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New strategies to help autistic children at Mass

PARENTS often worry about their children squirming or even fighting with each other through Mass.

Imagine though having a child who becomes highly agitated by the smell of incense, the sounds of ringing bells during the Eucharistic Prayer or who feels too threatened to exchange a Sign of Peace with a stranger.

These are some of the issues faced by parents who take their children with autism to Mass.

Brisbane archdiocese’s disability and awareness inclusion officer Deacon Anthony Gooley has helped form a support group for such parents.

The group had its first meeting recently at MacKillop Place, Paddington.

Deacon Anthony Gooley with Cathie Heinemann and Katrina Malone at the inaugural meeting and workshop for parents of children with autism.

Raising awareness: Deacon Anthony Gooley with Cathie Heinemann and Katrina Malone at the inaugural meeting and workshop for parents of children with autism.

Discussed at the inaugural meeting were the parents’ experiences both positive and negative in Church settings.

Also considered was what could be done to change the situation for the better.

Practical items such as tip sheets to inform other churchgoers of behavioural aspects of autism are already being produced for distribution in parishes since the meeting.

Parents Cathie Heinemann, Kris McDonald, Katrina Malone, Sherill Bucall and Edwin Monteclaro  spoke of a range of challenges they faced bringing their children up in the Catholic faith.

Mrs McDonald from Clayfield parish with two boys aged 13 and 12, both on the autistic spectrum told of her family missing out on big events such as Holy Communion.

“You’re the family that doesn’t get the family photo outside the church because you’ve got a child being looked after at home because they can’t come to church,” she said.

“I’ve also stopped taking the boys to Church because I was having to split them up – one of the boys had fairly severe behavioural problems.”

Mrs Malone, from Springfield parish, has three of her four children, ages ranging from 20 to nine, diagnosed with autism.

An advocate for about 20 years for people with autism, she’s encountered many difficulties taking her children to Mass.

“Recently my 15-year-old daughter didn’t want to be touched during the Sign of Peace,” she said.

“An elderly lady who wanted to offer the sign made a comment about how rude and disrespectful my daughter was being – the lady didn’t understand the situation.”

Mrs Heinemann, from St William’s parish Grovely, described her eldest child, a girl, as “high functioning with Asperger’s”.

“My daughter is very visual in the way she experiences and learns – she wants to see, feel and touch.

“I spoke to teachers at her school to suggest strategies to help her learning.

“One teacher asked why my daughter had to be treated differently.

“I said ‘Because she is different.’”

All parents agreed a key implication of this different way of perceiving the world was some physical aspects of churches needed modification to support their children with autism.

“Fiddle boxes with objects to feel and squeeze and get some sensory feedback would be helpful,” Mrs McDonald said.

Headphones are also seen as another solution.

Mrs Malone said her youngest child often withdrew to shelter under a pew. Her daughter wears headphones and listens to music on an iPhone in Mass.

“People look at her disapprovingly but that’s how she copes,” she said.

“She and her brother process information at high speed and often overload – shopping with all the different sounds, smells and sights is a real challenge and it can be the same in church at times.”

Mrs Bucall’s comments after the inaugural meeting summed up the parents’ mood after the meeting.

“It was very helpful,” she said.

“My 11-year-old son has some behavioural problems which mean I’ve had to leave work and stay home.

“The new group means I can meet with people in similar circumstances.”

Deacon Gooley said he was pleased at the parents’ positive reaction to the new group.

His motivation to start the support group came after he received a number of enquiries from parents.

“We’re planning to have another meeting,” he said.

“In this way we’ll be taking small steps to improve the situation for parents of children for autism.

“As the slogan for Queensland’s Disability Action Week just passed says: ‘Imagine the positive effect even a small change could have.’”

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