Events, features and things to do for families in New Hampshire
By Pam McDonald
It is sad but true that prejudice is alive and well throughout the world. I’ve experienced it first hand in a place where I thought I would be free from any prejudice.
The story I would like to share is our surprising experience when we enrolled our 8½ year old autistic daughter, Olivia, in our church’s religious education program. I realized this was going to be a challenge for Olivia knowing that intangible concepts such as religion, faith, God, would be nearly incomprehensible for her, but my husband and I were willing to assist her and do whatever it took to ensure she was included in a very important aspect of our family’s life.
A year ago, I met with the Religious Education Director to explain Olivia’s challenges and to advise that I would attend Olivia’s class to provide her one-on-one support. The director seemed very open and welcoming.
There were no modifications to the program offered but I was willing to figure out the modifications Olivia needed on my own to make things work. We attended hour-long weekly classes with other first-graders from October to April. At the end of April, it was expected that each student could recite from memory five basic prayers. I dreaded this moment, thinking about how we were going to make this happen and I lost many a night’s sleep.
As we got closer to April and with only two prayers memorized, I decided to stop stressing out Olivia and me by deciding she and I would repeat the year to provide more time for Olivia to learn and memorize (and hopefully begin to understand) the “required” prayers.
Once I made that decision, the relief was immediate and welcome yet it really bothered me that the Religious Education Director and the church would make no modification or exception for Olivia’s disability. I felt the sting of prejudice from my church of all places, as I felt they pre-judged her as unable to meet First Communion requirements before making any effort or attempt to modify the curriculum or allow for her different way of learning.
I rejected this implied prejudice, more determined than ever that Olivia could meet the requirements with more time, patience and understanding yet there’s no denying that this experience hurt.
At the beginning of this religious education year, I decided to teach first-grade religion so that I could be with Olivia.
While I was preparing and teaching the class, I could develop some modifications for Olivia that might enable her to meet the no-exceptions, five prayer rules as well as get some benefit from this weekly class.
It was also my hope during this time to be able to help the Director better understand autism so that some of the barriers in the curriculum, as well as the prejudicial judgments made about Olivia and others like her might be softened and possibly eliminated.
It was during a conversation with a friend about how we could educate and share information with the director to get her to understand about autism that we thought sharing a movie about Temple Grandin would open her eyes heart to the abilities, differences and challenges that autistic people deal with.
Thankfully, the Director was very open to viewing this movie, although my friend and I weren’t so sure she would watch it.
A few days later during the weekly class the director stopped by to let me know she watched the movie. She thanked us for sharing the movie with her and expressed her amazement about the challenges our children deal with.
I was stunned when she said, “You are amazing parents.” This was a wonderful moment for me as I watched first-hand someone turning the corner from prejudgment to the early stages of understanding. The director has since researched and provided a First Communion book specifically written for children with autism for me and my friend to review and, if helpful, introduce into the curriculum for special needs students.
As much as it was a kick in the stomach last year to see and feel prejudice in my own church, it has been heartening to see this prejudice give way to understanding and acceptance this year. It is my hope this small beginning grows within my church and extends to our entire congregation.
Pam Macdonald resides in Bedford with her husband Pete and four children. She has recently graduated from the NH Leadership Series, class of 2012. She is the Chair for The Moore Center Family Support Council as well as the Chair for SPEDPAC of Bedford.