We were nervous walking into the new parish for the first time. My husband and I settled our three children into a pew near the rear for a quick escape if we needed. We brought a backpack of small toys and favorite books. Most of our concern stemmed from our then-6-year-old daughter, Rachel, who is severely autistic. Would she behave? Would she have a meltdown? Would the other parishioners accept our family, or would we see icy stares, hear the under-the-breath comments, be subjected to the unsolicited advice we had experienced elsewhere?
It didn’t start out very well. Rachel began testing the acoustics of the room by making a rather loud hooting sound at the ceiling to hear the echo. Once the music began she quieted down and sorted through the small collection of toys she had brought, settling on a yellow plastic cow. When another family sat near us who also had a special needs child, my husband and I shared a smile. We didn’t feel so alone and were relieved at how smoothly things were going.
Then, in the middle of the homily, Rachel shouted, “Wee!” and launched her yellow cow through the air. It made a beautiful arc and landed in the lap of an older man three pews in front of us. I wanted to disappear, sink through the floor; this was exactly the type of thing I had dreaded. I was very reassured when the kind gentleman smiled as he returned the wayward barn animal.
After Mass we met some of the other parishioners at coffee and doughnuts. The priest introduced himself. A grandmotherly lady greeted us with genuine affection and complimented Rachel’s lovely, curly hair.
This small urban parish had no special program for children with disabilities. It didn’t even have a “cry room” for us to retreat to, but the people there made us feel at home. It is all too easy to find stories where things do not work out as well for a family with an autistic child. Many families simply stop attending religious services when faced with the challenges of dealing with their autistic child in Mass. We were very lucky to land in a supportive community.
If I could ask one thing of our parishes, it would be for a higher level of awareness and acceptance of autism. What can the average parishioner do to make it easier for a family with an autistic child to feel welcome? A few simple things spring to mind:
- If you stare, do so with a smile. Autistic behaviors can look very odd, including hand-flapping, spinning, repetitive vocalizations, and other behaviors. It is natural to stare, but a sympathetic smile turns what might be seen as condemnation into something heartening.
- Understand that every child with autism is different. Our child’s autistic behaviors might seem very different from other autistic children you know or how autism is portrayed in movies or on TV. Nothing can substitute for getting to know the particular child and family better. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself, reach out, or ask questions. Most families will be glad you made the effort.
- Don’t offer parenting advice. We get a lot of advice. Autistic behaviors are not the result of bad parenting. Better discipline will not fix them. No matter what you have to offer, the chance is we have heard it from family, friends, teachers, and complete strangers in the shopping mall at least twice before.
- Offer some encouragement to the parents. This simple thing has meant the most to us. Our Rachel gets so much out of Mass, even if that might not be apparent to the outsider. We want to attend Mass as a family, but we don’t want our child’s behaviors to be detrimental to other parishioners’ worship experience. A kind, supportive word helps make us feel that she is not just tolerated but welcomed. It is so reassuring when a fellow parishioner takes the time to shake our hands and smile at our daughter and say, “I am so glad you brought Rachel to Mass today.”