Linda Ward gives little Alessia Mussol a boost at the end of another Monday night of Special Olympics activities in the gym of St. Brigid’s Catholic School. Photo by Michael Swan

Toronto parish in tune with Pope on autism

  • December 7, 2014

TORONTO - If every Catholic is supposed to go to Mass on Sunday, Pope Francis wants every one of them to be well and truly welcomed when they get there — including the ones who randomly shout, rock back and forth in the pew, moan or unexpectedly laugh.

Every family with an autistic child needs to feel at home in church, Pope Francis told 700 participants at a three-day conference Nov. 21-23 on autism organized by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry in Rome.

“Everyone should be committed to promoting acceptance, encounter and solidarity through concrete support and by encouraging renewed hope,” said the Pope. “Thereby contributing to overcome the isolation and, in many cases, the stigma to which people with autism spectrum disorders are also subjected — and often their families too.”

Linda Ward, a volunteer at St. Brigid’s parish in Toronto, was in the audience and couldn’t have been more grateful to the Pope for putting his finger on the problem.

“The Pope is very, very concerned about his sheep,” said the Special Olympics coach who runs a free gym night Monday evenings at St. Brigid Catholic School in Toronto’s east end. “If he can throw his weight and get action, God bless him. I don’t know how else to put it.”

Ward was surprised to find herself an invited guest among research scientists, professors, doctors and other professionals at the Vatican. But she discovered that her volunteer-led, free program backed by Special Olympics Ontario was a rare thing.

“Most autistic therapy is hugely expensive, to the point where the parents have mortgaged their houses and parents have two and three jobs and everything else,” she said. “And what we’re doing is free. And we’re getting results.”

Parents and teachers report observable, concrete improvement among autistic children who participate in the weekly Special Olympics training nights, Ward said.

“What these guys (scientists at the Vatican conference) were saying, I have experienced,” said Ward. “I have seen what works and what doesn’t work. I know all the signs. For me it was a huge affirmation that this is good, this is needed and I’m on the right track. I’m supposed to be doing this.”

The great thing about Ward’s Special Olympics program at St. Brigid’s is that it’s doing exactly what the Catholic community talks about — involving parish, school and family in helping to raise a child, said Susan Menary, Toronto Catholic District School Board chief of autistic programs.

“The partnership between the parish and the school there is, I think, a wonderful example,” Menary told The Catholic Register.
The St. Brigid’s program, which covers all kinds of intellectual disabilities from autism to Down syndrome, welcomes parents without a fight, said Menary.

“Parents really feel they have to fight to get the services they need,” she said. “My feeling is that as a school system, schools should be the equalizers. So we should support families to get the services they need.”

St. Brigid’s pastor Fr. Carlos Tobon knows he’s got a good thing going, but doesn’t want to keep it to himself. He hopes to host a conference on parish services to intellectually disabled parishioners in the spring.

“We are developing a book for training volunteers in doing the methodology we follow,” he said. For Tobon, it’s not education, it’s not therapy, it’s pastoral work offered to those who need it most.

Among the experts Ward met in Rome was Jan Benton, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability from Washington, D.C. Benton’s organization was set up by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops 30 years ago and finds itself more and more focused on the exploding autistic population.

Benton plans to visit Toronto soon to observe Ward in action.

At the Vatican conference, Benton told a workshop the entire parish benefits when it learns how to accept and serve its autistic members. “When the parishioner with autism is seen as a valued member of the community rather than a problem to be solved, the entire parish is blessed and experiences anew the infinite love of God,” she said.

“Families need support. They need to know people are there for them and there are opportunities available to them. For a parish to open up, that means they’re saying, ‘You are an important part of our community; we want you here.’ They’re providing something for the young people that gives them something to do that’s fun, that’s enjoyable.”

Along with Dayton University, Benton is working on producing faith formation and catechetical materials to help autistic kids prepare for the sacraments and participate more fully in parish life.

The facts about autism:

  • The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga., pegs current incidence of autism spectrum disorder at one in every 68 children;
  • The 2014 CDC number represents a dramatic 30-per-cent increase over its 2012 estimate of one in 88;
  • The Toronto Catholic District School Board has more than 1,200 autistic students enrolled in special programs;
  • Almost half of autistic children have average or above average intellectual ability, according to the CDC;
  • Autism is five times more common among boys than girls — one in 42 boys with ASD versus one in 189 girls.

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