October 22, 2021

Be Our Guest / Erin Jeffries

Responding pastorally to people who have different needs

Erin JeffriesYou might have experienced this: loud, repetitive vocalization, or perhaps even a shriek, unexpected, repetitive movements, just to name a few examples. It can certainly be startling, especially when it happens in settings such as Mass when certain responses, gestures and movements are expected, and maybe you have wondered how to respond.

Behavior is communication

What you have experienced could be resulting from an “invisible disability,” for example mental illness, sensory processing disorder and autism.

These are called “invisible” because they do not necessarily manifest themselves in a person’s appearance, but which nonetheless can have a profound effect on a person’s reactions to stimulus (sights, smells, touch, crowds), behavior and ability to communicate effectively. It is not our job to diagnose, but simply to be aware that something else may be going on and to respond with patience, pastoral love and perhaps some creativity.

Work with the person, their family and/or support system

As you approach an individual or family, there may be some self-consciousness or embarrassment, so start by emphasizing first how glad you are that this person is at your parish and your desire to serve that person and family so that they can successfully and comfortably participate in parish life. Then, working with the individual and their family and other supportive folks, form a plan, consisting of two or three ideas to try. It might take some trial and error, but a plan might include things such as:

• Identifying triggers (lights, loud sounds, smells, crowds) and finding ways to avoid those things (strategic seating; quieter or lesser-attended Masses).

• Identifying a support person to attend Mass with this person, who could for example guide them to step outside or take a brief walk if disruptive behavior occurs.

• Provide or encourage the person to bring sensory items, including noise cancelling headphones, sunglasses or small fidget items.

• Sometimes having a responsibility/role can help. Again, work with the person to determine what he or she might be interested in doing.

• Perhaps this person would benefit from some individual explanation and modeling of what to do at particular moments in the church, outside of a liturgical time.

• Does the individual typically utilize a service or therapy dog? Service animals are allowed anywhere the individual is. And as much as possible, work with the person to allow them the support of therapy or emotional support animals.

Some final thoughts

You may need to suggest to the person and their family and other support folks, that the person come for a shorter period of time—even if it is just five minutes at first, and slowly build up the time he or she is present.

That being said: If the behavior puts the person at risk of harming themselves or engaging in inadvertent physical contact with those nearby, a creative solution involving physical placement and/or consulting with professionals trained in this area might be the best solution.

It is important to realize that the behavior won’t always change because sometimes it is outside the person’s control, but our approach and attitude toward it and the person can always be patient and pastorally loving.

(Erin Jeffries is coordinator of ministry to persons with special needs for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and can be reached at ejeffries@archindy.org or 317-236-1448. To learn more about resources in this area, check out www.archindy.org/specialneeds or www.archindy.org/deaf.)

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