Faiths learn to include autistic children

CALDWELL, N.J. — Religious congregations in North Jersey should take steps to include people with autism and other developmental disabilities in their worship and activities — even if they can’t say “amen,” participants at a conference recently were told.

The Caldwell College program was intended to teach participants how churches and synagogues can become more welcoming to people whose behavior, communication and social skills are outside the norm.

“It’s not just that we want little kids with autism to learn to sit quietly so they can go to church with the rest of us,” said Mary Beth Walsh, an adjunct professor of theology and the mother of a boy with autism. “We want our faith communities to take the vanguard in showing how inclusion works.”

The program drew about 50 people to the Catholic college, a leader in training educators in applied behavioral analysis, the only scientifically proven method for teaching children with autism.

One in 94 children born in New Jersey is diagnosed with autism, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 150,000 people in the state have developmental disabilities.

“Here’s a huge group of people who are out there, waiting to be included,” Walsh said.

She described how, during the course of three years, she gradually introduced her son to church services and to participation in religious instruction classes. He learned that the bread of Communion is special. He practiced walking with his peers from the back of the church to the front to receive his first Communion. He was proud of those achievements, and looks forward to attending religious instruction classes, she said.

But parents said it is often hard to find a religious home.

While 36 percent of families with typically developing children have a “strong affiliation” with their faith community, only 19 percent of those with children on the autism spectrum say they do, according to a recent survey cited by Walsh.

One mother said that when she started bringing her son to church, she was “broken inside,” from the pain of the diagnosis and the daily struggles she faced. But as people in the pews in front of her turned to stare when her son made noise, she felt rejected.

For Catholics, as for most religious traditions, “embracing people with disabilities is part of all our missions,” said Anne Masters, director of pastoral ministry with persons with disabilities for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. “We just have to learn to do it,” she said.

Bulletin notices, announcements from the pulpit, partnering programs for students or families and training for ushers can help educate the congregation, she said.

“I’m here to find out how to get that started,” said Clark Faulkner, a high school math teacher and member of the Crossroads Free Methodist Church in Clifton, N.J. In school, he said, his focus as a teacher is on including everyone; he’d like to carry that commitment to church, too. He attended with a Sunday school teacher from his church.

Alison Sharkey of Allendale, N.J., said she hopes that her 6-year-old son with autism will be able to enjoy religious instruction, just as his typically developing older brother did. But she wondered how a religious education program could cater to the individual strengths and weaknesses of the different students.

She has started bringing her younger son to church for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, so that he can feel comfortable there, she said. She attended the conference with Irene Hayden, the director of religious education at Guardian Angels Roman Catholic Church in Allendale.

Mercedes Davidson, a Sunday school teacher at Our Lady Queen of Peace parish in North Arlington, N.J., teaches a special-education class whose students will make their first communions this spring, she said. They will have a special, private service, at their parents’ request, she said.

Walsh described family friends who took their autistic daughter to temple on Friday nights because the service was less crowded. They were surprised one evening to find that a bar mitzvah had been scheduled. The synagogue was full and many visitors were present.

The family started to leave when their daughter became noisy, Walsh said. But the rabbi spoke to them from the bema, telling them to stay. “He said, ‘All the voices here are the voice of God,’” Walsh recounted.

“That was a powerful witness, not only for the family that felt included, but for all the people there.”