As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him." (John 9:1-3)
You might notice the other children not playing with this child. He or she might be off by themselves. Perhaps there might be a helper nearby. You can't quite put your finger on it, but this child seems...different.
That child could be mine.
The road to get my son into Mass or PSR at all was a long one. You see, from birth my child has lagged behind the others. First, it was in his motor skills; he was late to do everything from crawling to pulling up to walking. He could not eat the way other children could and he would gag on anything and everything. Then, the handful of words he had slipped away around the age of 20 months. Soon, he was non-verbal.
When our son was just past his 2nd birthday, we heard the words from our child's developmental pediatrician that both gave us answers and shook us to our core - "Your son has autism." We immersed ourselves in the world of therapy, special education, and programming designed to help our son learn the everyday concepts that other children simply picked up without being taught.
At that moment, God was the furthest thing from my mind. We were not giving much thought to our son's Sacraments. After all, if he could not swallow anything beyond a puree without choking, how was he going to celebrate his First Communion? It seemed so far beyond what we could hope to accomplish.
We were slowly becoming isolated. The gym class that I had taken Jack to since he was 6 months old had become a harsh reminder of just how far behind Jack really was. After a parent in that class referred to my son using the "r-word", I scooped my son up crying and never went back. I began to fear that there was no place for my son in the mainstream world.
It was around that time that I was introduced to Ms. J here at our parish and to the special needs music program - a music class for kids of all abilities. Jack loves music - music therapy is his favorite part of school and his first words regained came at 32 months old after watching Baby Signing Time - so we decided to give the program a try. Not long after, Ms. J offered to watch Jack - along with a couple of additional special needs children - during one of the Sunday morning Masses. We had not been to Mass since before Jack was born. At first, it was due to his constant vomiting. Then, it was his sensory issues; he could not sit still or go into a crowded room without screaming. We gave it a try and - with the help of a wonderful teenage helper to assist Jack - we returned to Mass.
As the end of the summer approached, Ms. J asked us about enrolling Jack in the preschool PSR program. We were more than skeptical; Jack currently attended preschool in a public preschool special education class, so we weren't sure how much he could learn in PSR or how much of a disruption to the other children he might be. Ms. J - of course - was not as concerned as I. She firmly believed in including Jack in his faith and the parish community, and Jack's teenage helper from the summer would join him in PSR to assist him each day.
Slowly, I began to believe that Jack had a place within the parish despite any disabilities or challenges he faced. He - like all of us - was a child of God.
Jack is now almost 5 years old. Very slowly, Jack is growing in all of his developmental milestones, but also in his faith. He knows the word "Rosary" and will lift my Rosary out of my purse to gingerly touch each bead in his hands. Ms. J made Jack his own Rosary out of fidgets and sensory materials. This past summer, we have sat with Ms. J and other special needs families in a "Sensory Cry Room", complete with picture schedules and room to move so that Jack can begin to experience the celebration of the Mass. Each Sunday, when the bells ring three times, Ms. J will announce "Jesus is here!" To see my child, to hear him try to speak, or to watch the way he seems to move without noticing what is happening, you might think that he is not taking any of the Mass in, but he is. Now, when he hears the bells, Jack says - "Jesus is here!"
In the wonder that is my autistic little boy, I can certainly agree. Jesus is here. The Holy Spirit fills this place. It is because of what the parish has done for my family - for welcoming my son in particular - that I felt called to serve as a Catechist. I wanted to give back to the community that opened their arms to my child in spite of his differences.
So, as you look over at my child - the one who looks a little different - take a lesson from one parent to another...my son is a child of God, too. Have a discussion with your children about how God gives all of us strengths and weaknesses and how God made each of us special. Encourage your children to reach out to children might seem different and play with them. Tell your children that just because a child struggles to speak or acts differently it does not mean that they cannot be a great friend. Remind your children that just as Jesus opened his arms and was accepting to all, so should we be accepting of everyone who might seem a little different.