Scott man extends religious experience to autistic
Thursday, April 06, 2006
By Margaret Smykla, Tri-State Sports and News Service
A few years ago, two Catholic families Larry Sutton knew had trouble finding proper religious instruction for their children with autism to receive the sacraments.
About the same time, Mr. Sutton, a child psychologist and a deacon at Our Lady of Grace Church in Scott, read about an autistic boy who was suffocated during a prayer service in a Milwaukee church as members tried to exorcise what they said were evil spirits. That incident occurred in a small Christian church called Faith Temple, which was in a strip mall.
He said both instances emphasized the lack of knowledge in society, including the religious community, about autism and the subsequent need for a program to help autistic children live fuller spiritual lives.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder and children with it often have problems in social interactions and in communicating.
"The church is really to serve all people," said Mr. Sutton, of Mt. Lebanon. "People with disabilities need to be equal partners in our Christian community."
Along with help from Sister Michelle Grgurich, director of the Department for Persons with Disabilities for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Mr. Sutton hopes to begin at his church a religious education program for autistic children up to age 18.
Six children have signed on, but more are needed for a viable program. Students will prepare for the sacraments of Penance, Eucharist and Confirmation.
Classes will be held in a nearby room during the 9:30 a.m. Sunday services at Our Lady of Grace.
Instruction will be based on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Program to Improve Catholic Religious Education for Children and Adults with Mental Retardation, a program which includes religious instruction, lesson plans on the liturgical year, prayer services and a parents' handbook.
That nationwide program was developed in the diocese in 1996 under the direction of the Kennedy Foundation and Grace Harding, who was then director of the diocese's Department for Persons with Disabilities.
"It is comprehensive and has every topic in terms of the Catholic faith," Sister Michelle said.
The program has been in use at St. Anne Church in Castle Shannon for four years. There are five children, age 10 to 12, but it is open to anyone, including adults with special needs who never received the sacraments.
"It takes the basic tenets of the Catholic faith and puts them on a level children with special needs can understand," said St. Anne Director of Religious Education Katie Tarcson, of Bridgeville.
Classes are held from 6:15 to 7:30 p.m. Mondays from September through May at St. Anne school.
High school students serve as aids in the classroom for the St. Anne program, and Mr. Sutton said he wanted to increase that interaction in the Scott program.
He said he had seen the mutual benefits of high school students serving as models for younger people in his work for the state Bureau of Juvenile Justice.
Student mentors will be chosen after interviews with the child and his family.
For class, Mr. Sutton will read the daily Gospel, followed by the Kennedy curriculum, with the high schoolers acting as instructors.
The high school students will receive community service credit at their schools for their work.
To learn more about the Our Lady of Grace program, call 412-276-0277; for St. Anne's program, call 412-561-0101.