Autism curriculum

‘Jesus wants these kids’

No ‘one size fits all’ curriculum for catechesis of autistic children means parents, catechists must find creative solutions

Catholic Herald Senior Staff Writer

(used with permission)

Thomas Shannon was 11 years old when he received his first Communion at St. Mary Church in Alexandria this spring — three years older than his two brothers had been upon their receipt of the sacrament and inches taller than the annual crop of second-graders. But it’s a testament to his mother Joan that Thomas, diagnosed with severe autism at the age of 2, made his first Eucharist at all.

For the wandering minds and often nonverbal traits possessed by children on the autism spectrum, classroom learning — religious education-based or other — can be overwhelming. The range of children with autism is so varied that to develop one curriculum to fit all needs seems next to impossible. “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism” is the oft-repeated phrase.

To combat these challenges, Joan, the mother of three boys, removed Thomas from the Special Religious Development (SPRED) program that she had started at St. Mary — it didn’t work for him, she said — and began working with Thomas one-on-one. SPRED, a national program designed to assist people with developmental disabilities with their faith formation, is known to be “very successful” with people with Down Syndrome, said Father Paul deLadurantaye, diocesan secretary for catechetics and sacred liturgy, “but it can be adapted for those with autism as well.”

Taking a different tack, Joan used “symbolic catechesis.” She brought Thomas to an empty St. Mary Church and sat with him in the front pew, pointing out the crucifix, touching a Bible and saying prayers together. She brought him to gently touch the altar; they walked into the confessional together. She did practice Communion runs using unconsecrated hosts. It took practice and repetition, patience and commitment.

“Kids with autism, they learn through their senses,” Joan said. “Working with him individually was meeting him where he is and helping him get where I wanted him to get in incremental steps.”

And getting Thomas to receive his sacraments was critical for Joan.

“I want Thomas to know Jesus as his Lord and Savior, the same reasons I wanted my other boys to make their first Communions,” she said. “And I believe strongly that Jesus wants these special-needs kids just like he wants our typically developing children.”

After months of one-on-one preparation, Thomas was ready. He celebrated his first penance and first Communion all within the same week — finally coming to know Jesus’s grace through the sacraments.


Imagining new solutions

It’s success stories like Thomas and Joan’s that represent building blocks for a comprehensive catechetical program for children with autism, said Peg Kolm, coordinator of the Department of Special Needs Ministries in the Archdiocese of Washington. With one in every 110 children diagnosed with autism, according to Autism Speaks, a leading science and advocacy organization, the need to catechize these children is becoming increasingly pronounced. The challenge is figuring out how to do it.

“It’s largely unknown because people haven’t imagined how it can be done,” Kolm said, but “when you hear stories like Thomas you think, ‘Of course that is the way.’ I personally believe that one gift people with disabilities give us is the ability to imagine new solutions. What (you’re seeing) is the birth of a process.”

The National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD), based in Washington, D.C., established an Autism Task Force last fall to “review and evaluate” curriculums and program models being used at parishes around the country. This fall, they will present their findings to the NCPD board.

According to Nancy Thompson, NCPD director of programs and diocesan relations and a member of the task force, exploratory research found that of the 83 U.S. dioceses (out of 195) that responded to questions posed by the task force, “45 indicated information about curriculum materials that were being used.” While certainly not conclusive, the low number demonstrates a need in the Church for this type of program.

“I think our Church has to do more from the top down and the parents do more from the bottom up so we can bring these kids to the altar,” Joan said.

This is not to say, however, that the Church position on people with disabilities has been unclear. That people with special needs are worthy children of God has never been in question, as made clear in the 1978 “Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons with Disabilities,” and their 1995 follow-up document “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities.” The difficulties arise in putting these guidelines into practice, especially in communicating with autistic children as they prepare for their first penance and Communion.

“It’s not an issue of them understanding, it’s an issue of understanding that they’re understanding,” said Patrick Krisak, director of religious education at St. Louis Parish in Alexandria, where a young autistic girl recently received her sacraments. Reconciliation, especially, is a challenge.

“First Communion has a set ritual action that the student goes through with their parents every week,” Krisak said. “Penance is a lot harder. You have to understand that God loves you and that you sin and then be sorry — and tell those things to a priest and (understand that God) forgives you.”

The priests in turn have to be educated to understand that the children realize what they are undertaking. Father deLadurantaye said the U.S. bishop’s document encourages priests to “be generous with the sacraments.”

“That’s what I would tell priests,” he said. “Just be generous. As long as someone meets the minimum requirements, that’s what’s really necessary. Every person’s needs are going to be different.”

Thomas used laminated picture cards — illustrating pinching, for example — showing his sins to Father Dennis Kleinmann, St. Mary pastor, who had been briefed ahead of time.

Thomas is not the only success story. Jessica Bovy recently received her first Communion at St. Louis after two years of one-on-one preparation with catechist Joanne Donahue, a retired director of religious education with more than 30 years of experience working with children with special needs.

Using the ideas and parameters from the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Program to Improve Religious Education for Children and Adults with Intellectual Disabilities, developed in 1996 by the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Donahue taught Jessica using a simple lesson plan with points to present and reinforce. They reemphasized the fact that “God is our creator and God is our Father.” Then they focused on “God’s rules” in the form of the Ten Commandments, keeping them simple: how we love God and one another. To prepare her for confession, she enforced the concept of right and wrong and worked with Father Richard Mullins, St. Louis pastor, so he would ask Jessica specific questions during the sacrament of reconciliation.

Donahue said it’s critical for the parents to assess the level of ability of their own child.

“I was lucky that Jessica’s parents are her advocates,” she said. “They know what they can and cannot expect from her.”


Success in Pittsburgh

One of the most successful curriculum models in the country, according to Thompson, is a diocesan-wide program by Deacon Larry Sutton, a clinical psychologist, in his home parish of Our Lady of Grace in Pittsburgh. Deacon Sutton uses high schoolers to teach autistic children — first learning the lesson as outlined in the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy curriculum, then “interpreting it” for each child in a way he or she might best understand. This could be using visual stories or crafts or any other successful medium.

“When you eliminate verbal language as much as possible, (that is) often more effective,” Sutton said.

The high schoolers form bonds with the children and, in preparing for each lesson, become catechized themselves.

Because autistic children often are sensitive to the taste and feel of different foods, Sutton, like Joan, orchestrates test Communion runs with unconsecrated hosts.

“We literally go through the whole protocol,” he said. “They get to watch it. They get to understand what the ritual is. By the time first Communion came along they were invisible. You’d never know them from anyone else.”

When Sutton first began this program seven years ago, he had five students. Now it’s maxed out at 25, with students ranging in age from 4 to 19, and spread through two floors of a Catholic elementary school.


Every person needs a connection to God

No matter what approach is used to catechize these children, it’s important to remember the basics, Kolm said: That “every person, every human being, was made in the image and likeness of God and that means every person has a need for a connection to God, even if that need isn’t evident.”

For Thomas, Joan only wants this connection to grow.

“I want to build Thomas’ knowledge and awareness of Jesus in his life,” she said. “I would like him to make his confirmation in a few years.”

After steering Thomas through two difficult sacraments already, Joan is confident this, too, can be accomplished.

“I learned that Thomas can probably do the same things that my other boys can do, it just takes longer,” she said. “Whatever Thomas’ ability is, I want him to achieve that in every area of his life.”


Gretchen R. Crowe can be reached at


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