Being Pro Life: Supporting parents of autistic children at Mass
We felt like we had two choices. We could either stay home, or we could go to church, and try to do the best we could. So we would go, and we would stand in the back and Kyle would fidget and sometimes pace a little bit—and we would just try not to be stared at, and not interfere with other people’s quiet worship.
Tammi’s son has autism, and her story is certainly not unique. Autism is a neuro-developmental condition characterized by a broad range of difficulties in social skills, repetitive behaviors, and communication. People on the autism spectrum may exhibit a variety of behaviors such as covering ears, rocking, extreme fidgeting, and unexpected verbal outbursts. It probably comes as no surprise that if their parents try taking them to Mass, they are highly likely to be greeted with stares of condemnation and comments to get their children to behave properly.
The most recent data from the CDC estimates that 1 in 59 children (close to 2 percent) are identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and it is quickly increasing (https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/new-data.html). That is a lot of people who we need to be welcomed at our churches, and we could be doing a much better job of it.
Most parents of small children already know the feeling of having a child not behaving well at Mass, and how embarrassing and humiliating that can be at times. Now try multiplying those feelings by ten to get a perspective for how parents of a child with autism might feel. These parents already sense they are under a microscope. Yes, they are aware that their child’s behavior may be making it more difficult for you to focus on your prayer. You don’t need to remind them.
What is wrong with asking these families to take their kids to the cry room? For parents with children who have sensory issues, taking them to a cry room doesn’t teach them to behave at Mass.
Certainly there is a level of disruption that calls for taking anyone out of Mass, but if your child has more difficulty than most, that threshold may be higher than for a neuro-typical child. We have to trust parents to do the best they can to decide when that is. Be assured, they care. They are already embarrassed, exhausted by daily life, and struggling deeply about whether it is worth coming at all. Our reaction should not be one that keeps them from coming back. Thank them for bringing their children. Tell them you are glad they are there.
A parent of two autistic children tells me that rare comments like that can bring them to tears, and erase all the negative feelings they had about how that day has been going. One said to me, “We could have a horrible Mass where the kids are disruptive for the whole thing and I’m just mortified by the whole experience, and someone makes a comment like that, and it just erases all that negativity. It is so meaningful to us.”
What can parishes do? While the biggest piece is going to be educating the parish on how to be less judgmental and more accepting (by encouraging parishioners to watch our video below), there are other things parishes can do as well.
It may be possible to devote one of your Masses to be more sensory friendly. That could include things like lower lighting, less blaring music, eliminating moments of applause, and easy access to a room with sensory friendly and calming items. For more ideas, check out our “Welcoming Those with Autism” brochure on our website at www.catholiccincinnati.org/being-pro-life.
There you can also learn more about our sensory friendly Mass on June 23 in Dayton, and invite parish staff to attend and learn how to develop a sensory friendly Mass in your area.
Most importantly, we just need to stop judging and start smiling. Together, we can help the growing number of families with children on the autism spectrum feel more willing to attend Mass, be a part of our Church communities, and, frankly, stay connected to Jesus. That is something they desperately need, and, if we open our hearts to the beauty of every person, we will discover that getting to know them is something we desperately need as well.
This is not the end of the story. Please watch the full interview or listen to the podcast at www.catholiccincinnati.org/being-pro-life.