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Religious Services for Special Needs

The mother of an autistic daughter shared the fact that her first thought as the doctor was telling her of her child’s diagnosis was not of the treatments available or the impact this would have on her family, but that her daughter would not be able to make her first communion.

Participation in religious services is a part of many families’ routines. Attending church or synagogues — and participating in the sacraments, bar and bat mitzvahs, and special holidays — offer social involvement and spiritual comfort, yet present challenges for those with disabilities.

Until recently, many children with special needs were excluded from participation in church services or religious education. Families would give up after receiving stares or disapproving comments from other church attendees who did not understand the noises their child was making or their inability to sit quietly. Religious instruction was not even a consideration.

Thankfully, however, things are changing and more autism-friendly opportunities for worship are becoming available.

One of God’s pioneers in this area is Dr. Larry Sutton, an employee of the PA State Autism Bureau, and a Deacon at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Scott Township. He recently served at a mass in Washington, DC, with Cardinal Donald Wuehrl that focused on the inclusion of those with disabilities in Catholic worship.

Dr. Sutton also played a critical role in the formation of practices and recommendations for the special needs population in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He currently is working with 25 families in a program that provides religious instruction, preparation for the sacraments, and an inclusive worship service at 9:30 each Sunday.

Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Peters Township continues to offer a special needs worship service the second Sunday of each month at 1 p.m. Westminster Church in Upper St. Clair has formed a committee to address the needs of autistic students in their Sunday school classes and youth group with the hope of improving their worship experience.