Chandler church offers autistic-friendly mass SanTan Sun News

Chandler church offers autistic-friendly mass

Chandler church offers autistic-friendly mass
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By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

The lights are dimmed, music is toned down, and speech is simplified.

This is the mood at St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church on a recent Sunday morning as it introduces a new style of mass that’s friendly to the senses.

The service is to accommodate individuals with cognitive disabilities like autism or Down’s syndrome – conditions that can be sensitive to large crowds or the sights and sounds of regular mass.

“We just provided an environment where families could come and not worry about what people were gonna think about their child’s behavior,” said Kim Doyle, St. Andrew’s coordinator for special education.

Doyle joined the parish about a year ago and helped introduce the sensory-friendly mass earlier this month. It includes readings from a children’s version of scripture and there’s a sign language interpreter on standby ready to translate.

Families are also invited to bring items like noise-canceling headphones, wiggle cushions, or toys if it helps to comfort their children.

Doyle hopes these features will attract some congregants who might have felt uncomfortable in other church environments.

“There are families, I’m sure, that have stopped going to church because it’s so challenging to get their child into mass,” Doyle said.

Churches across the country are adopting sensory-friendly services. It’s something several institutions had to consider as autism becomes more prevalent among children.

The diagnosis rate for children on the autism spectrum was about 16 percent in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ten years earlier, the rate was 8 percent.

A broader definition of the disorder may account for this increase, but the CDC believes there’s evidence to suggest more people are being diagnosed.

Autism is a developmental disability that can hinder a person’s ability to form social, emotional, or communication skills. Its symptoms can vary, but one common trait is a hypersensitivity to sights and sounds.

One of St. Andrew’s strategic goals has been to find new ways to serve the spiritual and educational needs of parish members. In addition to the sensory-friendly mass, the church now offers one-on-one religious lessons for students needing special attention.

“Through this program, we provide a welcoming and caring atmosphere which at the same time provides a safe, quiet, joyful, and reverent environment where these children with special needs can establish a relationship with God,” St. Andrews Friar Robert Seraph Aliunzi wrote in a statement.

The Chandler church, 3450 W. Ray Road, has a parish of about 6,000 families.

Parents have so far been pleased with this sensory-friendly mass, Doyle said, adding they appreciate the church’s efforts.

Doyle had been a teacher at Mesa Public Schools for several years before assuming her position at St. Andrew. She made it her mission to find ways the church could better serve individuals with special needs.

“We owe it to them because that’s what scripture tells us,” Doyle added. “We don’t cherry-pick who we want to serve.”

The church intends to offer the sensory-friendly mass at least once a month. Doyle would eventually like to start a support group for parents of disabled children, in order to help them navigate resources available to them.

It’s so important to include these individuals in public places, Doyle added, because it helps others to better understand their condition.

“It’s through their disabilities that we learn how to be compassionate and caring,” she said.

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