When my fourth child, our son Mark, was diagnosed with Autism a couple years before he'd be the average First Communion age, I never imagined what challenges awaited him as we began to prepare for the day big. I had many doubts and red flags. I have taught the first sacraments 2nd grade class at our parish for twenty years. In all those years I had only had maybe three special children that needed above and beyond the usual formation to make the sacraments. My son was the only one with Autism that I had worked with in class. Heading into December of this school year, I was planning on holding him back, thinking there was no way he could participate with a class within the liturgy,without undue attention and seriously, I didn't want to ruin it for the rest of the families on that special day.
Fast forward: with the help of Mark's speech therapist and occupational therapy, we successfully got him through first reconciliation that following February. But that was one on one, with little distraction and sensory stimulators. Our pastor was very pleased with him and felt we should “try” to help him to make first communion with the class within the liturgy as was normal at our parish. Mark knew the theology of the Body and Blood of Christ, no difficulty there. It would be the physical performance that would stress him. We began boot camp: poured on the role playing, the practicing, we handled and practiced with unconsecrated hosts, we sipped wine, we went over music, we held a lit candle for renewal of Baptismal promises as we celebrate within the Easter Season…..no surprises for that day…no chances for sensory overload. Still, more nervous than the other 19 first communions I had helped prepare children and families for…..we went forward with it all. Photos and practice the day before; Mark protested a little about the “group” photo. He does not do well with “fussing”, move here…move there…put your chin up…But, the photographer got some great shots of a very special young man. The class practiced their special song which included singing and sign language. Mark could only do one thing at a time, so he did the sign language. It was precious, and although he certainly is not not coordinated like the other children, it was so sincere and heartfelt. Mark was VERY excited to make his sacrament, although he could not express it like the other children….it came out in his “stimming”….skipping quietly across the church hall while waiting to process in; and his secret thoughts…laughing to himself with pleasure. I am grateful for a “family pew” with the first communicant sitting right within their family on the end…where mother and father can tend to them, and walk them up to receive for the first time. We were very present to Mark and it helped immensely. He did beautifully! And it was the first time he was truly tuned-into the entire mass, with anticipation…wow, he had actually made a leap from being half-involved to fully involved and attentive. What a blessing! I came away SO relieved as you can imagine. No scenes from sensory issues, no protesting …nothing but beautiful reception of the Most Holy Sacrament in both bread and wine. It was one of the most lovely days of my life that I felt so truly blessed and led by God and grateful at how He brought Mark closer to Him.
In the end, Mark announced to us later that day, “I will be able to have communion now for the rest of my life!” Yes, indeed. Praise God.