Saturday, July 28, 2012

N.J. children with autism are increasingly welcomed at Mass, other religious services

CALDWELL — Halfway through a Mass in Caldwell College’s campus chapel earlier this month, Chase Keith rose to his feet for one of the most challenging parts of a challenging day.

It required the Basking Ridge boy to offer his hand to strangers in the traditional sign of peace. With his mother whispering in his ear and guiding his arm, the 7-year-old stuck out his small hand toward a fellow parishioner.

"How you? Peace," Chase said.

Afterward, his mother slipped him a Goldfish cracker from a plastic bag to reward him for his correct behavior. Chase had gone through months of intensive training with a specialist to get to this point — where he could sit through a Catholic Mass with his family.

Chase, who has autism, is among a growing number of children with developmental disabilities who are being welcomed at religious services.

Nationwide, about one in every 150 children has been diagnosed with autism. The symptoms of the disorder differ from person to person, but most children with autism have social, behavioral and communication problems. Some may shout or laugh at inappropriate times or have trouble keeping still. Others have aversions to loud noises or crowds.

That makes attending a Catholic Mass — with its big crowds, loud music and periods of silence — daunting for many families dealing with autism. Some report feeling unwelcome in New Jersey parishes where they get disapproving looks from fellow churchgoers and scoldings from ushers. Others say their children have been denied Communion by disapproving priests or been told by parishioners that they "don’t belong" at Mass.

In Minnesota, one church made headlines in 2008 when it got a court order to ban a 13-year-old with autism from Mass because of his loud outbursts.

"The church has a wonderful theology and heart. … We don’t always live it out well," said Anne Masters, the Archdiocese of Newark’s director of pastoral ministry with persons with disabilities.

Masters oversees a program designed to welcome Catholics with disabilities into the Archdiocese of Newark. Her "Attends Mass" program includes training for religious educators and support groups in Roseland and Bergenfield for the parents.

Churches in Bergenfield, Midland Park, Westwood and Union City also offer special monthly Inclusive Family Masses, where children with autism and other disabilities are permitted to be loud or disruptive without fear of being asked to leave.

New Jersey has the highest rate of autism in the nation, with one in every 94 children diagnosed with various forms of the disorder. That means one or more children with autism is probably in every Catholic parish in the state, advocates say.

"There is some more awareness being developed in the parishes," Masters said. "They’re asking for it."

Other religions have also made efforts to be more inclusive of children with developmental disabilities, though the programs are usually local and not well-known, advocates say. Some synagogues have programs to help children with autism make their bar or bat mitzvah.

Mary Beth Walsh, a Caldwell College adjunct professor and parent of a teenager with autism, is on a task force formed by the National Catholic Partnership on Disabilities to study how churches across the nation deal with autism. Later this year, the seven-member group will report its findings and recommend changes.


"Autism can be a very isolating diagnosis," said Walsh, of Maplewood. "Sometimes the only place you can go as a family is church."

Walsh began taking her son, Ben Hack, to church when he was 5 years old. In the early days, Walsh said she wondered if it was worth the trouble. Are children with autism getting anything out of going to Mass? Are they forming a relationship with God?

"How’s he ever going to have a personal relationship with someone he can’t see?" Walsh said.
In the end, Walsh decided it was enough for her son to have a relationship with people gathering in Christ’s name. Ben now considers church one of his favorite places and plans on making his confirmation, Walsh said.

At a Mass earlier this month, Ben helped bring the bread and wine up to the altar. He smiled and laughed through the service, paying close attention to the priest. When the bishop donned his tall hat at the end of the service, Ben put his program on his head, copying the gesture.

New Jersey parishes are trying to integrate more children with autism into parish life. About a dozen New Jersey children have gone through a special free training program where they work with autism specialists, called "Mass mentors" and "Mass buddies," who slowly teach them how to attend a Mass. The one-on-one training starts by taking children to the last five minutes of a service.

"All they were required to do was sit quietly," said Jessica Rothschild, a Caldwell College graduate student who served as a Mass mentor for four children.

The children go to Mass a little earlier each day or each week for months, in a practice known as "backward chaining." They are given food or other rewards for correct behavior. Eventually, most are able to attend the entire service, said Rothschild, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the method.

Caldwell College’s new Center for Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis is preparing undergraduate and graduate students to use a campus chapel to train children with autism to go to religious services, said Sharon Reeve, the center’s executive director.

"I can turn that chapel into a synagogue, a mosque, whatever they need," Reeve said. "The procedure is applicable to any denomination."


Earlier this month, several dozen families of children with autism attended a special autism awareness Mass at Caldwell College. Children followed the Mass using a program with photos and drawings to explain what was happening in the service. No one objected when children spontaneously clapped, shouted or got out of their seats. One boy blew out a candle on the altar. Another asked the bemused priest for "more" when he went up for Communion.

Sitting in the front row was Denise Gonzalez and her 13-year-old twins, Julia and Jonathan, who both have autism. The Paramus twins made their first Communion when they were 9 with the help of tutors, their mother said.

Most weeks, Gonzalez alternates taking them to church. It is a struggle to keep them both quiet and paying attention to the Mass at the same time, she said. Like everyone, children with autism deserve to have faith in their lives, she said.

"At least they will always have the church community," Gonzalez said.


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