“I am a visual thinker, not a language-based thinker. My mind is like Google Images.” Who am I? If you guessed a person diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or ASD, you would be right. More specifically, this quote is from Dr. Temple Grandin, a self-advocate, diagnosed with autism as a child. She is now a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. An expert on animal behavior, Dr. Grandin, designed more humane livestock handling facilities, which are utilized around the world today.
Currently, a diagnosis of ASD includes several conditions previously diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome. These conditions are collectively called autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain, though what causes these differences remains unknown.
Signs of ASD begin during early childhood and last throughout a person’s life. Nothing about how a person with ASD looks may distinguish them from others, but they may have different ways of learning, paying attention, or reacting to things. They might repeat certain behaviors and have difficulty with change in their daily activities. Their learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities can range from very gifted to very challenged. In essence, there is a wide range of characteristics and abilities.
Many people with ASD, often referred to as “on the spectrum,” are able to comprehend much more than one might imagine. This information is critical to know. It means a person who is seemingly unengaged; physically, emotionally, or behaviorally, may understand and remember everything they see, hear, and do; possibly, more than others who are seemingly very engaged. They cannot express it as others would. Therefore, it is vital for catechists and teachers to appreciate that all learners are capable of growth in holiness and being educated in our faith is a baptismal right of every Catholic.
To promote successful inclusion and engagement of persons with disabilities, the following two best practices are strongly recommended. First, provide a “buddy” for anyone who would benefit from such individualized support. The presence of a buddy, peer, or otherwise, will help keep individuals on task with increased participation in various activities. Typically, a buddy quickly becomes a valued friend! Secondly, teach in a multi-sensory approach as much and as often as possible. Think of our five senses and work to plan lessons that involve as many of the senses as possible. Be creative and energetic for God! Anxiety is often a prevailing characteristic of individuals with ASD. Similarly, their family members may experience high levels of stress. Pastorally, we aim to reduce these feelings. The following strategies will assist us in this goal:
- Create and maintain a predictable routine during each session, gathering…
- Post the agenda/outline; have printed copies available for the day, class, retreat…
- Provide and promote the use of sensory items; noise canceling headphones, fidget objects…
- Plan for twice as much time needed to accomplish half as much work
- Focus on one concept at a time
- Offer choices; this promotes feelings of being in control, which helps lower anxiety/stress
- Reduce or eliminate handwriting requirements
- Prepare individuals for change by telling them what to expect before it occurs
- Build relaxation or downtime into the agenda
- Use fewer words to aid in being heard and understood
- Avoid rushing and be patient while waiting for responses
- Provide modifications as needed (e.g., lessen required work; provide an alternate project/assignment; allow early arrival or dismissal to avoid increased noise and crowds…)
- Provide accommodations as needed (e.g., accept responses in the way that’s easiest; adapt materials or lessons; vary activities; provide written instructions, extra time, or breaks…)
- Use visual cues, pictures, or objects to accompany instructions (e.g., prayer hands, Bible…)
- Promote gospel values of full inclusion in parish life to affirm the entire family’s Catholic identity
Temple Grandin’s success was certainly aided by receiving positive support throughout her life; a life well-lived with a diagnosis of ASD. As we strive to better serve all people of God and honor the dignity of every life, may our actions affirm another statement by Dr. Grandin: “The world needs all kinds of minds!”
Her TED talk by the same title can be viewed here:
For additional resources, visit www.catholicswithautism.org
Charleen Katra is an Associate Director in the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. For seventeen years her responsibilities have included Ministry with Persons with Disabilities, Early Childhood Ministries, and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Charleen speaks frequently at national, state, and local events. Most notable are her presentations on successful strategies and best practices in disability ministry. She also writes regularly on this subject. Charleen has a Bachelor of Science in Special Education and Elementary Education and a Masters in Pastoral Studies. From 2010 through 2014 she served as a founding member, then Co-chair/Chair, of the Autism Task Force for the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD).Sign Up for Our E-Newsletter!