GATES — A few years ago, Kevin and Ana Casserly said they would silently judge the parents of children who seemed to be unwilling to behave in church.
“We used to be the … couple saying ‘These kids are going to drive us crazy!'” Ana said.
Now, however, the Casserlys said they know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of such judgment. Their son, Johnathan, 7, has autism and struggles with his social skills, they said. According to the National Alliance for Autism Research, autism is a complex brain disorder that often inhibits a person’s ability to communicate, respond to surroundings and form relationships with others. Its cause is unknown.
Johnathan began showing signs of autism at age 2, Ana said, and it has affected his ability to interact with people and to participate in Mass.
“Sometimes when they say ‘Stand up,’ he’d sit, and sometimes when they say ‘Sit,’ he’d stand up,” she said.
Additionally, Johnathan has been known to make noises during liturgies that can disturb others, Kevin said. He added that he wished he knew then what he knows now when it comes to children allegedly misbehaving in church. Possibly some of the children he found frustrating had autism as well, he said.
“I see it in my son — a lot of the noises and behaviors are involuntary,” he said.
The couple noted that they attended one parish whose worshipers tended to be older and who would sometimes stare at them as they tried to control their child. They tried another church, which had a “cry room,” or enclosed area for parents and small children. However, Ana said she didn’t like being cut off from the rest of the congregation. After awhile, Kevin said that the couple considered simply not going to church anymore.
“When it’s difficult to go to church, and you don’t feel welcome, it affects your desire to participate,” Kevin said.
Although he never lost his faith, he noted that he was troubled sometimes.
“If you don’t feel welcome, maybe you do question it a little bit,” he said.
For Ana, feeling uncomfortable in church made her want to leave the Catholic faith altogether, she said. Then she met Lisa Meisenzahl, a religious-education teacher at St. Theodore’s Parish in Gates. Meisenzahl’s daughter, Maranda, attends school with Johnathan’s twin sister, Briana. The little girls were friends, and their mothers met each other on a school field trip, Meisenzahl said. She added that she told Ana about St. Theodore’s and invited her to enroll Johnathan in the parish’s summer vacation bible school.
“Johnathan came in and did just fine,” Meisenzahl said.
The boy is currently enrolled in her weekly religious-education class, she added, noting that Johnathan helps her keep the other students in line. When the children become too loud, she turns off the lights to signal they have to settle down, she said.
“He turns off the lights because he knows the kids are too loud,” she said with a chuckle.
She noted that she’s assisted in class by an aide and that she seems to do best with Johnathan when she gives him such specific tasks to perform as cleaning up a table or throwing away something.
“When he has a role, a job, that makes him feel special about himself,” Meisenzahl said.
Johnathan shared the spotlight with other children during St. Theodore’s Children’s Christmas Pageant Dec. 18. Johnathan played a shepherd, which pleased St. Theodore’s pastor, Father Stephen Kraus.
“I was glad to see that he can participate and that people were patient with him,” Father Kraus said.
He added that he’s glad that the Casserlys feel that Johnathan is part of parish life.
“Certainly, I’m delighted that we are able, as much as we’re able, to help Johnathan,” he said.
On that note, the Casserlys said they take Johnathan with them to weekend Masses and sit with the general congregation. The Casserlys credited both the parish staff and the parishioners for making them and their son feel welcome.
“I feel like I can sit in the middle of the church, in the front of the church, and nobody will laugh and stare at him,” Ana said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For information on autism, visit the Web site of the National Alliance for Autism Research at www.naar.org.