ASA's 37th National Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders (July 13-15, 2006)

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Thursday, July 13, 2006: 1:30 PM-2:45 PM
#2226- Autism Orientation for Faith Based Communities: Communication, Creativity, and Compassion
Whether a parent or ministry professional, participants will be equipped to better understand and explain what autism spectrum disorders are, characteristics of the disorders, basic teaching strategies, developing a framework for spiritual development, and gaining insights in how to communicate and provide for the ministry needs of the family as a whole. This is a non-denominational presentation that can be adapted to any religious instruction program by focusing on the “how” instead of the “what” of any particular curriculum.

Presenters:Kim R. Newgass, Autism Society of Connecticut, President, Autism Society of Connecticut - Kim Newgass is President of the Autism Society of Connecticut and mother of a teen-age daughter with autism. Ms. Newgass created a jewelry collection to promote autism awareness and help fund support and services. She has presented to numerous parent, school and community groups, and was a member of the task force producing the 2005 revision of the Connecticut State Department of Education guidelines “Teaching Children with Autism”. She has presented at the ASA national conference in the Chapter Leader’s workshops. Ms. Newgass is a deacon at Trinity Baptist Church in New Haven, CT

Sara Reed, Esq., Autism Society of Connecticut, Executive Director, Autism Society of Connecticut - Sara Reed is Executive Director and board Vice President of the Autism Society of Connecticut. Before her son’s diagnosis, she practiced corporate, securities and health-care law, and is currently an independent advocate/special education attorney. Ms. Reed is a co-author of the Autism Orientation for Faith Based Communities.

Certainly the one area in our society that should be most attuned to the compassion and support issues families with special needs members face are our faith based communities. However, the reality of the experiences of many families has not necessarily borne out this theory. This would indicate the need for information, awareness, and some basic tools for faith organizations to recognize and respond to this growing area of potential ministry. The introduction to this presentation is illustrated by several real-life experiences, both positive and negative, to underscore the opportunity for faith communities to live out their mission.

Because characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorders are so varied, this presentation covers the basic triad of deficits used in the diagnosis of an ASD, as well as a comprehensive discussion on how those deficits may exhibit themselves in the individual. By creating this foundation for the ministry professional, or for the parent looking to advocate for their child, having a clear, basic, systematic means of describing an ASD and its concomitant impairments will help to communicate how the spiritual development needs can be addressed across the disability and age ranges.

By incorporating some of the best practices that take place in our public school systems such as a team approach to development of curricular concepts, developmentally appropriate placements, and open on-going communication with parents, a basic framework plan for religious education can also be achieved. Even though many of the religious education instructors are volunteer lay persons, basic teaching techniques such as structure, transition planning, clear expectations, and making concepts incremental and concrete, will be helpful in creating classrooms where more teaching and less behavioral disruptions will be experienced. Throughout the presentation, it is stressed that the parents will be the lynch-pin in helping to generalize strategies that have been successful in home and school settings, emphasizing the importance of the role that consistent communication plays. Wherever possible or appropriate, the person with an ASD should be involved in these discussions.

While most education professionals, especially those in the special education field, understand differing models of teaching, those teaching in Sunday schools or other religious instruction arenas may not have the training or ready access to highly developed programs. As stated previously, some of the components of teaching models that the teacher and parent agree upon may be useful and applicable to faith based curriculum and can be coupled with various teaching strategies. While many educational models and strategies require extensive training, certain elements can be extracted and applied. For example, understanding that learning may take place in a multi-sensory way, including multiple types of visuals or other support materials would be a simple way to augment the teaching. Teaching spiritual concepts through music can not only be effective, but the vast wealth of melody and lyric resources available would make this a very simple and natural tool to employ. Use of assistive technologies to aid in communication and learning may be options to explore, especially if these have been utilized in other learning environments. Behavioral interventions as simple as having an opportunity for a student to use a swing may also provide the lay teacher with a technique for communication, motivation, or simply sensory calming.

Many religious education programs, since they rely on volunteer staffing, do not have the capacity to create a separate special education class. As inclusion is an option in the public school systems, it should also be in the faith based classrooms. In these classrooms in particular, inclusion of special needs students at any level will provide wonderful opportunities to teach regular education students some of the precepts of their faith. Avenues suggested for additional support include youth, college, and parent volunteers within the congregation, as well as exploring local community colleges and universities for teaching and/or special education students. Para-professionals and special education teachers within the local public school systems, while possibly not wanting to function in the same capacity as they do during the work week, may be willing to help occasionally or volunteer consulting services. The student's regular school teacher may also be willing to act as a resource for the religion instructor. Again, all of these options should be discussed with the parents before proceeding.

As regular public school education is not singularly about teaching academics, so also is faith based instruction not only about teaching spiritual themes. Not all teaching is curriculum focused. For example, teaching social skills is teaching about relationships. At the core of religious instruction is teaching about our relationship to God, and our relationship to each other. Providing the ministry volunteers, whether by direct participation in this presentation or by parent advocacy, with an understanding and a variety of tools in order to teach these truths in a way that is accessible to students with an ASD is the learning objective of this presentation.

A final component of this presentation is to build awareness and sensitivity to the needs of the entire family unit for support. Encouraging congregants to be open and welcoming to each member of the family will build a relationship of trust where needs can be openly discerned. Special care and respect should be given where a new diagnosis has just been received. Much like other stressful situations in life, the family will go through a process of grieving where individuals in the congregation being available or just listening may provide valuable ministry. Each family member brings to this journey their own issues that a caring faith community can be extremely helpful in its support efforts. Specific areas where ministry can take place can be in the areas of respite, food preparation or general household chores, sibling support, and fellowship. Creative congregations who provide support in a meaningful way to special needs families will be rewarded with a very satisfying ministry experience.

Each person's relationship with God is very individual and personal. Because it does not look like yours, does not make it less valuable to God. This sentiment is expressed in a variety of quotes from persons with an ASD, including Gerry Newport, Temple Grandin, and Donna Williams. “It was quantum physics that finally helped me believe again, as it provided a plausible scientific basis for belief in a soul and the supernatural. The idea in Eastern religion of karma and the interconnectedness of everything gets support from quantum theory. Subatomic particles that originate from the same source can become entangled, and the vibrations of a subatomic particle that is far away can affect another particle that is nearby. Scientists in the lab study subatomic particles that have become entangled in beams of laser light. In nature, particles are entangled with millions of other particles, all interacting with each other. One could speculate that entanglement of these particles could cause a kind of consciousness for the universe. This is my current concept of God.”

Temple Grandin, “Thinking in Pictures”, 1995

By creating an awareness of this generally unrecognized ministry opportunity to the faith based communities, not only will it provide an additional piece to the family support structure, but it also will involve a segment of the larger population currently untouched by the Autism community and its issues.

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