Autism both a challenge and a blessing, family says
By Julie Filby
RELIGIOUS EDUCATION APPS FOR CHILDREN WITH AUTISM
Subjects: Sacraments of initiation, guided tour of Mass
Damien O’Connor believes his 10-year-old daughter Mary Rose is the happiest child he’s ever met. She loves to dance in the backyard with her favorite stuffed animals. And when she prays the rosary, she doesn’t say it, she sings it.
Mary is “on the spectrum.” When she was a year and a half old, literally overnight she stopped responding in ways she had previously. Three psychologists confirmed she had an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
ASDs are developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.
“We were devastated,” said O’Connor, of the diagnosis revealed to him and his wife, Monica.
About nine months later, 3-year-old son, Damien Jr., began acting unusually.
“We never dreamed it would be the same diagnosis,” he said. But it was. Two out of three of the couple’s children are autistic. Mary Rose also has a twin sister, Ana Theresa.
April is Autism Awareness Month. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1 in 88 children have been identified with an ASD.
“Nobody wants this for their children,” said O’Connor, whose family resides in Milford, Conn. “I think the hardest thing for parents is you have to mourn the fact that they’re not going to be who you thought they were going to be.”
Through their Catholic faith, and support from doctors, the Milford School District, and their parish, St. Michael Church in New Haven, Conn., they can see their children’s disabilities not only as challenges, but blessings.
“(Though) our family situation is nowhere near perfect,” he said. “I love and adore (my children) for who they are.”
He described Mary Rose and Damien Jr. as high-functioning. Spectrum disorders affect each person differently, with symptoms ranging from very mild to severe.
Their children have received their first Communion and are otherwise being catechized in the Catholic faith. Damien Jr., now 12, is an altar server at the parish.
“Parents can be paranoid; it can be hard to bring (children with autism) to Mass, not knowing when they might have an outburst,” he said.
Their family was welcomed unconditionally at the parish.
“We felt welcome—and boy, does that go a long way!” he said. “If parishes can make families feel welcome, and just start with that, God takes care of the rest.”
Religious education apps
O’Connor is working to help find ways to effectively catechize children with ASDs in his role as director of pastoral services for the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn.
“I realize full-well how difficult it can be, but it’s so worth it,” he said. “These children have a right to receive the sacraments.”
The Diocese of Bridgeport is in the process of developing two mobile applications (apps) to be released by the end of May: the sacraments of initiation app, and a guided tour through the Mass. The sacraments of initiation app will help prepare children for baptism, Communion and confirmation; while the latter will break Mass down into 27 parts with voice-over explanations.
“We take every symbol you see in a Catholic Church—altar, alb, candles, vestment colors—and explain it,” he said.
The apps were inspired following an Oct. 23, 2011, segment on “60 Minutes” called “Apps for Autism.” There correspondent Lesley Stahl reported that touch-screen apps designed for tablet computers, such as an iPad, can provide some people with autism a new way to express themselves. Teachers and parents have hailed the technology.
“We hope it’s a powerful tool,” said O’Connor, “and helps people keep their hearts open … and think ‘outside the box.’”
Once available, the apps can be downloaded through Apple.
Local Special Religious Education program
Modifying tradition religious education curriculum to accommodate children with ASDs is supported in the Archdiocese of Denver as well. According to Loretto Sister Mary Catherine Widger, associate director of the Office of Religious Education for Persons with Developmental Disabilities and Pastoral Care, there are children with ASDs participating in a number of the parish Special Religious Education programs.
“Some autistic children fit in very well,” she said.
She suggested interested parties call the main office at 303-934-1999 to schedule a meeting over the summer with one of the program’s teachers to determine a religious education approach to best fit their needs.
The 2012-2013 session of Special Religious Education closed with the annual Mass at 2:30 p.m. April 15 at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception concelebrated by Bishop James Conley and Father Roland Freeman, program director (see related story here). The program will resume next fall.