Are you a Catholic family raising kids with sensory needs? We are, too, and here are our best tips for getting the most out of Mass for everyone.
When you’re raising a child with sensory needs, it’s not unusual to feel like everything is a challenge. Nothing is spared it seems, not the clothes your child will wear, the events your family can attend, or the activities you might want to take part in. And while you pray that just this once, the socks won’t be an issue or the crowd won’t overwhelm, the logical part of you knows that it’s not that simple. Prayer gives you opportunities for grace and growth in the moment as you and your children sanctify one another. But as far as quality of life and comfort are concerned, helping a child with sensory concerns requires practice, patience, and a whole lot of preparation on your part.
Especially when you’re headed to Mass.
Of all the struggles I hear about from moms of sensory kids, Mass attendance is at the top of the list. The organ is loud. The incense is heavy. The pews are uncomfortable or the kneelers hard. Many Catholic moms of sensory kids live in the in-between, desperate to find ways to make Mass more comfortable for their children while silently questioning whether their standards should be higher. Mass becomes a battle on physical and emotional fronts.
Fortunately, though, Mass with sensory kids doesn’t have to be a struggle. There are a number of strategies sensory families can use to ease the transition into Mass and facilitate participation. Whether you’re raising a seeker, an avoider, or a child who switches back and forth depending on the situation or the day, the tips below are simple strategies you can use right away, with little preparation. Feel free to add more ideas in the comments if you have a few.
Mass Tips for Catholic Families Raising Sensory Kids
Try sitting in the front row
I know. The mere suggestion is terrifying because everybody’s going to see what’s happening in your pew. But on the plus side, the closer you are to the action, the easier it is for children to focus on what’s happening at the altar. There aren’t as many distractions when the rest of the faithful are behind you.
It’s okay to stay in the vestibule (or the cry room, or whatever your parish has that works)
You can introduce mainstream Mass attendance by degrees, increasing the amount of time you are in the church proper in varying increments. Or, if your kiddo is particularly sensitive one Sunday, remain there for all or most of Mass. You’re still there; you’re still getting the graces from being in the presence of Jesus. And the truth is, both of you might be able to pay closer attention because just as some sensory kids need to move in order to participate, you’ll be spending less time worrying about the behaviors being displayed.
Tips for Sensory Seekers
Get some physical activity in before Mass
I’ve always loved the quote from St. John Bosco: “Run, jump, play, but do not sin!” He may not have known the medical term for it, but I’m willing to bet Don Bosco understood the concepts behind proprioceptive input: your sensory seeker will be much more focused if she’s had time to integrate herself.
Don’t be afraid to use discrete fidgets
From small silicone pop-its to fidget jewelry, there are plenty of sensory-stimulating, non-disruptive items appropriate for Mass. I like these rosary and cross-shaped pop-its from The Other Mother Teresa (and yes, she’s having a sale!)
Use physical touch
My youngest is seven, but I still spend the majority of Mass with him in my lap. He does much better if he has my arms around him. He feels safer and more secure.
Wear sensory-pleasing clothing
My oldest is way too big to fit in my lap, but feels much more secure in Mass if she’s wearing a coat or a cardigan sweater. She likes to be able to pull it tight around herself. Some children benefit from weighted vests or even weighted blankets. Small weighted blankets can be draped around the shoulders and worn like a shawl.
Tips for Sensory Avoiders:
Stick to the stripped-down Masses
While Masses with incense and soaring organ music are incredibly beautiful, they can be super triggering for sensory avoiders. The early morning Mass at our parish has minimal music, no bells, and no incense. Call your parish office if you’re not sure about offerings at yours.
Bring noise-dampening headphones or earplugs
A reduction in both ambient and direct sound can make a huge difference for children who struggle with noise.
Bring pew pillows or kneeler cushions
If the pews are too hard or the kneelers hard on your avoider’s knees, bring in a small seat cushion or a gardening knee pad. Many elderly parishioners use them, and I guarantee no one will look at you or your family twice (and let’s face it – if they do, it’s their problem, not yours).
Mass doesn’t have to be a challenge for your sensory kids.
With a little prior planning and reliance on discrete, appropriate support strategies, you and your sensory kiddo won’t just survive Mass, you’ll enjoy it – and receive God’s graces tenfold.
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L J says
About 99% of the attendees in my Catholic church do not wear masks. Neither does the priest, deacons, altar assistants or other church assistants. I find this appalling. Covid and its variants are still in our communities. Is it accepted and counted as religious mass attendance if the mass is viewed from the vestibule? The mass can still be seen and heard, but it is separate from the pews. I have co-morbidities and woud become really sick or die if I became infected from the masses of people in the church main breathing and singing withour any face protection.
Thank you for your assistance in my quandry and deep concern.
Ginny Kochis says
I think it is fine for you to stay out in the vestibule. The important part is that you are there.