Catechesis for the Autistic

One family's experience preparing their child with autism for the sacraments leads to a new resource.

(photo: Shutterstock)

The Rizzo family of Marlton, N.J., had to work harder than most to prepare their daughter Danielle for first Communion. Dave and Mercedes knew Danielle would never quite understand the sacrament the way other children did because she has autism.

“It was very important to us that she made her sacraments around the same age as the other children,” said Mercedes. “At the same time, it was important that she was really ready.”

The only available catechetical materials were very verbal and included complex concepts that could never properly be conveyed to someone with autism. “They weren’t geared towards children like Danielle who are not verbal,” explained Dave. “She required something very concrete like she used in other areas of learning. Children with autism and similar disabilities are very pictoral in the way they think. Their understanding is visual, not language-based.”

So the parents developed their own methods and materials for teaching the sacraments. This inspired their eldest son, Brendan, to focus his Eagle Scout project on creating a collection of autism teaching resources for their parish, St. Isaac Jogues. The heart of those resources is a set of visual teaching tools that has now been published by Loyola Press as an “Adaptive First Eucharist Kit.”

In order to teach the sacraments to Danielle, Dave and Mercedes turned to a resource that worked for them in the past: the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). Children begin by exchanging a picture for a desired item, usually a preferred food. Through this positive reinforcement, they gradually build up a visual vocabulary that allows them to distinguish among different objects and concepts and create complex sentences, such as “I see red candy.” Once the concepts take hold, the reinforcement is slowly withdrawn.

The first challenge was conveying the basics of the faith to Danielle. The Rizzos made tools and puzzles to teach her how to bless herself, who Jesus is, and parts of the Mass. “She was able to match picture to picture,” explained Mercedes. “For instance, she didn’t really understand what the sacrament of baptism entailed, but she could take and match a symbol for baptism to baptism, Communion to Communion, and so on. She could count and know there were seven sacraments. She could learn basic things about order, such as where the hand went when blessing herself, touching holy water, and genuflecting when she went into church and actions like that.”

The key part of first Communion preparation was teaching Danielle to distinguish the Eucharist from ordinary food and to receive it in a reverential way. “It’s a very hard concept to explain,” said Dave. “Even a 7-year-old neurotypical kid is going to have trouble with transubstantiation. What’s important is the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The bishops want them to understand that this piece of bread is special and different and recognize that fact with a reverential sign or a moment of silence.”

The Rizzos practiced with unconsecrated hosts, pairing them with a food that Danielle preferred, such as goldfish crackers. The idea is to use these pairs as reinforcement, since people with autism learn more from reinforcement than from language. If she took the host reverently, then they gave her the cracker. “Gradually,” explained Dave, “you have to fade the food item and eventually get rid if it, because when she goes up to Communion she’s just going to receive Communion, not Communion and a goldfish.”

They also taught her about confession. Although the church said Danielle didn’t need to make her first reconciliation due to her cognitive level, the Rizzos felt she could understand it. “We wanted her to have the grace of the sacrament,” said Dave. Added Mercedes, “She knows when she does something wrong, but, at the same time, she could never be cognizant enough to commit a mortal sin.”

And, so, on the same day as her first Communion, Danielle sat down with their pastor, Father Phillip Pfleger, and her parents on either side of her. She handed Father Pfleger an “I’m sorry” icon, and then her parents recited the Act of Contrition.

Later that day, Danielle received Communion for the first time during an evening Mass. Danielle received reverently, returned to her pew, knelt, and folded her hands. “Just the way she carried herself that night,” recalled Mercedes, “we knew she understood. She was very reverent. She got it. I think it was just divine intervention.”

By the time Danielle made her first Communion, her older brother Brendan had earned the rank of Life Scout, which meant it was time to start thinking about an Eagle Scout project. So Brendan developed a collection of appropriate catechetical materials for the parish’s “Special Disciples” religious-formation program. He put together a resource library filled with books, arts and crafts, and a special set of PECS tools to help teach the Mass and sacraments. Brendan chose visually appealing books and accompanying teaching aids, such as a stuffed model of a church and puzzles.

The Rizzos then sent the materials to various publishers. When Joellyn Cicciarelli, director of curricula development at Loyola Press, first saw it, she knew she’d found something special: “When the Rizzo family’s proposal came across my desk, I thought, Finally, learning tools for children with special needs that aren’t just repackaged early-childhood materials. I saw simple icons in a beautifully organized picture missal, social stories (a recognized method of providing information to children that eases fear and frustration), and hands-on puzzles that could be used in a variety of ways depending on a child’s developmental level.”

Cicciarelli enjoyed working with the Rizzos. “Dave is a deeply spiritual Catholic professional who works with individuals with special needs, and Mercedes is a wise and dedicated mother who has made it her work to provide what her children need to nurture their faith. And then there’s Brendan, whose scouting project developed into the product we’re bringing to market today. This family walks the walk every day.”

Thomas L. McDonald is a certified catechist for the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.