Catherine Boyle’s son Terry was 8 years old when she realized that she should do something about helping him to make his First Communion. It was when he walked to the altar with her and grabbed the whole bowl of hosts out of the priest’s hand. Boyle grabbed Terry, the priest grabbed back the ciborium and she and the priest, she said, “just kind of looked at each other.” 

teaching people with autism
Gabriel Conroy receives first Communion from Father Roger Gagné of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Warwick, R.I., as his mother Susan Conroy (right) and his teacher Susan Bishop (behind), observe. Photo by Brian Lowney of the Rhode Island Catholic

Terry, now 20, has autism and low verbal skills, and for years he had a difficult time attending Mass at their parish, St. Mary’s in Winchester, Mass. His parents took him for 10-minute increments with promises of later getting doughnuts.  

By the time he was able to stay long enough for Communion, “Lo and behold, everyone was eating something he didn’t know about,” Boyle said. 

She took on his religious education herself, and what she found that worked for her son became an official program, St. Mary’s Curriculum For Students With Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. It is now being used in the Archdiocese of Boston and beyond. 

‘Social stories’

Boyle, who has a background in journalism, taught her son at home by writing “social stories” for him, a method that has success with children with autism. 

“At one time, he didn’t know who Barney the dinosaur was, or Winnie the Pooh, and he totally understands those,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “So I started writing about what we do in church, and what Christmas is, and the sacraments, and why we pray. I read him a social story about Jesus dying and he was visibly upset, and when we got to the part about Jesus is alive again, he started smiling, so it was clear that he understood.” 

When Terry got into trouble, he would sign that he was sorry. After a few weeks of working on the social story of reconciliation, the next time he got in trouble he signed “God.” 

“So it was sinking in,” Boyle said. “When it came time for reconciliation for the first time, he was nervous and dug in his heels in the parking lot and said ‘Pray at home.’ But he made it and he did a good job.” 

For reconciliation, Terry learned to point to picture symbols on a card, for instance, to indicate “sometimes I’m not nice,” “God is sad” and “I am sorry.” 

Nonverbal learning

Terry made his first Communion in May 2000 and the following month the parish director of religious education told her that they were going to start using the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy program, and would she like to become involved? 

“It’s an amazing curriculum, but it’s aimed at people who are conversational,” Boyle said. “The DRE and I wondered who we could get to adapt it, so I basically volunteered myself.” 

The curriculum she developed started with an adaptation of the Kennedy program grafted with the social stories she had already written. Her version was more applicable for nonverbal children with autism who, Boyle told OSV, are extremely concrete in their understanding of language and want to know when to stand, when to sit and what to say. 

The curriculum’s lessons were illustrated by local artist Janet Amorello, and 50 copies were initially printed in 2009. 

“Now it’s being more widely used all over the country, and in Canada, Northern Ireland, Australia and Germany,” Boyle said. 

She has since left the program to head the nonprofit Autism Housing Pathways. 

“The program is growing and the good news is that people are now coming forward,” said Susan Abbott, director of religious education for the Boston archdiocese. “Perhaps 10 years ago parents would think that there was nothing they could do, that their child would not fit into a regular religious education program. I think those days are over. Parents are coming forward and parishes are reaching out and saying bring your children and let’s work together.” 

Welcoming atmosphere

Margaret Andreozzi, director of faith formation for elementary classes at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Warwick, R.I., trained under Boyle and worked with Roberta Zimmerly of the Autism Project of Rhode Island. When she brought the St. Mary’s curriculum to her church, 25 families came to orientation and all 25 students stayed and have since received the Eucharist. 

In 2013, Bishop Thomas Tobin will confirm the first confirmation class. 

Students from first grade to 23 years old are placed according to age and where they are on the autism spectrum. The sessions have prayers, projects related to sensory issues, and visuals that are more easily understood.  

After the classes, Father Roger Gagné offers Communion to the individuals who can receive. 

“That’s important to these families because if the children cannot attend Mass, they are receiving Jesus twice a month,” Andreozzi said. “Father also officiates at Masses that are only 20 minutes long, which the students can tolerate better than a 45-minute Mass.” 

Many parents have told her how they often felt shut out of the church community and that they didn’t have any place to go with their children. 

“Our program gives them hope and is bringing them back to church,” Andreozzi said. “They feel welcome here.”