Teaching Autistic Children about Religion will pose a Challenge
Many parents dream of sharing their religious faith with their autistic child, but quickly find that teaching religion to children with autism can be a long and frustrating endeavor. Religious concepts are often abstract ideas that require a basic understanding of faith. Typically developed children can grasp these concepts to a certain extent by attending classes and worship services, but kids with autism are very literal thinkers and have a difficult time understanding the symbolism that comprises religious studies. Only a small number of churches offer classes for developmentally disabled children. Behavioral issues and a large commitment to behavioral therapy can limit the amount of structured religious teaching autistic children can receive. It is also important to understand how a child with autism thinks and perceives in order to develop a reliable method for teaching autistic children about religion.
Provide Structured Education
It is unlikely that a child with autism will immediately grasp any of the complex ideas associated with faith and religion. Cathy Boyle, the mother of an autistic teen from Boston, had her story featured in the New York Times after she individualized a curriculum for her son when the church she attends required that he learn some basic information before receiving his first holy communion. When other parents heard of this, Cathy found herself teaching a small religious class for these children so that other families could experience the joy of watching their child receive communion.
Each class focused on a small theme, and was always tightly structured. For example, one week's class focused on the theme "God loves us." By keeping information sessions consistent and precise, children with autism are more likely to take in and absorb the information. Cathy's class focused on a specific Catholic sacrament, the first holy communion, but her teaching principles would prove very beneficial in teaching autistic children about any religion.
Teaching autistic children about religion requires the use of a lot of visual aids. Autism inhibits one's ability to understand broad, symbolic concepts. Visual representation can provide a more fundamental and concrete learning experience. For example, artwork and posters are great visuals to use when depicting broad religious themes such as "love" and "God." Kids can use stickers, markers, and other materials to design visual cues, such as hearts and flowers to represent "love." Cathy Boyle used familiar images in her classes, such as self portraits and family photos, to help explain the relationship between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Geraldine Dawson, who directs the autism program at the University of Washington, explains that that autistic children are "very concrete learners" and "really understand things best when they're shown in a picture or in a way that's not abstract." This same technique can be used to explore a variety of relationships and themes for any organized religion. Children with autism are much more likely to show interest in images to which they already have a special connection with.
Explore further resources
Sometimes it takes the knowledge and experience of parents and educators who have already gone through the process to help come up with a sound teaching strategy. If you are involved in teaching autistic children about religion, the following two books provide step-by-step activities and lessons designed to help the child and his or her family.
Both of these books provide relevant information about the challenges of teaching religion to kids with autism, as well as valuable tips, guidelines, and support for their families and friends.
Also, the Diocese of Pittsburgh offers a PDF booklet titled Religious Formation Booklet for Children with Autism. This guide was designed with the Catholic faith in mind, but its information and basic principles make it a valuable resource for teaching a variety of religions to kids with autism. It may be worth speaking to someone in your church or place of worship to see if similar information is available.
Ideally, every religion would offer special instruction to help children with developmental disabilities, but unfortunately this is not always the case. Faith and religion are not easy subjects to teach any child, and the limitations imposed by autism spectrum disorders make it especially difficult to teach abstract, symbolic ideas to this special-needs population. By keeping religious instruction tight and well-structured, and using a variety of familiar images and visual representations, teaching autistic children about religion is a worthwhile task that can enrich the young life of someone special in your family.
Rain, Ellen. Religious Education for Autistic Children. autism.lovetoknow.com.
Zezima, Katie. Dealing with Autism, Lesson by Lesson, in a Quest for First Communion. nytimes.com.