Don’t Remove Your Special Needs Child from Faith

I rarely mention faith on my blog.  I find it a polarizing topic and something that makes people feel uncomfortable.  I try to wrap my head around that concept and I just can’t.  I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that faith requires to confront two aspects of our lives that seem troubling and counter to the mainstream – conformity and belief without knowing.

Most NTs and autistics alike, whether they admit to it or not, enjoy the feeling of belonging.  We want to be a part of a larger group to whom we can relate and that respects us for our ideas.  Religion forces us to break down into factions smaller than our social circles typically dictate by dividing us up into denominations.  If you think about it, with few exceptions (I’m thinking very small communities or isolated sects) do our social groups not include members of multiple denominations and – indeed – religions themselves.  We might have friends who are Jewish, who are Baptist, and who are Catholic – a very good thing, in my opinion – and we might not want to shift conversation to something that might separate us from the group.

Religion also forces us to confront the fact that many of us believe in a higher power, but without direct knowledge of that deity’s existence.  I don’t think that blind faith is the appropriate term, because many of us were raised in a religious tradition that fostered those beliefs from an early age.  That’s not “blind faith”, in my opinion.  Rather, we do have to admit that we believe in something that we cannot physically prove to exist.  To show how reluctant we might be to admit such an aspect of our lives, ask yourself this question…would you be willing to tell everyone in your office that you believe in ghosts?  It’s the same concept.  You would be admitting to someone that you believe in something that you cannot see and prove.  Many of us might hesitate to do so.

Yet, I find that having a child with a disability causes several reactions surrounding faith.  One, parents, friends, or well-meaning family members use faith as a reason to justify being “given” a special needs child.  Two, parents might feel angry with their higher power and reject religion.  Three, parents might not reject religion, but might be confronted with a church environment that is not as inclusive as what we expect our schools and communities to be.  Finally, parents might turn to religion as a way to muddle through.

None are wrong.  There are no right or wrong answers to the dilemma of religion in the life of you and your special needs child.  I do know that I frequently hear parents ask other parents how they fit religion into their lives and the lives of their special needs child, because inclusive environments in churches do appear to be more of the exception rather than the rule.  In a rare outing myself on our religious practices, I’ll share the Reinventing family’s experience with religion and how it fits into our lives.*

We’re Catholic here in the Reinventing house.  If you are Catholic, or know anything about Catholicism, you might know that it’s a faith based very much on ritual.  The Mass is celebrated in much same way with the exact same readings in every Catholic church on the planet each Sunday.  Some aspects vary from culture to culture, but we all do just about the same thing.  It’s routine, predictable, and unwavering.  Raising a child that loves routine, the predictable, and the unwavering, I can imagine that the Catholic faith might be easy for him to follow, if not to understand.

Yet, how do we do it as a family?

Most Catholic families take their children to Mass from a very young age.  Ideally, Jack would now be attending Mass to receive his blessing each week while we receive Communion; however, that is not the case right now.  Instead, Jack attends religious education classes with a 1:1 aide while Brian and I attend Mass each week.  When classes aren’t in session for Jack, his aide takes him to the nursery.  He’s technically too old to go to the nursery, but our church has been very accommodating.  Right now, he’s not really learning or participating in his religious education class, but that’s not really what we were going for this year.  This year is about getting him used to the situation and used to his aide.  There is a Montessori class at our church as well and Jack will enter that class next year with the hope that the hands-on, child-led approach might help him eventually learn (this year the class was full).

I’m not sure when we’ll start trying to take him to Mass.  It may not be for several years.

As for taking his sacraments, he’ll do it.  He may do it by rote, but he’ll do it.  We are incredibly fortunate in that our church has a special needs coordinator who helps with all aspects of integrating Jack into the church.  She helps the deacons and priests understand Jack’s needs and helps them understand how they might have to modify sacraments so that they are still considered valid, but also so that he can fully participate.  His next sacrament year is still 3-4 years away, so we’ve got time.

His music class – run by the special needs coordinator – also takes place at our church.  Honestly, it took about 3 years and a lot of reflecting before we decided that we were ready to start attending Mass again after Jack’s birth.  Before that, trying to integrate him into church life seemed like an insurmountable task.  We needed support to feel like we could do it.

I know that our situation does not exist for most of you.  Most churches don’t have an extensive support network in place to help our special needs children; however, some do.  I think that number of select few is growing.

If you feel compelled to attend religious services with your special needs children, don’t be deterred by the fact that supports aren’t currently in place.  The special needs coordinator at our church has special needs children – now young adults – herself.  She had to create these programs for her own children.  What I’ve found is that you might need to create a program at your church that supports your child.  Forging the path for your child will have the added benefit of forging the path for others.  If you do run into resistance at one church, then switch to another and another until you find a welcoming environment.  Talk to the priests and education coordinators to see what they can do for your child.

The point is, don’t be deterred.  You may encounter resistance.  You may find less than welcoming environments.  If you are persistent, you will find a place that you feel comfortable.  We don’t remove our children from school or the community because they have special needs, so don’t remove your children from practicing your faith for the same reason.

You can – and should – include your children in any and all parts of your life that have great meaning to your family…and don’t let anyone make you believe otherwise.

* For simplicity’s sake and the purposes of this post, I’m using several of the Catholic terms for various religious places and roles – like priest and church – to represent the head of a place of worship and a place of worship, respectively.  That does not mean I’m endorsing the Catholic faith as the answer for special needs families.  There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to your family’s personal faith.
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Jeanie Devine

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