If you notice homes or public buildings illuminated by blue lights tonight or tomorrow, they are taking part in Light it Up Blue, the second annual Autism Awareness Day.  More than 500 buildings around the world will display blue lights, including the Empire State Building, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Sydney Opera House in Australia.  We need to know about autism.  A staggering 1 in 110 American children are affected by it; in boys, the figure is 1 in 70.

Social media has been largely responsible for my own awareness of autism, through the Facebook postings of my cousin, especially blogs that she shares by mothers of children with autism.  My particular favorite is called “My Life as an Ungraceful, Unhinged and Unwilling Draftee into the Autism Army.” The title alone sums up the passion, grief, humor, and determination that seem to characterize many autism moms.  Their children’s needs eliciting a strong warrior response, they channel that energy into lobbying for insurance coverage, research funds, and educational and support services.  On a more profound level, they insist on acceptance and welcome for their children as persons.

Are you aware that church settings are challenging for people with autism and their families?  Religious services can be difficult because of autism’s effects on the way a person experiences the world, making communication and social interaction difficult.   Additionally, some people with autism have problems processing sensory information, such as sounds, smells, tastes, etc.  Even their sense of movement and position can be affected.  As a result, stimuli considered normal by many people may seem painful or scary to a person with this condition, leading to outbursts or other behavior perceived as disruptive by other people or embarrass parents even if other people are accepting.

New approaches to worship and catechesis are being developed and implemented.  A Lutheran congregation in the Pittsburgh area holds a monthly 15-minute service called Joyful Noise that is suited for families in which a member has autism.  Increasingly, individualized approaches to religious education and sacramental preparation are being developed in many places; one creative program pairs teen mentors with a young child.

This is just the beginning of Autism Awareness Month, so here are a few resources to learn more:

http://www.nafim.org – I am glad to learn that there is a Catholic organization called the National Apostolate for Inclusion Ministry that provides many helpful resources.

http://www.autismspeaks.org – Largest autism advocacy and research organization in North America and the sponsor of Light it Up Blue.

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10143/1060194-114.stm — Article about innovative church-related programs in the Pittsburgh area across faith traditions (in which my cousin Ellen Cicconi is quoted!)

http://www.episcopalchurch.org/79425_125946_ENG_HTM.htm — Article about several Episcopal initiatives in New Jersey.

Photo by CurlysGirly via Flickr under Creative Commons license