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Your Advice Requested: Autism and Catholic Sacraments

By August 18, 2009

A reader wrote me this morning asking about how her daughter with autism could possibly make communion or be confirmed in the Catholic faith.  I've done quite a bit of research on this subject for a book I'm writing.

The good news is that there are quite a few resources available to you and your parish to help your child prepare for communion and confirmation.  The bad news is that those resources are not well-disseminated, so it may be up to you, the parent, to find and share them.

Overall, the suggestion is that you start with your local parish - but if the religious education director is not receptive to your child, or feels he/she has no resources to support your needs, it makes sense to proceed to the diocesan level.  Call and ask for the person in charge of special needs ministry.  That individual should be able to provide you not only with written and possibly video or visual resources, but also with suggestions for parishes and services that will accomodate your child and your family.

There are quite a few resources on the web; a few places to check out:

If you're a Catholic family with a child on the autism spectrum, share your experiences, hints and tips for success. What works?  What doesn't?  Where should parents go for the best possible support?

August 18, 2009 at 1:36 pm
(1) Charmian says:

Lisa, I can’t even read something like this without feeling like my head will explode!
How can any mother wonder her autistic daughter can “make communion or be confirmed” with all that is going on in that poor child’s life?
Say she wasn’t? Would Jesus welcome her into heaven?
I’d bet he’d escort her to the front of the line and open the velvet rope Himself.
For God’s sake, if she can’t do the man made rituals …so what?
Jesus didn’t either.

August 18, 2009 at 1:54 pm
(2) autism says:

Charmian — why would a parent NOT want their child to partake, to the best of their ability, in a religious life? and why would a church NOT want to include a child in its sacraments?

I could understand your thoughts if they related, say, to getting a child onto the basketball team… or into a play. But when it comes to celebrating major religious events, it seems pretty important to me.

In the long run, of course, you do what you can. If the child can do it, she can’t. But IMHO, this is one area in which it makes sense for everyone to do what they can to make it work.


August 18, 2009 at 6:08 pm
(3) EquiisSavant says:

I am an adult with autism, have been confirmed, and take communion in the Catholic Church.

August 18, 2009 at 6:59 pm
(4) navi says:

Thanks, Lisa, for your reply to Charmain. The so called ‘man-made’ rituals are extremely important to the Catholic faith. I was raised Catholic by my non-Catholic mother (father was Catholic so in order to marry, she had to agree to raise kids’ Catholic), so I don’t know much about it but I do know it’s important.

Frankly I find faiths refusing to baptize those that they decide cannot make a decision for themselves somewhat appalling. Confirmation is a form of baptism. Communion is another deeply important piece, in more than just Catholicism.

Catholicism is a faith that baptizes infants. When the child is old enough to choose their faith on their own, they are confirmed, is what I understand of it. Perhaps it may be appropriate to wait a bit longer than one would normally do to make sure the child understands and is ready.

I often face the conundrum of how to raise my son in the faith, or even my typically developing 3 year old. It was so simple to talk to my eldest, because she is gifted and understood the abstract ideas at a young age.

August 18, 2009 at 8:22 pm
(5) Sandy says:

I think no matter the disability, a child can still participate in things important to the family, and for many religion is. There are some good links offered too for any who are interested. I also think it’s hard to tech a child with autism those concepts, but some of them are easy. For some kids memorizing will be easy for them. Thanks for the links, I know a few people who’d find them helpful that I can pass along to them

August 19, 2009 at 11:06 am
(6) Matt says:


Does the person (autistic or not) understand that communion is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ? And who Jesus is?

Our 22 year old son is not able to grasp this concept.

I am no authority, so I would like to know if it is possible for him to sin. I doubt it.

He may be like the original Adam, without knowledge of good or evil.

August 20, 2009 at 4:59 pm
(7) Amy says:

Ditto on the diocesan office for people with disabilities. Our bishop is very proactive about religious education and sacraments for all, and as Catholics, our experience is incomplete without these visible signs. Protestant churches are making great strides in areas of similar importance; dear friends are pioneering a Sunday school experience for kids on the spectrum because every child deserves to be part of the community.

Not all religious educators and priests are equally aware of the spectrum’s impact on participation in church life. But in every parish we’ve been to, I’ve found at least one family who’d walked the same road, and eventually found a priest or deacon or catechist to help us out. You might ask around whether any of the catechists are schoolteachers; the catechist who did RCIC with our son was a public school teacher with lots of spectrum experience, and she would have moved heaven and earth for our son.

Knock wood, we have gotten through 3 sacraments with our son with AS, and are halfway through confirmation. The tough issue right now is his sense that he has a vocation. We’ve been blessed to have found (after a search and a half!) a priest who is patient enough to tackle spiritual direction with someone who communicates so hesitantly. God bless him!

Always pray for the people who God’s sending into your child’s journey. They will come, not a moment too late, but sometimes not terribly early.

August 20, 2009 at 5:12 pm
(8) Amy says:

You are right, that when we receive communion, we have to be affirming that we believe we receive Jesus, body, blood, soul and divinity. While your son may not be able to verbally assent to this tenet of faith, he is able to make a spiritual communion, and probably does so already without your even knowing it. Our children internalize far more than we’ll ever know.

As for sin, mortal sin has to be intentionally performed in direct defiance to a known command of God. If your child is unable to know what sin is, he is unable to form the intention to use it to defy God. Please be at peace, dear dad. Spiritual communion before the Blessed Sacrament can be far more effective than hours of ABA trying to get him ready for the official sacrament.

August 21, 2009 at 9:36 am
(9) peggy says:

I have a teen daughter with AS and my youngest is probably on the spectrum, too. I wasn’t worried about communion, but speaking to the priest in confession was something else again, and something I had no control over. I didn’t realize there were so many resources out there for “spectrites.” Thanks for letting me know.

I personally handled the problem by putting it in the parish priest’s lap. I told him she has trouble putting things into words, and even responding to questions at times. Then I let him take over. I’ve done this in two different parishes, with no problems–at least, none that I’m priviledged to know about.

I don’t worry about my son not talking when he makes his first reconciliation, but what he says might be a little interesting! The concept of sin is just starting to get through, but I don’t think he understands the connection between saying one is sorry and striving not to do the same thing again. Then again, that’s something most adults probably take for granted, too. I know I often do.

I want to commend the person whose son thinks he has a vocation and the priest helping him through it. Don’t doubt it–watch “The Reluctant Saint” about St. Joseph of Cuppertino. Very inspiring story for those of us with children who don’t seem to fit in. It shows that God can use people even when the world doesn’t know how. He may not have the vocation he thinks he does, but your son does have a vocation of some kind.

August 24, 2009 at 12:27 pm
(10) Sharon M says:

I understand the mother’s concern about this; but I love our parish priest’s answer regarding having a child with a disability participate in church…”God wouldn’t deny the child, why should I?” And yes, we are practicing Catholics. We may not be according to the “old school” Catholics of my mother’s time…but we do acknowledge the “really old school” ways of Jesus welcoming all, especially the children. Our church would rather have people (especially the kids) participate than cling to the “rituals.” Now, that is not to say that they don’t adhere to the sacraments and the rites of the Catholic church; they just acknowledge that you have to wrk with people where they are at to have them participate. My son has made his 1st Communion and we worked with the faith formation teachers and the former parish priest (since retired) to prepare him. Did it take him longer to grasp the concept? Yes. Did we have to practice and repeat and review things more with him? Yes. Did it stop them from including him? NO! It takes more effort sometimes to educate the educators (doesn’t that sound familiar?)…but in the end it is worth it to have my child participate in his faith and be part of a community–a real one that accepts him. This will be a community he belongs to as long as he chooses to participate–why deny him that?!?! Good luck to the child who will be receiving the sacraments and God Bless.

August 24, 2009 at 5:58 pm
(11) Bob says:

Lisa, your advice is beautiful and exactly right. This doesn’t just apply to Catholics, but to E.Orthodox and Lutherans too.

The child’s participation should be maximized. The parameters for confirmation and communion are fairly well laid out in Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran doctrine, all of which are based very soundly on Holy Scripture.

Communion is not a “man-made ritual”. It is a sacrament instituted by Christ, combining earthly elements of bread and wine with the Word of God. [Matt26:26 / Mark14:22]] Whereby, we have the real presence (trans-substantiation or con-substantitaion) of our Savior — His body and blood — in the blessed Sacrament.

If any Christian should eat and drink of the elements without first examining himself, he eats and drinks to his destruction. [1COR11:29]

The Christian should regularly participate in Communion, so long as he is able to contemplate his sins, seek absolution (in the Catholic Church, through the sacrament of reconciliation/confession).

Bottom line: it is a GOOD THING for an autistic child / adult, just like any other Christian, to participate in Holy Communion. The only reason he/she should abstain is if he/she is mentally incapable of contemplating/confessing his/her sins (or is unrepentant).

Thankfully, Christ Jesus allows for imperfection even in our faith!

With a careful thoughtful approach, with the assistance of your Parish Priest or pastor, the right decisions will be made.

It is true that if an autistic person (or any other Christian) lacks the mental capacity to contemplate sins, their salvation is not jeopardized thereby. It is faith in Christ that saves, and nothing else. [Eph2:9, Gal3, Rom3]

The parents’ obligation is to ensure that the child is Baptised and that he hears the Word regularly. The soul, by the Holy Spirit, is perfectly able to receive saving faith even if the mind is not sufficient to reason it.

BE CONFIDENT IN THE SALVATION OF YOUR AUTISTIC CHILD! Jesus protects the little ones and will never let them come to harm. [Luke 18:15-17]

Do what you can to get them to confirmation and communion, but if they are not able to do so, have no fear. They are safely in their Savior’s hands, and He will let no one snatch them from His mighty hands. [John10:27-28]

We will soon and very soon be sitting at our Savior’s feet, where there will be no autism or other ailment to get in the way of our singing His praises!

August 24, 2009 at 6:25 pm
(12) Bob says:

Not sure which “man-made rituals” Charmian thinks Jesus didn’t do. Marriage, I suppose, would be the obvious one. He was a priest by His own authority and in the order of Melchisedech, so Holy Orders and confirmation were unnecessary. He was never married, of course. He was sinless, and so Reconciliation was unnecessary. He healed the Sick. He was baptized, and He instituted Holy Communion.

It’s a little bit of an insult to call the sacraments mere “rituals”, and they are anything but “man-made.” Sacraments combine earthly elements with the Word of God for a salvific purpose.

It’s important that we all remember that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ; His perfect life, innocent death, and His Easter resurrection. Salvation is through Christ alone. [John 14:6].

If one is unbaptized or does not participate in Communion, it does not mean he is not saved. Having said that, children should be baptized. With all due respect to our Calvinist Brothers, it is an error to not baptize a child or an adult who cannot reason.

August 29, 2009 at 9:51 pm
(13) Karen says:

My son’s school informed me that he would not be allowed to do his first communion and confirmation and when I asked why they said it was because he did not have the understanding for it. As calmly as I could, I told them that most grade 2 kids don’t have the real understanding for it. My son like to pray with the school, attends church, sings so because he can’t understand the sacriment he should not receive? NOT! When they saw I was not going to back off on this one they did allow him to do it. So parents fight for this right – our children do without enough as it is let’s not take away their right to a catholic sacrament.

December 14, 2009 at 5:11 pm
(14) Ed says:

My 20 year old Son Phil has AS. We delayed his starting CCD for a year and he began instruction in the catholic faith in second grade. He received 1st communion in 3rd grade and confirmation in 7th grade. Like many people with AS he became intensly focused on certain aspects of Catholic faith development beyond what “normal” kids would do. He memorized the gospel readings, read extensively on Church history and the knowlege of the lives of the Saints.

In 7th grade we moved him and his sister from the local public school to our parish school to avoid bulling. He found the structure of a Catholic school every comforting and he went on to do very well in a Diocesan High School graduating among the top of his class. He is now a 20 year old junior english major at Penn State. He is very devout and attends mass regularly. In my opinion, people with AS should be encouraged to fully develop their Catholic faith.

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