Even young children without autism have embraced their faith using these visual cards.
After her son’s speech therapist created a visual language system to help her son (who is functionally non-verbal and on the autism spectrum) navigate services at their Greek Orthodox church, Summer Kinard had an idea.
The mother of five — four of whom are on the autism spectrum — realized these same visual cues could benefit other children with autism, even if they were verbal.
“My daughter with autism can talk, but she doesn’t have a sense of time,” Kinard says. “She would ask me what was about to happen in the church service upwards of 70 times.”
But, Kinard says: “I realized that I could use the symbolic language of our faith to customize a visual schedule for the church service. When we brought the schedule to church for the first time, suddenly all five of our children, as well as several of their little friends, could follow the service better. My daughter was able to be involved without anxiety about what would happen next. It was an amazing transformation. We were able to start taking our children to church without having to hire a therapy assistant to calm them down.”
Seeing the success of the visual schedules in their own church, Kinard reached out to her sister, a Catholic director of religious education at a large parish, to develop a schedule to help children at Mass — and a way to help Catholic kids on the autism spectrum was born.
The visual schedule uses block pictures and check-off boxes to show “children or adults with special needs what they can do when they arrive at church, all the way through the Mass,” Kinard says. It also offers “options for their usual pattern afterwards (lighting a candle or going to Sunday school).”
“Though the schedule is not a strict order of service, it follows the order of the Mass very closely,” Kinard says. “The goal is to help the person using it to identify transitions and social cues so they can participate without anxiety. Because many persons with developmental, cognitive, or learning disabilities also understand images better than speech, the schedule gives visual cues to understanding some of the meaning of what’s happening. You can put a check mark or sticker in the box next to the image on the schedule as you arrive at or complete it.”
Kindard offers the visual schedules as free downloads on her site. Since that time, the success has been overwhelming. According to Kinard, both “the Orthodox Liturgy and Catholic Mass visual schedules have been downloaded thousands of times and shared hundreds of times online.”
Kindard hears from many parents and special educators at churches who tell her how much these materials have helped their children participate in worship services. Her hope is that more families, churches, and faith traditions embrace these cards, because she’s seen it be a powerful way for kids to embrace their faith.
“That steady and reliable grace of God is at the heart of the Mass and the Liturgy, and it’s the basis for inviting children of all ability levels into life with God,” Kinard says. The schedules recognize, like stained glass windows, holy statuary, and holy icons, that God reaches out to us and engages us lovingly through the world we can see. What we see, like what we cannot see, is made by God and is filled with God’s presence. I don’t think the visual schedules make sense apart from that understanding. Every part of that schedule, like every part of life, is a meeting place between God and humans.”
Aside from the free downloads, Kinard also offers full-color, heavy-duty laminate schedules at her Awetism Etsy shop. She’s happy to work with families or dioceses for single or bulk orders. The proceeds from her Etsy shop help cover the expenses of her children’s occupational and speech therapies.