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Welcoming individuals on the autism spectrum

July 31, 2019

By Cathy Russell
Diocesan Vocations Coordinator

NORFOLK – “Understanding Autism: Creating Welcoming Faith Communities” was the theme of the presentationDOVS Lucheon given at a luncheon hosted by the Diocese of Ogdensburg Vocation Society (DOVS) on July 17.

As part of its mission to promote “creating a culture of vocation, the DOVS sponsors an annual event that is open and free to the public on a topic of importance to our parishes. This year, Darcy Fargo, diocesan director of communications and editor of the North Country Catholic, was the guest speaker. Fargo is the mother of a 12-year-old son, Jacob, who is on the autism spectrum.

Her talk addressed a challenge faced by many of our parishes: How can we be more welcoming to people who might be different? How can we educate our parishioners on what to do and what to say?

Fargo shared some facts on the prevalence of autism: one is fifty-nine children will be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Worship can be very difficult for individuals on the spectrum, and because of that prevalence, it’s helpful for parish communities to understand autism and be able to support those families in participating in worship.

“Autism spectrum challenges fall into three basic categories: relationship skills, sensory integration and processing and behavioral issues. Let me address each one briefly,” Fargo said.

Communication issues might not be recognized easily by observers. However, Fargo noted individuals on the autism spectrum may struggle picking up on language nuances, body language or facial expressions. They may exhibit repetition, they may be very literal in their speech and understanding of speech, and they have trouble understanding societal norms.

In the area of sensory integration, many individuals on the autism spectrum have hypersensitive senses.

Churches are filled with lots of noises, smells, lights, singing, chatting, kneelers moving and bells ringing during worship. All of these can be a challenge and can overload a person on the spectrum.

Finally, parishioners might notice repetitive motions such as flapping, rocking or hopping. These “stimming” activities are a way to cope with the overload.

Fargo noted, though, that autism is a spectrum, and individuals on the autism spectrum range from non-verbal to highly verbal; profoundly disabled to high functioning.

“There’s a saying in the autism community: If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism,” she said. “When you look at the three categories of challenges – relationship skills, sensory processing and behavioral issues – one person on the spectrum may have a little of column A, a little of column B, and someone else on the spectrum may have all of column A, B and C. Each person has specific needs or sensitivities.”

How can parishioners help?

“Be aware of how you respond and be kind,” Fargo says. “If a family seems to be struggling, approach them and offer to help. Express that you love seeing them at church. Offer to sit with them so they have someone to help or so they at least have someone supportive nearby.”

Other things a parish might do to be more welcoming is offering sensory tools for people who might need them. A sensory toolbox may include items like noise-reducing headphones, sunglasses, quiet fidget toys and compression tools.

Fargo also suggesting parishes put up a sign noting they welcome individuals with special needs and offering the contact information for a person or people families can go to for help if they need tools or a plan to make Mass or other parish functions accessible.

Fargo also noted parishes could use their bulletins as tools to educate parishioners by putting in brief facts about autism.

Fargo also indicated she will gladly be a resource for any parish or parishioner who would like to help or learn more about this topic. She can be reached at dfargo@rcdony.org or by calling 315-393-2920.

The complete presentation is available on the diocesan YouTube channel, youtube.com/user/DioOgd, and will also be distributed via e-Notes.


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