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Special Needs Faith Formation the Focus of Workshop

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Approximately 70 catechists and Catholic school teachers attended a day-long workshop on Monday, May 21, 2012, for those involved in faith formation for children with special needs. The workshop featured Dr. Madonna Wojtaszek-Healy, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology and has taught at the college level and also in Catholic elementary school. Her own children have A.D.H.D. and Asperger’s Syndrome, and she has become an advocate for children with these conditions and their families.

Presentations during the day covered Attention Deficit Disorder for catechists, Discipline in the Religion Classroom, and the symptom of Asperger’s Syndrome and other Learning Disabilities, along with suggestions for teaching, nurturing and compassionately accommodating children with those special needs.

The workshop was part of an effort by the Diocese of Raleigh to find ways of reaching out to God’s children who have special needs for faith formation. A ministry committee addressing Special Needs Catechesis is coordinated by Mary DiSano, under the direction of Sister Rose Marie Adams, IHM, through the Diocesan Office of Catechesis and Faith Formation. Assistant Superintendent of Catholic Schools Mrs. Rosalie Innacelli is also a member of the committee, which is gathering information and resources to assist parish Directors of Religious Education in teaching special needs children.

“The goal of the Diocesan Special Needs Committee,” according to Mary DiSano, “is to increase awareness that will encourage families to come forward with their special needs children who desire faith formation and to equip parish leaders with the tools they need to provide faith formation and sacramental preparation for these children.”

Dr. Healy grounded her presentation in Catholic teaching on social justice and then spoke about the misperception that often confronts children with certain learning disabilities. “When we have people with physical disabilities, we make structural changes to accommodate them,” she said. “But if a child looks ‘normal,’ his or her behavior can be misconstrued as willful disobedience.”

In her booklet, "The ABC’s of ADD for Catechists," Dr. Healy urges compassion. “For many,” she writes, “their last hope of finding welcome and acceptance is the Church. Any person who represents the institutional Church has the ability to affect the relationship which this child’s family will have with the parish community.”

Like Dr. Healy, a significant number of those in attendance had discovered special needs when their own children were diagnosed. Angela Nickerson, a catechist from Immaculate Conception Parish in Wilmington, said that only when her son was diagnosed did she realize that some of the children she had taught years before, and thought of as “spacey” or difficult, probably had Attention Deficit Disorder. “These children are so misunderstood,” she said. “They get the label of ‘bad kid,’ but they’re not bad kids. I recognize now that there are better approaches to teaching these children.”

Mrs. DiSano noted that “special needs” covers a wide spectrum of learning difficulties, from mild Attention Deficit Disorder or mild autism to severe learning disabilities requiring very specialized instruction. “While we can’t as yet address all these needs,” she said, “we want to give parishes the resources to help as many children as possible, and also to raise awareness among those with special-needs children, as well as the rest of those in the parish, that this perhaps distracting youngster is a child of God who is a member of our Church. We want him or her to understand the teachings of our faith as far as their abilities permit, and for them to have access to the sacraments.”