Bridging the Gap: Faith Formation for Special Needs

This article was contributed by Linda Khirallah Porter, MTS, Director Office of Faith Formation in the Diocese of Tyler, Texas.

My grandson, Jordan, was diagnosed at the age of 2 with autism. He was diagnosed with pervasive development disorder (PDD). I think they were still trying to figure out all the spectrum disorders back in 1997 when he was 2 years old.

Before that time, he was a normal toddler with language and socialization appropriate for his age. Then he stopped talking and interacting with others. Now at 22 years old he is still nonverbal and not very social. He likes Disney movies, pizza and music, but must be cared for 24/7. Despite this, he has become a source of grace and holiness in my life.

This is the life situation of millions of families in the past 20 years. Their lives are chaotic at times, often shunned from certain aspects of society – and yes, even some religious churches. Autism is one of many special needs diagnoses which have impacted the lives of the people of God in our parishes and schools.

How do we help them encounter Christ? Just because they are physically or neurologically disabled, they are not spiritually disabled. The keyword is AWARENESS. The more we know about disabilities, about what is available, and how to reach out to these families, the more society will accept them, and the more they will feel accepted for their gifts, not their weaknesses.

I urge you as a Catholic educator, parish catechist, principal or administrator to attend the NCEA 2017 Convention in St. Louis. Among the workshops and networking you will find resources, techniques, insights into how the Catholic educators in our country can be empowered to the voice for the voiceless and the eyes and hands of those who feel isolated and separated from others.

National Catholic Educational Association by its very name elicits hope, universality, Christ-centeredness and cooperation. These are the precious gifts individuals with special needs long for in this secular, individualistic, materialistic society where brokenness and less than normal are considered less worthy.

By learning about special needs you instantly become more aware in your classrooms, parish settings, neighborhoods and the community. You become an advocate for bringing Christ into this world in a very unique setting. You don’t have to be a special education teacher, or a special needs’ catechist. These are gifted vocations. Everyone can become a light for these precious individuals by what he/she says, does and how one reacts to diversity in others.

What can you do as one person?

  1. Open your heart to this reality in our society.
  2. Advocate bulletin inserts that invite families with special needs to celebrate the sacraments of initiation.
  3. If you have a voice on the parish or finance council, present the need for budgets to allocate money for accessibility in the parish and school for handicap individuals. Have them represented on your committees and boards, and make accommodations in liturgical environments to meet their needs.
  4. As a school professional, encourage formation for children of all ages on the types of disabilities, and how to be inclusive and sensitive to these individuals. Hatred of what is different from what is normal, just like racism and bigotry is taught to children. Tolerance and acceptance can be taught also.

I leave you with this challenge to open your heart and let the Holy Spirit guide you in this ministry. I look forward to meeting you at NCEA and to speak with you about your ministry.

Interested in learning more about serving Exceptional Learners beyond NCEA 2017 Convention & Expo? Save the date for the NCEA 2017 New Directions Exceptional Learners Conference June 19-21, 2017 in Evanston, IL. Registration opens mid-March!