Finding adaptations for children with autism
DAVID AND MERCEDES RIZZO
The sacrament of Penance can be a difficult sacrament for people with autism. This sacrament poses a challenge for those with limited language skills and difficulty distinguishing right actions from wrong actions. Additionally, many individuals with autism have trouble expressing and understanding emotions such as remorse and contrition. For some this seems like an impossible task, but when the proper supports are put into place, individuals with autism can achieve success in receiving this important sacrament.
The bishops have laid out guidelines for those with intellectual disabilities receiving this sacrament. Emphasis is placed on the ability to show contrition even if in a nonverbal way and explicitly supports the use of the alternative communication system in which the person is most fluent. These guidelines encourage confessors to work with families to learn how individuals with autism and other disabilities communicate so they can be as independent as possible in the confessional.
We offer the following tips to help directors of religious education (DREs) and catechists prepare children with autism to receive the Sacrament of Penance.
Tip 1 – Work on finding ways to distinguish right and wrong actions. This can be done in any creative way using cards, videos, and drawings.
People with autism may need to be taught how to distinguish between right actions and wrong actions. They may already have a limited understanding that can be developed by learning to match or sort out actions as right or wrong. Since people with autism often respond best to pictures, catechists may use pictures of actions, or PECS icons, to teach which actions are right and which are wrong. Students can be taught to point to, place, or sort these pictures into the correct category using hand over hand or other prompts. (See CATmag.us/PECS to learn more about PECS, the Picture Exchange Communication System.)
Tip 2 – Sit down with the child and family to decide if the individual should use a confessional versus a reconciliation room (face-to-face).
Each person with autism is an individual with different needs and abilities. Some will have no difficulty using a confessional and interacting with the priest verbally. Others may not be able to do this, and their needs may best be met by using a reconciliation room. It is important that parents, guardians, and others, as well as the child, be involved and give their input.
Tip 3 – Decide how the child will confess and make their contrition known.
People with autism who use electronic or augmentative communication systems to express themselves can use these same devices during confession. In fact, the bishops specifically say that they should use the communication system in which the person is most fluent. For some people with autism, this means verbal speech. For others it may mean using a picture exchange system, electronic device, or sign language. Sometimes a person with autism will use more than one technique. Nonverbal persons with autism can express their contrition with an “I’m Sorry” icon which they give to the priest. Others with more verbal and cognitive abilities may confess individual sins, perhaps by using a picture-based examination of conscience.
Tip 4 – Facilitate interaction early on between families, individuals with autism, and confessors to maximize independence in the confessional.
Due to the importance placed on the seal of the confessional, children with autism must learn to be as independent as possible when they receive the sacrament of Penance. This means that the priest hearing confession must be educated in how to prompt those with autism to initiate the sacrament and make a good confession within the limits of the person’s ability. DREs and catechists can work with families, children, and priests to ensure that everyone knows what to do when the time comes. Parents are used to the ways their children communicate and learn. It’s important that they be involved in showing the priest how to prompt their children to use preferred communication tools and strategies before they enter the confessional.
As you can see, the sacrament of Penance poses unique challenges for people with autism. However, these challenges can be overcome with proper planning and preparation that involves all parties, especially the families of those involved.
DAVID AND MERCEDES RIZZO write and speak from a faith perspective as parents of a child with autism. Find their books, The Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit, Spiritually Able, and Faith, Family, and Children with Special Needs, as well as Praying for Your Special Needs Child at DavidAndMercedesRizzo.com.
This article was originally published in Catechist, January 2020.