Imagine that you spent your morning expending herculean energy to try and convince your kiddo to get dressed, brush their teeth, put on their shoes, and walk out the door to school without them tantruming or having a meltdown. Imagine it was only mildly successful, so it’s 8:30am and you’re already stressed and a little weary from spending almost two hours getting your kiddo and you ready for the day (and you only spent about 30 minutes on yourself).
Imagine this is your daily existence, or perhaps even more challenging and mentally taxing because your kiddo needs even more energy and creative parenting from you. Now imagine your church says, “we don’t have the time or resources to offer any special needs ministries or adapt our mass, but you’re welcome to start it yourself and we’d support you.” If you’re an autism parent, you might not have to imagine because there’s probably some version of this example that you live.
Now, imagine that just waking up, getting out of bed, and getting dressed is an exercise of herculean effort. Imagine your clothes all scratch and irritate your body, but it’s all you have to wear and going out in public naked isn’t an option. Imagine that walking from your car to the church building is overwhelming and raises your anxiety because a) the chaos of everyone finding parking is overwhelming in addition to the overwhelming feeling of the bright sunlight, b) unexpected noises like a car honking down the road or a loud motorcycle driving by are a shock to your system, and/or c) you’re anxious about what social interactions you might have to face before and after mass. The world is overwhelming and induces anxiety, but this is your daily life. Now imagine your church says the same thing to you that it said to the parent above – the onus is on you to make inclusion happen.
This is why I’ve spent much of my focus over the past two months on exhorting parish leadership to act on integration of the autism community. It’s also because you can’t have true integration without the whole community being on-board and it starts with parish leadership acting.
The above example is partially why I haven’t written more directed at the autism community itself: while parents are the primary catechists of their families and adults have a responsibility for their own faith formation, the autism community is already working hard to exist in a neurotypical (non-autistic) world every single day (both autistic individuals and parents alike); the onus needs to be on the parish to put in effort and energy to meet the autism community where they are at.
Anyone who works in youth ministry already knows that you can’t wait for teens to come to us, we have to go to them. I would suggest that the same is true of any demographic – good evangelization reaches out instead of passively receiving, and this is especially true of the autism community.
However, I was reminded recently by a phenomenal Catholic mom blogger that, while disability parents might not need exhortations, they do need love and encouragement in a special way. Ginny Kochis, author and creator of Not So Formulaic, wrote an incredible post that is the complementary parent message to this week’s Uniquely Catholic post about the priority of mass for inclusion. Ginny quotes Pope St. John Paul the Great to set the stage about how disabled individuals can soften our hearts and draw us closer into the mystery of God:
“’Disabled people are humanity’s privileged witnesses. They can teach everyone about the love that saves us; they can become heralds of a new world, no longer dominated by force, violence and aggression, but by love, solidarity and acceptance, a new world transfigured by the light of Christ, the Son of God who became incarnate, who was crucified and rose for us. (Pope St. John Paul the Great)'”
Ginny relates Pope St. John Paul the Great’s message to experiences of special needs families at mass, particularly the beautiful insight of a friend of hers. One of the amazing points she makes in her post, is that not only should families feel like they belong at mass, but that the rest of the Church, everyone else at mass, needs them and their children with special needs to be at mass.
I HIGHLY recommend reading the full blog post here: “Mama, Bring Your Special Needs Child to Mass.” I’d also recommend parents follow all of her posts at her blog, Not So Formulaic, as she provides such great insight into homeschooling twice exceptional kids, disability, Catholic womanhood, and family literacy, among her other creative ideas and resources shared on her website.