When the child is present in Mass, parishioners in the assembly observe him or her to be a part of the parish, and the child experiences this as well.  While the focus may be on what is observable, there is recognition of an internal experience.

There is a prejudice about people with autism that says they are disconnected from people around them and are tuned into their own world.  This is false.  (For an illustration of this point, see page 22 of Resource Guide and look at the picture, “Child with Dog” by Justin Canha.  It is not that people with autism are disconnected or unaware of the people around them.  They are just not able to process social interaction in the amount of time we normally allow.

“Attends Mass” is one of three elements for preparing children to participate in Sunday Eucharist and to celebrate First Eucharist. It has been piloted with four children at Sunday Mass and with five children at daily Mass. Teaching the skills for participating in Mass includes supplemental activities such as: reinforcing appropriate conduct, ritual behaviors for Mass, and interacting with others in the assembly, and its associated catechetical program.  This includes teaching the behaviors for Mass as well as the fundamental stories, prayers and practices of our rich Catholic Tradition.  These can be found on pages 73 to 81.  The suggestions were developed with the intention to provide a systematic process which is adaptable and flexible based on the needs of the child.

Teaching Attends Mass – Expectations

It is important to remember that in developing plans for teaching a child to attend Mass, we should not have higher expectations for learners with disabilities than for those without disabilities in our parish catechetical programs.   However, there are some prerequisite skills that are necessary for a child to benefit from the “Attends Mass” program.  They need to be able to utilize a motivational system to some degree.  Also, it is critical that the family is willing to support the process by: the child’s regular attendance, remaining accessible in the case of the need for early departure, and follow through with “faith at home” and/or reinforcement activities suggested by the Mass Mentor.

Suggestions for preparation to participate in “Attends Mass”

When a child is not ready to utilize the “Attends Mass” program, there are still ways that they may learn about our Catholic faith.  If the family is very uncomfortable with attending the regular parish Mass, Sensory Friendly – Inclusive Family Masses (SF – IFMs) offer a great way to celebrate God’s presence in our lives and draw strength from this, with others on a similar journey and without the associated stress they often feel (even though they are always welcome at any Sunday Mass.)   The ideas listed below are just a few suggestions.

  • Share stories about Jesus
  • “This is My Church” – a resource which can be downloaded from the website www.rcan.org/disabilities that allows you to insert pictures of your own church, which will provide a meaningful introduction to the Church for a child.
  • Introduction to participation in a motivational system.
  • SF – IFMs provide an opportunity for families to attend Mass together without stress.
  • Parish Family Masses can also do this.
  • “Faith at Home, Some Suggestions” in the Family Support section.  It is not directly connected to preparation for participation in “Attends Mass” but still helpful for sharing your faith with your children in simple ways.

Introducing the Person and Program to the Parish

To Parish Leaders

Thank you for your participation in this ministry of hospitality.  It is such an important part of making people feel welcome.  There is a child in our parish who needs extra help developing learning to attend mass.

Some children have a really hard time being in mass and/or participating and benefit from behavior oriented programs.  There are various reasons for this.  All we can say is that this child requires the additional support and is an integral member of the Body of Christ.  Their parents are really happy the parish is so supportive and really look forward to the day when they can come to Mass as a family.

A basic premise of behavior programs is that developing behavioral skills provides the opportunity to participate and be a part of community.

Typical flow of the process:

  • First we determine how long the child can comfortably attend Mass.
  • The next week 5 to 10 minutes is taken off that time, and the child will come for that amount of time before the end of Mass.
  • As their skill develops, the child will come earlier and earlier until they are able to attend the entire mass.
  • After the child successfully “Attends Mass,” “Participates in Mass” will be taught.
  • At some point the child will come to Mass with their family. (The family will be prepared for this also.)

Your support is appreciated so much.  However, the way to help most is to actually not talk with them while they are in the pew.  During that time their Mass Mentor needs to focus on observing their behavior and reinforcing positive participation regularly.

You may have noticed the child being given a small candy, a chip or time listening to an ipod, which they really enjoy.  This will happen during Mass in the beginning, but eventually this will happen after mass as their skills develop.

In Parish Bulletin – A Sample

Some children in our parish are learning to attend and participate in Mass who require additional support to do so.  You may sometimes notice some sounds or behaviors that you are not used to witnessing in Mass.  As a parish we are excited about the faith and diligence of their parents to teach their children to to participate in Mass to the extent that each is able.  Our support of their efforts demonstrate our faithfulness as disciples of Christ living the belief that we are all integral members of the Body of Christ.  Thank you for your support of this important work.

Overview of Teaching Procedures to Attend Mass

Observe children without disabilities of a similar age first to determine reasonable expectations for church behavior.  This information will be used to set the goal their church behavior.  For example, the expectations of a three year old’s church behavior are different from those of a 13 year old.

Next observe the learner at Mass with their family to determine current church behavior.  This assessment will determine the initial length of time to attend the Mass.

The learner will begin the determined length of time at the end of the Mass.  For example, if it was determined that they should start attending Mass for 10 min, they will be brought into the church for the last 10 minutes.   When teaching begins, they will be given a variety of preferred church activities to complete in the pew.  Positive church behavior will be reinforced with a preferred snack or other item, such as listeing to music, playing a game on iPad, or coloring.  As they makes progress, the amount of time they attend the Mass will be systematically increased until they can attend the full mass.

Mass Mentor

Based on the experience developing the Attends Mass program, Mass Mentors are recommended to be either a Board Certified Behavior Analyst or enrolled as a graduate academic in an ABA program and have clinical training in teaching children with autism using the principles of ABA.

Mass Buddy

A Mass Buddy could be a peer (same age), older school age, or an adult.  Mass buddys could provide a supportive presence around the individual learning to attend Mass.  To be helpful though, it is important to follow the directions of the Mass Mentor about interacting with them.  This is in order to support the learning process, rather than be distracting or intrusive.

Parental Role

The ultimate goal of this program is for a family to attend Mass together.  Initially, the parents will be minimally involved in teaching, beginning with standing outside of the church, and then in an area away from the individual but inside the church.  As the individual learns the skills of attending Mass, the Mass mentor will then guide the transference to the child attending Mass with his/her parents and family.

1 For availability, contact Anne Masters at Anne.Masters@rcan.org or 973-497-4309.

2 ADDM Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network – 2014. 1 in 68 in the United States.

3 We believe there is a place for liturgies, referred to locally as Inclusive Family Masses, but we challenge the notion that these are all that are required of us.

4 Pilot program in Newark Archdiocese parish led by Linda Meyer, Ed.D., MPA, BCBA and Mark Mautone, MA; based on: Rothschild, J., Reeve, S., Prograr, P., & Meyer, L. (2010). Teaching children with autism spectrum disorders to attend church (Unpublished master’s thesis). Caldwell College, Caldwell NJ.

Parents and/or the person need to be consulted on specific language to be used, for example, individual (or child if 12 or younger) with autism or an autistic individual (or child).