Pope Francis called for a three-day conference on autism to help “give parents with children with autism hope and attention”, according to Rev. P. Augusto Chendi of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers told reporters the aim of the conference and the papal audience is to “help break the isolation, and in many cases the stigma, that surrounds people affected by autistic spectrum disorders.”
Parents of children with autism have a very high divorce rate, higher than the general population and that of even other special needs populations. Perhaps, he points out, that autism is a unique disorder and because of the stigma that often accompanies it, those families are especially stressed leading to the high divorce rate that is believed to be approximately 87%. Pope Francis will address this medical conference, which is the biggest of its kind on autism, gathering 650 experts from 57 countries on topics such as the well-being of the family unit, genetic research and government policies on people with autism.
In the United States, autism rates are published by the CDC and are rising each year with the current rate being 1 in every 88 children with1 in 57 being boys. Pope Francis and The Vatican body addressing the conference acknowledges autism as a world-wide epidemic.
The conference began with a Mass and homily addressed to the ‘suffering’ endured by those with autism and their families. The next two days will show attendees how the Roman Catholic Church can include those with autism and their families into the very core of Catholic life. Catholics around the world know that this includes the sacraments of Reconciliation, Communion and Holy Confirmation as adults. Often times, those with autistic children are excluded from their local parishes as they can sometimes feel unwelcome. Sitting in the ‘cry room’ with other children is not doable, neither is attending a children’s mass in a separate area. Parents want their child with autism to be included with the others who are making their First Holy Communion, but this often involves having to attend classes for at least a year or two. Those with autism can have a difficult time dealing with the sensory bombardment to their ears, eyes and nose resulting in a difficult time sitting quietly.
Those of us who are successful with having our autistic child complete the requirements at about the age of 7, or second grade, did so because we sat in the classes with them, often co-teaching the classes in order for our children to be included with their classmates. Some parents are not even aware that their child too can receive Communion as well as go on to complete their Confirmation in high school. Sometimes it’s a matter of getting used to the sensory component of receiving the Eucharist. I was bold enough to ask the Priest at our local church to please provide me with unconsecrated hosts so that my son could practice with me at home not only receiving it, but becoming accustomed to the texture and taste of one in his mouth. If our Priest had not taken that extra step, my son would be a practicing Catholic today.
Of course all of those who receive the Sacraments should have a basic idea of what they are about, and this what keeps many parents from trying. Like any other topic to be taught to autistic children, parents will find that their child will excel and most likely learn more than those without autism Our son could recite the entire mass. What was most endearing was when the bells rang during the consecration of the Holy Eucharist into the Body and Blood of Christ. My son could be heard excitedly proclaiming, “That’s Jesus!” Yes indeed!
This three-day conference may be considered by some a small gesture that Pope Francis took today, but an important one with a message of hope, love and above all a step towards acceptance.