Deacon designs program to welcome those with autism

By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

PITTSBURGH, Penn. — According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, about one percent of the world population has an autism spectrum disorder; the prevalence in the United States is estimated at one in 68 births with more than 3.5 million Americans living with autism.

Lawrence Sutton, Ph.D. is an ordained deacon and licensed psychologist specializing in autism. He is nationally-recognized for developing a unique Religious Education program for children with autism and other special needs, and through Loyola Press has written a book, “How to Welcome, Include and Catechize Children with Autism and Other Special Needs: A Parish-Based Approach,” which provides a guide for creating a program that addresses the needs of children with physical, developmental and cognitive disabilities and welcomes them into the life of the parish.

Deacon Sutton was inspired to delve deeper into autistic studies after seeing the struggle those children had in Religious Education: “I went about trying to find a program that might assist them,” said the parishioner of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Pittsburgh, Penn., “but found there wasn’t a lot.”

He was given an open curriculum by someone in his diocese, and over the course of a few years adapted it to meet the needs of the autistic children in his parish. Seeing the success of his program and his first book, Loyola Press helped Deacon Sutton write his methods into a curriculum, and launched the “Adaptive Program — Finding God: Our Response to God’s Gifts” (

Deacon Sutton now spends nearly every weekend traveling the country to speak at catechetical conference: “What seems to be occurring is that I’m spending time explaining what autism is and what it’s not,” he said. “Folks know pieces of it, but they don’t know necessarily what it is or how to treat it, or what to do; people get scared of what they don’t know.

“What I do at times, and this is what I stress to priests and deacons, that it’s important that when you see learning moments, you talk about and describe them. If somebody sees someone bouncing up and down on their toes, or flapping their fingers in front of their face, or getting really excited when they see the sun coming through the stained-glass windows — if you don’t have words to express yourself, how else do you express happiness?”

Autistic children and his or her family should be made to feel welcome. Often secular news media feed misconceptions about autism, adding to the stress of parents who feel uncomfortable because their child isn’t one of the “quiet ones” and when their child gets bored during Mass, they may become more vocal and disturb those around them: “When they don’t have words and get frustrated or bored, tired or hungry, they might move around or make noises. They may do any number of behaviors, and when this happens — and it’s no one’s fault — but an usher may come up and say, ‘You know we have crying rooms in the back and other people are trying to attend Mass.’ 

“It’s hurtful stuff,” said Deacon Sutton, “and I don’t think that’s the intention at all, but it’s about education and that’s the power of the pulpit.”

Not only can priests and deacons educate their parish, so can the parents. By having their child attend Mass, parents can create a stable, loving and welcoming environment not only for their children but also help educate parishioners, who will be more welcoming and accepting as they see the children grow as members of the parish. 

Sutton cited the story of a set of triplets he baptized, where one of the children was significantly involved in autism while the other two were typical. The mother came to Deacon Sutton a few years after the Baptism, crying and expressing her lament over the triplets not being able to receive the Eucharist together because of the one child who was so impaired.

“It was quite a focused effort for a couple of years,” recalled Deacon Sutton, “and while he may not know as much as his sisters know in terms of preparation, he certainly fulfilled the requirements that the USCCB require, and when the three of them came down together to receive, there wasn’t a dry eye in the congregation because everybody knew and understood. It was a parish community celebration, not just a family celebration, for these children.”

Then there was the family who had two little boys who were impaired, and all the mother wanted to do was attend a full Mass: “I had her, for the first five or six weeks, just stay and listen to the announcements and leave. After that, stay as long as the first song — again, just five or six weeks. Then come back and leave after the Old Testament Gospel reading. 

“The hardest part for this particular family was the homilies were hard to predict — they’re long or short, interesting or not; that took a bit longer to get the children to stay. Once we got past the homilies, things went really well,” said Deacon Sutton, adding it took 18 months of work. “Both kids were able to receive the Eucharist together the following spring.”

As those kids become adults, due to the welcoming atmosphere found at their parish, many become contributing members; at Sutton’s parish, there’s a lector and usher who are in the autistic spectrum. The more rewarding part, said Sutton, is “the families find there’s a place for their children and feel they, themselves can become involved” in parish ministry.

“It’s evangelization from a different perspective,” said Sutton. “People see this progression and the congregation follows it, and see the development and the growth in these kids.”

Parents don’t just want their children to attend Mass, but want their children to receive the Sacraments. The USCCB really do give a clear definition of what is necessary to receive Sacraments and “yes, you need to know lots of things,” said Deacon Sutton, “but there are ways to teach. We get caught up on wanting to keep kids longer and teach them everything to know; it becomes more of a graduation from Church, I think.”

In his parish, Deacon Sutton explained how he created a parish program more than 10 years ago designed to help autistic children acclimate into the parish, and uses teen-agers as mentors in the program. Meeting early Sunday mornings before Mass, Deacon Sutton uses a systematic schedule where a group of 25 kids, ranging in ages from three to 20 years old, are partnered with a teen-ager and work on a series of lessons throughout the year: “I find that they take those lessons and learn them inside-out, because each child communicates slightly different, and they turn those lessons into something their child can understand. Over the course of time they are very successful at it, and they get to know their child very well.

“The irony of teens is they don’t have the prejudices that a lot of adults too. I know it’s working because when I walk into the room to see how they’re doing lessons, they both go quiet because I’m intruding on they’re lesson,” said Deacon Sutton, who said it was a happy accident seeing that the connection made between the teen and their student has created a “continuing catechesis because technically they [the teen-agers] weren’t involved in any kind of continuing education [after Confirmation]; it was just remarkable.”

Once people understand, they become more accepting, and if it comes from a pastor, even better because “he’s validating that we are all God’s children,” said Deacon Sutton.

Parishioners, directors of Faith Formation and Faith Formation teachers don’t need specialized training to recognize autism; it’s just a parish responding to members in need: “It’s not rocket science, this is very doable for anybody. The materials are such now that one can and should take a responsibility; children have the right to learn about God. Yes, they are special and yes, they are gifts. St. Lawrence spoke about the disabled being gifts of the Church and they certainly are, but they also have the right to learn as much as they are capable about God and I feel we have the responsibly to prepare them as well as possible to enter our Church, in whatever capacity that is.”

© 2020 The Anchor  †  887 Highland Avenue  †  Fall River, Massachusetts 02720