When my family goes to Mass, we often stay in the back chapel, which is designated for families with young children. My children are 8, 10 and 13, but because Peter is on the autistic spectrum he regularly finds Mass challenging.
Peter has started to explain the challenges to me. He says the music is too loud in the main church, and he just can't take it. At other churches we attend, he complains about the lights. Fluorescent lights actually cycle in minute intervals, and many on the spectrum can see the blink, which we only see when the light is about to burn out. Peter says they give him a terrible headache.
I have read about other families who don't feel welcome in their churches because their children do not follow the norms. Luckily, our church, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Shrub Oak, is accepting of Peter. When I say our church, I do not just mean the priests and deacons.
I mean the community. They know Peter takes an extra few seconds to remember all the steps for Communion. Peter struggles to combine the verbal and motor skills that come with Communion. Members of our community smile when the deacon gives Peter a quiet high five when he gets it all right.
They wait patiently as Peter extends and takes back his hand several times before he accomplishes the Sign of Peace handshake.
We have experienced churches that are not as open. Peter notices right away, and the next time we are there he suggests skipping Communion and staying in the back. Sometimes I encourage him to try again, other times I follow his lead. I have adjusted to looks of judgment from those who don't understand autism, but at church I would hope for more.
The Broadway community is creating special performances that will take sound and light into consideration for those on the autistic spectrum. Their first special performance of "Lion King" was such a hit that they are already planning the next show.
Movie theaters have been doing similar types of special performances for a while. If other groups can understand our autistic spectrum community's needs, it is time our religious communities begin to think about them as well.
When I was little, there was a children's Mass and an Italian Mass each week. Perhaps our churches, synagogues and mosques can piece together a plan to make our houses of worship more welcoming for all.
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