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Factoring Autism into the Return-to-Mass Equation, by David and Mercedes Rizzo

This has been a year like no other. The coronavirus pandemic continues after nearly six months. So much has changed, even going to Mass. Our state was hit very hard in the spring and the churches were closed in an effort to flatten the curve and slow the spread of this extremely contagious virus.

Not being able to go to Mass was a big change for our family, especially for our daughter Danielle, who has autism. When she was young it took a long time for her to learn how to attend Mass at all. In those days, an hour seemed to last forever, and there were many Sundays when she was unable to stay in the pew until the final hymn due to low tolerance for crowds and noise. Over time and with lots of practice she learned to not only tolerate the Mass, but to prayerfully and reverently participate in it. Every Sunday, Danielle knew that it was time to go to church. When the coronavirus came, this all changed.

Like everyone else we participated in the Mass at home by live stream. At first Danielle had trouble viewing Mass on a computer screen at our kitchen table. She was thrown off by her change in routine and couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. Still we all kept at it, and soon Danielle and the rest of us developed an uneasy truce with this new normal.

As the number of cases in our state decreased, our diocese developed a plan to allow people to return to in-person Mass. However, accommodations had to be made to maximize safety for everyone involved. Danielle was overjoyed to return to church, but the accommodations seemed mystifying.

Like many people with autism, Danielle thrives on routine. She had come to expect that things would happen at the right time and in the right order. Now there was no holy water to bless herself with as she entered and there were no missals in the pew. However, she liked the hand sanitizer and tolerated her mask. She didn’t understand that she was no longer supposed to shake hands with the other parishioners during the Sign of Peace. She definitely missed having the ushers pass around the basket for the collection. She opened her PECS Missal and pointed to the page that said “Put money in basket.” She was happy when I walked her over to the basket sitting by the entrance door and I gave her our envelope to put in.

It’s been several weeks now since we have been allowed to return to Mass. Danielle is getting used to the changes. Once again, she happily informs us that it is time for church. She blesses herself and presses her hands together in prayer. She enjoys Mass and behaves in a reverent way. No doubt as things progress during this pandemic there will be unexpected challenges, but we are confident that with persistence and God’s grace we will make it through together.


David and Mercedes write and speak from a faith perspective as parents of a child with autism. Visit DavidAndMercedesRizzo.comto learn more.

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