Sunday, March 22, 2009

Texas women's group creates DVD about autism, worship

From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

EULESS, Texas — Maria Kerbow’s young son, Gregory, (pictured) was talking during the service at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church a few years ago.

"A man started shushing him," said Kerbow, of Benbrook. "Gregory was actually being pretty good, but babbling a little bit. Then the man started lecturing me about parenting. "I said, 'I’m sorry. My son is autistic.’ "

In recent years, people have become more educated about autism and its accompanying communication, behavioral and social problems.

But sensitivity and education are especially crucial in places of worship, said Carolyn Garver, clinical director of the Autism Treatment Center in Dallas.

With that in mind, St. John the Baptist Philoptochos, a women’s philanthropic group at the Euless church, has produced a documentary about the challenges of families seeking to instill spirituality in their autistic children’s lives. The women hope to inspire faith communities to support families in the difficult task of parenting children who are different, said Kerbow, who suggested the project.

The result is Angels and Autism: Finding Faith for the Autistic Child.

The 18-minute DVD, produced with the help of professional videographers and editors, features health experts and families of autistic children from Fort Worth, Plano, Euless and Frisco.

"What is God’s plan for the children? What is God’s plan for us with them?" asks the Rev. Gregory Hohnholt, who is interviewed in the film. The former priest at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas is the father of twin 6-year-old boys, Stephen and Thomas. Thomas has autism.

"Sometimes when you have a special-needs child, you find attending church and having a spiritual life pretty daunting," said Hohnholt, who now serves at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Nashville. "I want to encourage parents and churches that you can do it, and that a child with autism can flourish."

Finding the way can be difficult.

"You can’t just throw a child in church and expect their spiritual needs to be met right away," said psychologist Margaret Dempsey, director of psychology at the Child Study Center in Fort Worth.

"I’d never speak to knowing about the inner world of the autistic child," she said.

"But I do a lot of the testing to make that diagnosis. What I find is that because the children don’t always act in typical manner but often look on the outside as if there’s nothing wrong, there’s a lot of judgment the family feels."

Garver said that worshippers may see a child and think they are "acting out."

"They may be rocking, and some people might think that’s weird.  . . .  There might be tantrums and repetitious behavior, even self-injury. They may just blurt something out or run around."

Gregory, now 12, "just gets more excited," Kerbow said. "He has to run around and check everything out."

Around crowds, "there’s just kind of sound overload," she said. "Putting his hands over his ears is his first reaction not just to noise, but whatever’s new. That’s his defense mechanism."

While visitors or newcomers to St. John the Baptist might be startled by Gregory’s behavior, regulars at the small church, attended by about 100 families, have known the Kerbows for years and are accepting and loving of them, Maria Kerbow said.

Because many autistic people have trouble in a new setting, families might consider a trial run to help children become familiarized, perhaps bringing them to a church or synagogue on a weekday, when few people are there, Garver said.

During a service, "if a child has something they really like or are interested in, like a crayon or book, a Disney figure, they could take it along," she said.

Priests or rabbis might even offer a sermon to make congregants aware, Garver said.
"Church should be a soft place for families to fall, but that doesn’t always happen," Dempsey said.

For Kerbow: "It’s very important for me to go to church, because I need that uplifting, that prayerful moment to say, 'Please. I need patience.’ And not just because of Gregory, but for myself."

Kerbow said that in helping Gregory adjust to church, "we’d do small chunks of time. At first, he did 10 or 15 minutes; now, he’s sat almost an hour." He usually draws or colors with his crayons during church.

Hohnholt said he believes that the chanting, icons and incense in the Greek Orthodox churches he has pastored have touched a chord with his son Thomas.

"God gave us our senses, five means of edifying the soul," he said.

"Many people in the early church couldn’t read and didn’t have books available, back before the printing press," he said. "Many people with autism are very visual, and in icons, there’s the life of the Lord laid out for them."

When the church empties, Gregory sometimes goes back for a last look, his mother said.

"God is an abstract. Autism is concrete," she said. "But something clicks with him. That’s where faith comes in. I don’t know how much he understands, but he’s getting something. I have to believe that."