The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Autistic kids can shout “Hallelujah”

with one comment

No three-month hiatus this time, although I’m surprised at the number of visitors who have found the site since my last post.

And the number of young autistic visitors for church services is also on the rise. Kelly Heyboer of USA Today published a story late last month highlighting increased acceptance of autistic parishioners in church services by illuminating efforts in New Jersey. The director of pastoral ministry with persons with disabilities for the Archdiocese of Newark said despite the heart and theology Christian churches offer to patrons, not all who attend worship live the meaning. The director runs the “Attends Mass” program that offers training for religious educators and support groups for parents, while a few churches host an event similar to sensory-friendly screenings from movie theaters. Called Inclusive Family Masses, autistic children can be loud or disruptive with no chance of being escorted out of church.

Caldwell College and its campus chapel also actively engages in integrating autistic children with Christ, where a new Center for Autism and Applied Behavioral Analysis just opened. A Caldwell graduate student was featured by Heyboer for her involvement in the “Mass mentors” program. A dozen New Jersey children have buddied up with mentors who train them on proper behavior while attending Mass. The process, the subject of a doctoral dissertation by Caldwell’s graduate student, begins by bringing children to the last five minutes of Mass and slowly adapting them to the entire service, called “backward chaining.” The executive director for Caldwell’s autism center says “backward chaining” is applicable to any religious following.

Heyboer bookends her story with the “backward chaining” approach, even though readers aren’t aware of the term until the next-to-last paragraph. Her first two paragraphs highlight the method’s effectiveness with an autistic boy who spent months of training to manage Mass, while the end of the story spells out the steps I listed earlier. No quotes are given to non-scholarly sources, not even from the mother and son featured in the lead, with the expected angle of struggling with church placed with a mother of an autistic teen who also is a task force member of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability. While her experience may validate the obstacles she battled with bringing her autistic son to church, readers don’t get much perspective on the response from beneficiaries of the services featured in Heyboer’s article. The premise would likely be similar, but getting a word with people not directly involved in efforts can provide a more unbiased analysis on the success rate of implemented programs.

Heyboer’s story is a far cry from the controversy generated three years ago when a rural Minnesota church filed a restraining order banning a 13-year-old autistic boy because of loud outbursts (and that story was played heavily in Minnesota media as such a move was unprecedented to journalists). With Minnesota’s growing ties to autism in the Somali population, where Islam is the predominant religious practice, I wouldn’t be surprised if a religious leader or two from that community picks up this story and applies the “backward chaining” method discussed at the end of Heyboer’s article. The struggles families with autism face at their place of worship are already documented in Twin Cities media, which included a discussion of how far is too far when balancing accessibility and safety. Not seeing a similar story in the Twin Cities may sound surprising when they were briefly the center for autism and religion at first, but since several methods in Heyboer’s story are relatively new, not even the speed of today’s news will ring bells in the brains of news producers and editors immediately.

Regardless of the denomination (the story focused on Catholics), big crowds, loud music, and long periods of silence or monotony can overwhelm the senses. Combine nerves of parents already cautious about bringing their autistic children in public places, and not even the teachings of religious leaders can prevent isolation. Such concerns have led some priests and parishioners to discourage autistic children from attending church service. Heyboer’s story suggests that trend is reversing. No matter who people worship, I imagine families with autistic children will have their prayers answered, if not already addressed.

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One Response

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  1. Tell us more about what is happening at Caldwell College in particular, please.

    (I ask because Amy Gravino is a student/graduate there in the Applied Behavioural Analysis programme).

    And there are lots of good stories about autism and church (or temple, or synagogue, or mosque).

    Adelaide Dupont

    May 13, 2011 at 4:41 am


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