Belonging to a loving and accepting community

Several years ago, a large group of us in the Camden Diocese set out to offer services to those with special needs by providing inclusion Masses and events within the Catholic community. This has given them a chance to learn more about their faith in an accepting environment.

During our parish meetings, we found one of the largest groups who needed the most assistance was the autism community, because their vocalizations, repetitive body movements and aggressive behaviors can be distracting.

What many don’t understand is that a typical environment can be the cause of these behaviors in those on the autism spectrum. So the goal is to include individuals with autism in the offertory and greetings and to lessen the sounds,  light and other factors that can cause them to act in a way others consider disruptive.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. Each person with an autism spectrum disorder is different than the next. So, you can certainly understand that services must be varied as well.

In our home, we have one son, Jonathan, who has high functioning autism and one son, Justin, who has lower functioning autism. Each of the twins requires different services to function and receive an appropriate education. This diversity requires separate plans and continual monitoring of those plans with doctors, therapists, teachers, federal, state and local organizations.

Individuals on the autism spectrum require practice for social skills. The religious communities are a fantastic place for practice as we are all striving to follow in Our Lord’s footsteps to serve others and be accepted.

Each month we participate in the inclusion Masses at Christ our Light, Cherry Hill. We have found that with continual practice both the congregation and individuals with special needs have become accustomed to the changes.

It truly is a gift to be in the church on those special Saturday evenings. In the beginning, Justin wouldn’t walk into the church without screaming or causing harm to himself or others. Now, we have a plan in place that has allowed him to feel comfortable to stay in the church, taught him a couple of the Mass responses, receive Communion (or as both boys call it, “the chip”), bring up the collection basket and sing/dance to the music.

If he is having difficulties, we understand that he may call out, need to take a walk or even go home; however, we also know that no one will judge.

I recently learned from a parishioner that she is so impressed by the monthly Masses that she has asked her friends to join her on those Saturdays as support to those individuals with special needs and their families. What a wonderful way to serve your community — by participating in a Mass for those in need of friendship. Our attendance has grown, and with it, a sense of belonging to a loving and accepting community.


Jen Naddeo is a member of the Catholic Community of Christ Our Light, Cherry Hill.

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