St. Pius Tenth Parish creates a sensory-friendly worship space
CHILI — In December, St. Pius Tenth Parish dedicated a new worship space that was created for parishioners of all ages who have sensory differences.
According to Understood (www.understood.org), an organization for learning and attention issues, individuals with sensory differences have difficulty organizing and responding to information that comes in through the senses, and they may be oversensitive to sensory input, under sensitive or both.
“I found a lot of families were saying we can’t attend (Mass) because it is too loud or bright,” said Johan Engstrom, St. Pius’ director of faith formation. “Families could not attend entire Masses or had to worship outside the nave.”
Engstrom, who has a family member on the autism spectrum, said the types of problems that were being described to him are common for individuals with sensory differences or who are on the autism spectrum. Thus, the idea to create a room in which both children and adults with sensory differences could worship was formed.
The original St. Pius church building was destroyed by fire in 2015, and while a new church was being built, Engstrom said the meeting rooms at the parish office were converted into worship rooms. Mass took place in the largest meeting room, while the liturgy was streamed onto television monitors that were set up in the three smaller meeting rooms. When the need for a sensory-friendly worship space arose, he said the parish decided to convert one of the smaller worship rooms into a sensory-friendly space.
Engstrom said that individuals who use the sensory-friendly worship room can avoid sensations that they find intolerable, such as bright lights, or they can seek sensory input by having items available for them to touch.
The room offers softer lighting; a variety of seating, including a huge bean bag chair, exercise balls and rocking chairs; and a volume control button on the wall to adjust the sound of the liturgy as it is being streamed onto a television monitor in the room. Parishioner Kelly Places painted a tactile mural on one wall that features different textures.
In one corner of the room are such sensory items as squish toys and glitter jars crafted by parishioners that Engstrom said can be used for entertaining, grabbing the attention of or calming individuals who are experiencing sensory overload. The room also contains educational materials developed by Summer Kinard and Loyola Press for children with sensory differences.
The room opened Dec. 23, the feast day of St. Thorlak of Iceland, to whom the room was dedicated. The room contains an icon of the saint that was donated by members of the Mission of Saint Thorlak, a local group that is petitioning for the saint to become the patron saint of autism spectrum disorders. Engstrom said it is believed that St. Thorlak was on the autism spectrum.
According to the Mission of St. Thorlak’s website (www.mission-of-saint-thorlak.com), “People with autism have found they can more readily regain calm in moments of extreme agitation when calling on St. Thorlak to pray for them.”
Engstrom said that the sensory-friendly room has been well-received by parishioners who have used it, and families are happier now because the room has made it more possible to worship comfortably
Laura Farmer is one such parishioner. She said she and her husband would not always bring their two autistic sons to Mass due to their sensory differences and short attentions spans.
“After hearing about the room being created and made available, we thought it would be a great opportunity,” Farmer told the Catholic Courier.
She said she enjoys seeing her kids have the opportunity to move around and be active in the sensory-friendly worship room while she and her husband are still able to participate in the liturgy.
“It has helped our family because now my sons are in a setting that is beneficial to their needs, while we are also able to participate in Mass,” she said.