I first began to wonder if something could be wrong when John did not develop speech like other children his age. The doctor tested his hearing and found nothing wrong; then our physician suggested that John be tested for autism. Neither Joe nor I knew anything about this disorder, which effects communication and socialization, so we began reading about it. John showed all the classic signs: speech delays, abnormal responses to sensations, ritualistic routines. From there we learned how to raise and love our son with a developmental disability that will last his lifetime. We discovered that John was a visual learner and possesses an incredible memory.
With the daily struggle of maintaining a consistent lifestyle for John, we neglected attending church on a regular basis. John reacted negatively to noise and large spaces, and I couldn't imagine him making it through a service without creating a scene. We had previously attended a large Lutheran church, but John would not step into the huge sanctuary without screaming. Not going to church seemed the easiest way to handle the situation. However, we realized that our daughter, Rachel, who was nineteen months younger than John, needed to be involved in church life.
About that time, Joe's father died of cancer, which sparked Joe to search for his faith and return to his Catholic roots. He began reading the Bible and books on Catholicism, and finally went to visit a priest.
"Let me recommend St. Raphael's. It is a wonderful parish. Don't be afraid to bring your son there to church. People realize that we all have special needs. You need to be at Mass as well as anyone else, including your son," the priest told my husband. At first, only my husband attended, but as time went on, I began reading the books that Joe had collected. "Honey, why don't we attend church as a family?" My husband suggested. "I know it may be hard for John, but the atmosphere there is very pleasant. If we make it a routine, I think he will get used to it."
"I'm willing to try it," I agreed, but the thought of it terrified me. "How would I handle John if he screamed during a quiet moment?" I wondered. When Sunday arrived, I was sweating before we even left for church. As we entered through the main door into the cross-shaped sanctuary, I steered the family into the very back row. So far, there was no adverse reaction from John. I felt perspiration trickling down the back of my neck, but as each portion of the Mass passed I relaxed just a little. John had not made a single loud noise. At the end of Mass when the priest announced, "Go in peace!" I did just that. We were elated that John had not been upset by the new situation.
"Maybe it was just a fluke," I said to Joe on the way home. "Do you think?" "I don't know," he responded, "but we can try it again next week and find out for sure!"
The next Sunday I entered the sanctuary with a bit less apprehension, and again John came through with flying colors. We continued to attend Mass there and soon decided to join the parish. When Joe went to the parish office to officially sign up, he found out that the church had classes for people with special needs.
"We have an autistic son. Do you have classes for him?" he asked.
"We do. I'll have the woman in charge contact you right away," said the church secretary with a smile.
That very week our son began classes at church. Our spiritual life blossomed in the next few years. Watching the religious education coordinator work so tirelessly with John to prepare him for First Holy Communion was a blessing beyond words.
Since John has many aversions to foods due to its taste or texture, we wondered how he would react to receiving the Lord in the Eucharist. His teacher spent many hours teaching him that the host is something special, something of God, something that is God. John practiced receiving the Lord with unconsecrated bread so he could understand what he would physically taste on that special day.
In December of 2001, we headed for church for the occasion of John's First Holy Communion. I recalled how nervous I had been the first time I had ever entered that sanctuary, and now, amazingly, John was going to receive our Lord in Holy Communion. Our joy far out-distanced our anxiety as our priest acknowledged John during the prayers of the faithful. Then surrounded by family, John walked to the front of the sanctuary and received Jesus for the first time. As Joe and I looked on with indescribable gratitude to God, tears welled up in our eyes.
Now our family sits happily in the front of the church each week. We all have a special need to be with God, and we are grateful to be together for Mass. We find John frequently staring peacefully at the altar during the consecration. It makes us wonder whether he sees something that we don't.