Usually our family attends the 9:30 Mass at our home parish of St. Isaac Jogues. Not only do we regularly attend that Mass, but we can almost always be found in “our pew” right near the choir on the right side of the church. We refer to it as “our pew” because our daughter Danielle, who has autism, likes the routine of sitting in that spot. We selected it strategically because she loves music. For her and many people with autism, structure and routine helps situations flow more smoothly, especially social situations. Nowadays she looks forward to going to Mass and is a regular participant. On Sunday mornings she will often say, “I want to go to church” using her augmentative communication device. This device allows her to communicate in words even though she is non-verbal.
Going to church as a family has not always been easy for us. There were days when she was younger when she would crawl under the kneeler and cause such commotion that we would exit out of the back of the church as quickly as possible. It took a long time to see improvement but we are happy that Danielle has learned appropriate church behavior and loves attending Mass. Week after week she follows along with the aid of her “My Picture Missal” (Loyola Press).
Danielle has become familiar and comfortable attending the 9:30 Mass at St. Isaac’s. She recognizes parishioners, clergy, and Eucharistic Ministers. She enjoys seeing her sister Shannon singing in the youth choir. She knows how to navigate the Communion line with only minimal help finding her way back to her seat. She knows how to bless herself when she sees the very large baptismal font in our parish. She knows the restrooms, exits, and even where we like to park our car.
Even though Danielle has become familiar with all these aspects of our local parish, we wanted her to learn to be comfortable attending other parishes too. So a few Sundays back we went to the 10:00 Mass at St. Joan’s, a neighboring parish not far from our home. Danielle tolerated this better than we expected. She was able to navigate a different Communion line. She didn’t seem to mind that we were not seated near the choir. Our decision to try Danielle in a new parish was a success. We will continue to do this on occasion so that her focus becomes more on what happens at Mass, rather than the layout of the church and other less important matters.
So if you will be traveling this summer with your child with autism or other special needs, and you are concerned that your child might have a tough time adjusting to different church surroundings, consider prepping them in advance by going to a nearby parish and see what happens. Say a silent prayer and hope for the best. You can always exit out the back of church quickly if you have to.
Copyright 2017 David and Mercedes Rizzo