WARWICK, R.I. — Two autistic boys sat inside a parochial school classroom this month. In a setting stripped of unnecessary furniture and toys to avoid distraction, they studied pictograms of a bearded Jesus in a red sash and images of their family members and people helping each other.
“P.J. helps — P.J. can help who?” Jennifer Aldrich, a volunteer teacher, asked 7-year-old P.J. Letizia Jr.
“Daddy and mommy,” he said.
“Yeah,” Aldrich said, “and when P.J. helps daddy and mommy he can be . . . .”
“Like Jesus,” he said.
The program at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church is among a handful of programs at Catholic churches exclusively for autistic children and the first in Rhode Island. It is part of a broader effort by dioceses to accommodate children with a wide range of developmental disorders or handicaps.
Dioceses in at least 31 states offer specialized religious instruction for students suffering from conditions including autism, mental retardation, emotional and learning disabilities and brain injuries, according to a 2007-2008 survey by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“To not find ways of welcoming all the people whose families want them to be part of the church community, would be not really living out our faith, I think,” said Marie Powell, executive director of the conference’s Secretariat of Catholic Education.
Religious groups have long offered classes to instruct the young in their faith but some have struggled to include and teach the autistic, who can have difficulty communicating and extremely short attention spans. In one high-profile case last year, a Catholic priest in Minnesota sought a restraining order against an autistic teenager who allegedly caused distractions by wetting himself and allegedly assaulted a child during Mass.
The program at St. Peter’s offers a nurturing and inclusive classroom setting every two weeks for children with special needs. It also helps students practice their religion by preparing them to participate in the sacraments, or ritual acts, that normally serve as milestones on the journey to young adulthood for Catholics.
Those sacraments include confessing sins to a priest and seeking absolution, receiving the Eucharist, or bread and wine that Catholics believe is changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and being publicly confirmed into the church by a bishop.
“The whole point is Jesus is totally inclusive,” said the Rev. Roger Gagne, the pastor of St. Peter’s who celebrated Mass for the students and their families by condensing an hour-long liturgy to about 15 minutes, skipping the music, optional prayers and making a very brief homily. “He directs his followers to do the same.”
Margaret Andreozzi, the faith coordinator for elementary students at St. Peter’s, said she first realized that autistic children were being left behind when she saw the siblings of an autistic child receive their sacraments while their autistic brother did not.
Other families with autistic children were wary of taking them to weekly Mass because they sometimes cry out, have verbal tics or difficulty being in large crowds.
“People are feeling that they’re being cut off from the church,” Andreozzi said.
Not an autism expert herself, Andreozzi consulted with professionals, bought a religious education curriculum designed by a mother in Massachusetts and recruited Catholic volunteers who have professional experience teaching autistic students in the secular world.
The program now serves 18 students ranging from 7 years old to 20. The classes have been adjusted in ways designed to help the autistic. For starters, Andreozzi and her volunteers remove unnecessary furniture, toys and other clutter from the classrooms that could distract children who sometimes fixate on unexpected objects.
Students move through three, highly structured 15-minute sessions meant to maximize routine and accommodate short attention spans. Classes are generally capped at two or three students.
Since some students are nonverbal or have difficulty reading, teachers use pictograms to discuss God, the Holy Spirit, the church and to help them pray the Lord’s Prayer as a group. More emphasis is placed on big ideas than memorizing the Ten Commandments, church history or Bible study.
Maya Colantuono, who teaches the two oldest boys in the program, said her class requires flexibility. Sometimes her students insist on talking about clothing or their attention fades before the 15-minute session ends. She hopes to impart a few central lessons.
“It’s always Jesus and God love us,” she said, shortly after returning her students to their parents. “They love all people, even people who are different. And so I think particularly with autism, they are sometimes aware of their differences.”
The program satisfies a void for parents, said Susan Conroy, 50. She wants her son, Gabriel, to make his first communion like her two older children. But she worried that Gabriel would have struggled in the preparatory classes offered at another parish in Warwick.
Gabriel does not talk and would have difficulty sitting through religious education classes after attending a full school day. But she wants her son included in the church, like the rest of his family.
“My child is just as much of a child of God as my other two are,” she said. “The fact that he can’t talk or doesn’t have 100 percent understanding of this whole religion thing, there’s still no reason why he can’t be blessed to have the sacraments.”