Immaculate Conception Parish, Sheboygan, held a sensory-friendly Mass on Oct. 29 for people with sensory-processing issues. The next will be at noon Dec. 10. (Submitted photo)

Too often, when it comes to worship accommodations and religious education, Catholics who have special needs are left out in the cold.

Christine Immel knows that too well. Like so many others who minister in the fields of faith formation and sacramental preparation, Immel, Co-Director of Christian Formation at Sheboygan Southside Catholic Parishes, is encountering more and more individuals and families who don’t fit into a neurotypical box.

One family that she worked with whose son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder frequently excused themselves from the congregation at Mass because their child was being vocal. Autistic people often need to use vocalizations to cope with a sensory environment that feels overwhelming to them.

“The family felt so uncomfortable they would even take him out in the parking lot when it was cold outside,” said Immel. Despite the congregation being supportive and understanding, the family still felt ill at ease, she said. “They felt disruptive, even in the gathering space.”

But the Great Commission is to make disciples of all nations — not just those who can stay quiet in Mass. So how can the Church make it easier to worship and to access the sacraments for families with ASD diagnoses and members who have sensory-processing issues?

Following months of soliciting parishioner input, study and training, the Sheboygan Southside Catholic Parishes are starting to address that question by offering sensory-friendly Masses.

These Masses, which will be offered quarterly, feature dimmer lighting, softer music, adapted homilies and visual aids. But the “sensory-friendly” designation comes from more than a simple adaptation of the church’s physical environment. They signal a concerted effort on the part of the parishes to embrace each and every member of the Body of Christ, exactly as he or she was crafted by the Creator.

“We don’t want to just be inclusive,” said Immel. Rather, the goal of the Masses is to ensure that everyone who is attending feels they have the ability to participate in the worship fully.

“Looking around the worship space, I was surprised by how many of my fellow parishioners had signed up to help and were part of it,” said Anthony Van Asten, an Immaculate Conception parishioner who, along with his wife Adria, an occupational therapist who often works with ASD students, helped to plan the Masses. “It was a beautiful feeling, just knowing this was a warm and welcoming space.”

Attendees at the inaugural sensory-friendly Mass on Oct. 29 were encouraged to roam about or to vocalize as necessary during the Mass, with an alternative worship space (featuring a window into the main worship space) available for those who desired it. The parish also created “social stories” to help worshippers orient themselves within the liturgy. Social stories are a visual aid and learning tool utilized by autistic people to engage more effectively with social situations.

Fr. Paul Fliss, Pastor of Sheboygan Southside Catholic Parishes, presided at the Mass and said he “thoroughly enjoyed it.”

“I am so happy we have been able to start this wonderful new ministry and opportunity for a growing number of families within our communities,” he said.

One in 36 children in the United States has been identified with autism spectrum disorder by a healthcare or educational service provider, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control earlier this year. Those figures — collected and reported by the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, which provides estimates of the prevalence of ASD among 8-year-old children — have been steadily climbing in the last few decades, as awareness surrounding ASD continues to grow.

It’s a public health reality that parents and educators are learning to recognize.

“If we truly believe that we’re each made in the image and likeness of God, then I think that every person we meet, we have to actively search for what part of God’s face is being reflected in this person, and that includes, certainly, people with special needs,” said Anthony Van Asten. “As Christians, as Catholics, we have an obligation to make our worship practices open and inviting to all people.”

Plans for Sheboygan’s sensory-friendly Masses have been developing over the past year. In December 2022, Immel and a parishioner were discussing the obstacles faced by autistic Catholics and their families and families with other special needs when it comes to worship and sacramental preparation.

The parishioner, whose godchild had recently been diagnosed with ASD, offered to donate a substantial amount of money to enable the Southside Catholic Parishes to address the issue in some way.

A committee of staff members, parishioners, educators and therapists was formed in January. Their first order of business was to solicit the experiences and feedback from special-needs families in the parish communities. Foremost among the desires voiced by the families was a Mass that would accommodate the unique needs of their children and an opportunity to build community among other families with similar experiences.

“I sent the meeting minutes to Fr. Paul because he wasn’t able to be at the meeting, and he responded immediately — ‘Yes, to all of these proposals. Let’s do this,’” said Immel.

To prepare for offering the sensory-friendly Mass, the team underwent online training through the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.

“They provided everything from the online promotional materials to the printable materials, the brochures. They also trained us on how to be welcoming, what the liturgy should look like, and things to consider and how to train your liturgical ministers,” said Immel.

The next sensory-friendly Mass will take place at Immaculate Conception Parish (1305 Humboldt Ave., Sheboygan) at noon Sunday, Dec. 10, and will continue to be offered four times per year. Upcoming Masses are scheduled for Feb. 25 and June 30.

Attendees are encouraged to come as they are — move around if needed, and make use of the alternative seating, noise-canceling headphones, fidget devices and accommodations provided by the parish. The Mass is not only for those who are neurodivergent, have ASD or sensory sensitivities — everyone is welcome, said Immel.

“I would love to have people come and just check it out,” she said.