Working with children who have disabilities

As a board certified behavior analyst, I have been blessed to work with so many families over the last 13 years. Most of my work has involved the implementation of in-home applied behavior analysis programs for young children (ages 3-10) on the autism spectrum. Through my work I have observed that the families who have strong faith were the ones who were able to weather the ups and downs associated with their child’s disability. The modifications needed in a child’s environment frequently impact the entire family.

As a Catholic, I wanted to assist my parish by offering families an environment in which their child or children could be supported in their faith community. I began questioning why we were not seeing more children with autism in our parish. Frequently, parents report feeling uncomfortable bringing their child to Mass due to behavioral challenges.  In some instances, families were referred to faith formation programs outside of their parish. As we continue to celebrate the Year of Faith, I would like to see more opportunities for individuals with disabilities to be more fully included in their parish communities.

In October 2011, Mary, Mother of Mercy Parish began offering shadow support to children with disabilities. We began with only one student diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This year, two students are receiving this service. The shadows are students enrolled in Rowan University’s Applied Behavior Analysis program. In addition, the students assist with quarterly socials for children with disabilities. The social is open to the entire family; therefore sibling participation is strongly encouraged.

This school year, individual instruction was added as an alternative to our traditional faith formation programs. This allows the student to receive the individual attention that he or she needs. Currently, I am providing direct instruction to a 15-year-old boy with autism. The use of visual supports (visual schedule) has been an effective learning strategy for this student. In addition, I have been able to use some of the materials from Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. The lesson is adapted by adding matching activities (word-to-picture or object-to-word). Also, a theme related craft is included as part of the lesson.

One of the greatest joys of working with this student has been establishing trust. In the first few sessions, the student would make fleeting eye contact and look to his mother for reinforcement. In our most recent session, the student opened my office door, turned on the light and found his seat without any adult instruction. Throughout the session, he is seeking reinforcement from his instructor and he is beginning to accept a handshake when saying goodbye.

In addition, Mary, Mother of Mercy Parish began its first year of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a preschool program that utilizes Montessori teaching principles. After many observations, I was able to see the impact the manipulation of the work items had on the child’s learning. Due to a focus on independent work, each child is able to explore items at his or her own pace. Also, the presentation of new items is demonstrated by implementing the 3-period lesson: associating sensorial perception of object with name, recognizing the object corresponding to name and recalling the name corresponding to object. The different periods represent different moments of a lesson moving from basic to more complex.

Next year, I would like to offer a preschool class one time per week to children with disabilities. The preschool program would implement Montessori teaching principles with a specific focus of the following skills: gross motor movement (body control), fine motor movement (sorting/lacing/cutting), receptive skills (following simple directions) and imitation (following a teacher’s model).

Our next social for individuals with disabilities is scheduled for April 28 at Mother, Mary of Mercy Parish (Mercy Hall) at 10:30 a.m. For additional information, please contact Shannon A. Cassidy, MS, BCBA at


Shannon Cassidy is a board certified behavior analyst.

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