Going to church may be difficult for persons with autism and their families. The sounds, lighting, crowds and expectations socially are overwhelming without support. People with autism may have problems making eye contact, delayed speech and language skills, obsessive interests, repetitive behaviors like spinning, flapping and rocking, problem with changes and transitions, and uncommon reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, feel or look.
Thanks to Drew Newberry, St. Bernadette Parish in Orchard Park has a way to accommodate people with autism. Drew has autism, as do his three siblings. His younger years at church were very difficult for him. When he made his confirmation last year, he asked if he could redo our sensory room as his Eagle Scout project to offer children with autism ways to be more comfortable at Mass. Thus, his journey began with researching ideas online, drawing up his plans and then soliciting assistance in funding his project. It was a gift he wanted to give back to his parish, so he raised chickens to collect $500 from the sale of the eggs. He went to stores to feel fabrics, select manipulatives (latches, zippers, switches, paint brushes) and various textured items. Home Depot and AC Moore offered discounts on his purchases. Rucker Lumber donated the magnetic paint.
Drew's fellow scouts and his parents assisted in painting the room a soft blue color and a corner of magnetic paint. Drew selected round wooden boards to adhere items to for easier placement on the walls. Jesus and his companions magnets were added to the board. Coat hooks have various pieces of ribbon and material for people to twirl.
The room has one short pew and two rocking chairs as this motion aids in calming. Another family that has a daughter with autism asked for a kneeler in the room so they could use the room to prepare her for the rhythm of Mass and to help her with this gesture. The room also has a control to adjust the volume of the Mass.
The room was completed for the parish Inclusive Easter Mass. Two boys with autism went to confession before Mass and quietly knelt on the kneeler to pray afterwards. Drew and his mom, Deanie, spoke about the sensory room at Mass.
The room was blessed by Father Paul Seil, pastor of St. Bernadette's, on Saturday, June 15 after the 6 p.m. Mass. The parish will host their eighth annual potluck Around the World picnic on Saturday, Aug. 3 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Come and check out the sensory room, too.