Clerics are encouraged to educate congregations on Autism Sunday
Sunday, Feb. 8, has been designated as Autism Sunday, an International Day of Prayer for those with autism spectrum disorders. My hope for this day is that all families affected by autism may be welcomed in their houses of worship, and become active participants in their faith community.
Autism is one of a group of conditions known as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). ASDs are neurobehavioral syndromes caused by dysfunctions in the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord system).
These dysfunctions can lead to lifelong problems, beginning during infancy and early childhood development. They can cause substantial difficulty in thinking and learning, and in developing the abilities and skills needed to communicate, interact with other people, and become increasingly independent. People with ASDs may engage in unusual, repetitive behaviors and become over-focused on a very narrow interest or range of interests. Many people with ASDs also have unusual ways of learning, paying attention, and reacting to different sensations and situations.
The word “spectrum” is important in understanding autism, because there is a wide range of behavioral signs and symptoms, degrees of severity and types of disorders. The degree of disability depends on the disorder and can range from mild to severe. To date, no cure exists.
ASDs are the fastest-growing diagnoses among the developmental disabilities in the United States. According to the Autism Society of America, the diagnosis of autism is increasing at a rate of 10 to 17 percent a year. Today, one in every 150 people younger than 22 is diagnosed with an ASD, making it more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined. ASDs occur in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, and except for Rett’s Disorder, are four times more likely to occur in boys than in girls.
The New York Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (OMRDD) Faith Based Initiative Program encourages and celebrates the inclusion of people with developmental disabilities within the faith community. We believe one of the pathways to every person living the life he or she chooses is the opportunity to believe, belong and become a member of the faith community of their choice as well as to gain access to that community.
The program offers informational seminars on disability awareness and how to create a place that is accessible for all, and one that is a safer place for all of us. OMRDD also provides public educational workshops for community homes and houses of worship to assist them to build relationships with people with developmental disabilities. For more information on OMRDD’s Faith Based Initiative, contact Rev. Catherine Patterson at 473-6255 or Catherine.firstname.lastname@example.org.
The key to inclusionary success is to remember that people with developmental disabilities are just like you or me — they want a life that includes, in many cases, active participation within a religious community.
I encourage religious leaders to take a moment today to inform their congregations what autism is and how religious educators, leaders and members of their religious community can include people with autism in their worship services and within their educational classrooms.
I also urge faith communities to honor this special International Day of Prayer by recognizing, celebrating, respecting and embracing the differences among us — because those differences strengthen and define us. I encourage you to work to forge meaningful relationships between people with developmental disabilities, their families and members of your religious community, and to recognize the worth of each person and treat them with the respect and fairness they deserve.
By doing this we can all live OMRDD’s motto each day by helping people with developmental disabilities — such as autism — live richer lives.
Diana Jones Ritter
The writer is commissioner for OMRDD.