Listening to parents of special needs children

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For the past few months, and continuing into the foreseeable future, the Religious Education Special Needs Committee has held meetings around the Diocese of Camden with parents and caregivers of children with special needs, to listen to their concerns, hopes and dreams for their children.

Through six meetings so far, 45 families with children having such developmental disabilities as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Aspergers, Autism, and Downs Syndrome have expressed their desires for their child’s inclusion in faith formation classes.

The number of families with children with special needs, that have attended meetings so far, is “just the tip of the iceberg,” emphasized Sister of St. Joseph Bonnie McMenamin, director of the Office of Ministry with the Deaf/Persons With Disabilities.

“How can we welcome and include the children and their families into the life of the church so that they can share their love of Jesus with us?” she asked.

One of the most important issues, she noted, is whether children should be in a self-contained classroom with children with special needs; or in an inclusive classroom, where children with special needs share faith with typical children, in a typical faith formation setting.

Often a child with special needs can be included in faith formation classes with a few adaptations or a friend to help keep them focused on the faith lesson, said Sister Bonnie. In addition, she said, Catholics need to welcome and include children with special needs and their families to the Sunday Eucharistic Celebration.

“Education is the key. We need to make all members of the church aware of and sensitive to children with special needs and their families so that they can feel welcome and fully participate in the life of the church,” Sister Bonnie said.

Some ideas from parents on how to address these challenges are monthly inclusive Masses for families with children with special needs, where the children could participate in the liturgy as greeters, ushers, or lectors; a parish youth group, for children with special needs; a faith-based support group for children and their families; and education for faith formation teachers focusing on ways to welcome and include children with special needs into faith formation classes.

“We need different ways to make these children feel like they belong,” stressed Rose Lore, a catechist at Church of the Incarnation in Mantua, who also has spent 30 years in public schools as a special education teacher.

“Children need to be given an opportunity to learn in the (best) way that they possibly can,” she said.

Other topics at the meetings focused on the importance of catechists receiving the proper resources, to develop and adapt the faith formation curriculum to ensure that children with special needs can participate in sacramental celebrations.

“We want to give the families more options, and the children the maximum possible benefits, with the least restrictive environments” for them, explained Darlene Altschuler, special needs coordinator for Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Moorestown, in the Trenton Diocese.

Lore agreed, emphasizing that the focus of the meetings has been on the children and their families, and the need to welcome and include the children in faith formation classes.

“These children need support, we need to adapt, and refocus our way of sharing the faith, so they can feel welcome and included within our faith community,” she said.

For more information on Faith Formation with Children with Special Needs contact Sister Bonnie McMenamin, SSJ at bmcmenamin@camdendiocese.org or 856-583-6111.