Parish religious ed programs work to meet students' special needs

BRAINTREE -- As her son was nearing First Communion age, Cara Proulx enrolled him in her parish's religious education program, which she was sure could meet his needs.

Her son, Taylor, now 12, has autism and is unable to communicate verbally.

Taylor was enrolled in the special needs religious education class at St. Michael Parish in Bedford, and received his First Holy Communion at age 8.

Today he participates at Mass, and is cognizant of the sacred environment his mother says.

"When we do go to Church, he is able to fold his hands. He is able to go up to Communion and receive the Eucharist," Proulx said. "I think he has an understanding that Mass is a quiet time, a peaceful time."

"Going to Church is not a negative activity in his life," she added. "It's become a positive one."

Various parishes offer programs for students with special needs. Classes are small -- less than ten students -- and include prayers, song, a lesson, activity and a snack. They last around one hour in duration.

Though most students in the programs have a form of autism, the programs serve students with other disabilities as well. In many cases, students remain together throughout all their years of religious formation.

Programs use pictures to teach Bible stories, Catholic theology and prayers because many students are non-verbal.

"It's a different type of program, a beautiful program that I am proud we have here at this parish," said St. Michael Parish Director of Religious Education Patricia Marks, who formed the program there eight years ago. "They're happy coming in. They're excited to learn about God."

Classes begin with a prayer, followed by a singing of "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands." As students sing the song, their pictures are displayed on the projection screen, with a picture of Jesus and a heart. The students know that means "God loves... ."

"The children that are non-verbal participate in their own way," Marks said. "Through their eyes they smile and they clap their hands."

The class at the parish is taught by two teachers, who both have special education experience at public schools. Five high school students and some parents also serve as aides.

One aide is Mary Guay, 18, whose brother, Brian, 16, is in the class.

"They'll remember prayers and answers to basic questions," Mary Guay said. "It just surprises me and makes me happy."

When Brian was ready to begin parish catechesis classes about 10 years ago, there was no program for students with similar needs at the parish, their mother, Ann, said. At that time, she noted, there were not many parish-based programs for students with special needs.

"We wanted to do something in the parish," Ann Guay said. "We weren't sure what it was going to look like."

Brian received his First Communion at age 10 and this year is completing preparations to receive Confirmation.

"He insists we go to Mass at 7 a.m. Sunday morning," Ann Guay said. "He likes to get up and go."

Besides St. Michael's, parishes such as St. Francis of Assisi in Braintree, St. Mary in Winchester and St. Ann by the Sea in Marshfield offer catechetical programs that prepare children who have autism or other special educational needs.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 110 children have some form of autism, and the condition is more likely to affect boys than girls.

Susan Abbott, director of the Archdiocese of Boston's religious education office, said that the diocese does not have a policy that would require parishes to develop a program, but referred to United States Conference of Catholic Bishops guidelines which states that anyone, regardless of any disability, should be administered the sacraments.

Parishes began to develop programs around 10 years ago as autism awareness and diagnoses have recently increased, using a curriculum authored by Cathy Boyle, formerly the religious education director at St. Mary Parish in Winchester who now teaches the special education class there.

Archdiocese of Boston Assistant Director for Catechetical Leadership Susan Kay said the curriculum is "solid doctrinally and pedagogically."

Boyle has a 19-year-old autistic son. She homeschooled him to receive his First Holy Communion, which he did in May 2000.

Boyle's program is based on a special needs religious education program developed by Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, launched in Boston in 2000. While Kennedy's was more tailored to verbal students who could answer open-ended questions, Boyle's was geared more towards children who are less verbal.

Boyle's curriculum encourages the use of pictures to teach Catholic theology and prayers.

"The thing about pictures is they stay there," Boyle said. "You say the word and it's gone. These kids are very concerned with things being permanent."

"If you use the same pictures over and over, you've created a visual alphabet," Boyle also said.

In her class, students create a prayer book with visual images of words and phrases in prayers such as the Our Father, Hail Mary and by their eighth year, the Apostles Creed.

Students also are taught about the Trinity, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Mass and Baptism through the use of pictures and hands-on experiences.

"It's very experiential," Boyle said.

Boyle's curriculum is used locally, and as far away as Hawaii, Alaska, Canada and Europe.

One of the local parishes that uses Boyle's curriculum is St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Braintree.

Currently, the program there enrolls six boys aged nine to 11 ranging across the autism spectrum.

"As a parish, we wanted to meet the needs of these children," said Marie Manning, the volunteer catechist who teaches the class. "It's difficult. You don't always know with someone who can't speak what's going on."

Last year, the non-verbal students received the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the parish. The students and their confessor communicated through pictures.

"That was sufficient for me to know they were sorry for something they did," said Father Kevin Sepe, the confessor and parish pastor.

St. Ann by the Sea in Marshfield formed their program three years ago, which educates students with autism and other disabilities such as Down's Syndrome.

Students receive First Communion and Confirmation.

The class meets every two weeks, with four teachers for the seven children.

St. Ann's Director of Religious Education Catherine Rein said, "The children, like all children, are God's special children."