An international conference held this week at the Vatican is looking to bring “a message of hope and joy” to persons with autism and their families. “The Person with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Animating Hope” gathered an array of experts to look at autism from a variety of perspectives, from the psychological and familial, to the pastoral and religious. This “animation of hope,” said Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers in his opening remarks on Nov. 20 to the three day gathering, “is truly the message that the Church, in her concern for the sick and the suffering, wishes to bring to persons who fall within the autism spectrum and their families.” It is “a message of hope and joy amid the difficulties, the limits, the frustrations, to the sufferings brought about by these obstacles,” he said.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, manifesting within the first three years of life, which is characterized by impaired social interaction, as well as verbal and non-verbal communication.

Emphasizing the Holy Father's particular concern for the suffering and the sick, the archbishop said he offers the faithful a “very profound teaching about suffering, illness, welcoming the sick, the right Christian attitude toward those who suffer.” The conference, which has gathered participants from 57 countries, concluded Nov. 22 with an audience with Pope Francis. Co-founders of Autism Speaks, and grandparents of a child with autism, Bob and Suzanne Wright, are among the 650 participants taking part in the conference. In an interview with CNA, Bob stressed the importance of early detection of autism, ideally before two years of age. With early diagnosis, the child can receive the necessary occupational, behavioral, and speech therapy to improve the chances of their matriculation through school. Wright also spoke about the need to mobilize awareness in the community. “You have to go out and energize people in the community, inform politicians, elected officials, fire and police people,” to help them understand the signs and effects of autism, he said. In this way, it can be “treated as a difficult problem,” but not one which results in people with autism being shunned or ignored. CNA also spoke with Therese Prudlo, a wife and mother of three children, the second of whom has autism. “Having a child with autism is like having any other child,” she told CNA in a Nov. 21 phone interview: just “more intense.” Although 13 years old and taller than his mother, Eamon “still has all those childlike loves of wanting to be hugged, and cuddled, just like he’s little.” Despite the challenges, Therese said she felt blessed by his easy-going, happy personality. “He loves a good joke. He’s always ready to laugh at himself and at us.” “He definitely teaches me, probably in a more intense way than my other children do, those virtues that you need to cultivate as a mom: being hopeful, having faith that things will turn out okay, having the charity of love, learning patience.” In addressing the faith formation of a child with autism, Therese said the regularity inherent in the Catholic tradition is crucial. “For a person with autism, they love things that don’t change very often,” she said. “That regularity of being able to take Eamon to Mass, and teach him his prayers, just that little bit of constant repetition, he has learned that love for those things.” Therese said they have been fortunate to receive welcome and sensitivity when they bring Eamon to Mass, with some parishes even offering education options for children with autism. Although Eamon is not yet ready to receive Confirmation and First Communion, there are programs available to help him work toward receiving these Sacraments. “He loves the little booklets ... teaching him the Mass in that simple form that is very healing for autistic children.” There are those who might say children like Eamon should stay home from Mass, and never be taught their faith because they “will never understand.” “But he does understand,” Therese said. “He understands that we love to go (to Mass), and he understands that he feels comfortable going. And there’s a regularity to going … for a person with autism, (repetition) is exactly what they need. They find comfort in that repetition of our faith.”