Being Catholic and the parent of an Autistic child has led to many questions that are unique to the parents of children with disabilities. “Should my child receive communion?”, “Does my child need Confession?”, “Is it a sin for us to miss Mass because of my child’s possible behavior?”, “Does the Church have any direction, programs, help for us?”. In order to help anyone out there also searching for answers I am sharing what we have learned over the years.
Going to Mass
It is not uncommon to hear: “I feel uncomfortable bringing my son to Mass. I know he is going to make sounds, he might get upset, it would be one thing if he was a baby, but at seven people stare. The stares are unbearable.” Parents all too often stop coming to Mass with their child with an emotional/behavioral disability out of concern that they will be disruptive. In some cases I think this can be warranted. But in general, most parishes will be very welcoming to a family if they know what is going on.
When we moved parishes after purchasing a new house we were very nervous about how Rachel would be perceived, what other people would think as she started hooting at the ceiling fan, what if she had one of her melt-downs? When we took our pew we were delighted to see another large family with a child who had those tell-tale signs. Instantly there was a bond, we became friends. The small parish was very open to its two little angles with the odd behavior quirks. The priest was accommodating and loving to the girls and we were relieved and happy to find an accepting place. You never know when you will be the family that gives hope of acceptance to someone else.
Don’t be afraid to call your local parish and schedule an appointment with the priest to talk about your disabled child. While there are always the few priests who give horrendous advice most priests are open and caring people who want the best for your child and your family. You may find there is one or another mass that is shorter, or the music more to your child’s liking, or even one where a family with a disabled child is already in attendance.
In some dioceses there are special programs for disabled people and their families. In Oregon there is The Office for People with Disabilities. They sponsor “adapted liturgy” which accommodates those who need something other than the usual mass. Pretty much anything is accepted there because everyone is in a similar situation.
If mass is simply too over-whelming for your disabled child you might have to miss mass. It is a valid exception to the weekly obligation to be caring for a child who can not attend mass. Most priests will be understanding of this, some will let you receive communion for the home-bound especially if you are a single parent. You also might get creative with your mass attendance: consider alternating parents staying home with one child while the other attends mass with the rest of the children, one parent attending a different mass, attending mass during the week while the disabled child is in school, or scheduling respite care so that the rest of the family can attend mass together.
note: I am not a cannon lawyer, I am sharing what I have read and been told as a starting point. Please talk to your local priest and diocese about the exact procedures in your community. You also might read Welcome and Justice
for Persons with Disabilities from the USCCB and “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities“. I have pulled some quotes from “Guidelines” and added my comments below.
Baptism: Every child, no matter their disability is entitled to baptism.
Communion: This is the one that was very difficult for us. “It is important to note, however, that the criterion for reception of holy communion is the same for persons with developmental and mental disabilities as for all persons, namely, that the person be able to distinguish the Body of Christ from ordinary food, even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture, or reverential silence rather than verbally.” For Rachel this was a hard thing to tell, she is almost non-verbal and finally it took a small miracle for us to see that she did have some understanding of the sacrament.
I have added two posts that more fully explain some of what we have done for First communion:
Confirmation: “To receive confirmation a Persons who because of developmental or mental disabilities may never attain the use of reason are to be encouraged either directly or, if necessary, through their parents or guardian, to receive the sacrament of confirmation at the appropriate time.”
Confession: “Only those who have the use of reason are capable of committing serious sin. Nevertheless, even young children and persons with mental disabilities often are conscious of committing acts that are sinful to some degree and may experience a sense of guilt and sorrow. As long as the individual is capable of having a sense of contrition for having committed sin, even if he or she cannot describe the sin precisely in words, the person may receive sacramental absolution. Those with profound mental disabilities, who cannot experience even minimal contrition, may be invited to participate in penitential services with the rest of the community to the extent of their ability.”
Anointing of the Sick: “Since disability does not necessarily indicate an illness, Catholics with disabilities should receive the sacrament of anointing on the same basis and under the same circumstances as any other member of the Christian faithful”
Community and Parish Resources: Don’t be afraid to ask. You might discover there are many resources in your community for your family. Even ask at your child’s school or pediatrician and don’t be afraid to share with them what you are doing for your child’s faith life. We found that our daughter’s teachers have often been very helpful in finding resources for helping Rachel in mass (social stories, board maker pictures, sharing what they know other families are doing).
Your Dioceses website should have links to any special ministries they offer, and as more families request these things more of them are developed. You may find your parish or a neighboring parish has a support group or would like to form one.
Last thoughts:Having a child with a disability can be a blessing and a cross. Keeping your own faith-life alive, finding time for prayer, time for mass, time for anything can be a struggle but the grace and peace of God can be that one thing that keeps you going. I hope that anyone who has read this will keep us in your prayers as I will prayer for those who read it.