For people like Sam Honeycutt and Kasen Goodwin, who both have autism, being welcomed into a Catholic community by receiving the sacraments and staying active in parish life is a chance to encounter the love of God.
“He has to work so hard to fit into a world that doesn’t understand him sometimes,” said Mary Jo Honeycutt of her 25-year-old son Sam who has moderate autism and epilepsy. “God made him the way he is. He is the exact perfect creation he intended. He would not leave him behind or leave him out of being a part of the body of Christ.”
There are many types of autism, also called autism spectrum disorder, referring to “a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences,” according to Autismspeaks.org.
Mary Jo and her husband Marvin and their four children joined the Catholic Church in 2004 at Christ the King Church in Fort Smith.
The family previously attended a local Baptist church and Marvin Honeycutt served as a deacon. A series of events led the family to start questioning the teachings and when Sam was around 8 years old, the family was concerned that he was not baptized yet. In the Baptist tradition, those are baptized must be at the “age of reason,” to understand right and wrong, have a conversion experience and make a verbal profession of their faith. His mother said Sam is “verbal, but not what you’d call conversational.”
“He was not able to verbalize a profession of faith in a way that they required,” his mother said. Even after more than a year of classes, not tailored to fit his needs, he could not make a profession of faith.
During Baptist services “when the preacher would get wound up, (he felt) it was all personally directed at him. So he almost felt like he was being yelled at every time … He wasn’t going to get a conversion experience out of it.”
“They would not baptize him … Twice we asked to have him baptized and no,” Honeycutt said.
The family began attending RCIA and PRE classes at Christ the King.
“One of the first things we talked to the priest about was, ‘OK we believe baptism is necessary.’ And he was like, ‘Why on earth wouldn’t he be baptized? This is a grace, why would you withhold this from him?’” she said. “… It was just a totally different perspective.”
Even after his baptism and first Communion, Vietnamese Sister Therese Nguyen, OP, formerly in Fort Smith, would take him out of Sunday school classes to work one-on-one.
“She taught him about the sacraments, how to go about doing stuff. Basically everything from how to go to Mass, how to receive Communion, what the different things in the church were and she did that for years,” and he still knows the Mass better than most, Honeycutt said.
“It was just not so much relief, but just acceptance for him,” Honeycutt said of joining the Church. “He has to fight for so much; he shouldn’t have to fight for something that’s freely given.”
Kasen Goodwin, 22, one of six children to Mark and Mary Adams, works as a linen technician at Christus St. Michael Health System in Texarkana and volunteers in other departments when needed. A member of St. Edward Church, he does not let Asperger’s, a form of autism, prevent him from serving.
“Doing these things makes me feel happy and proud, and I feel like the more I am around other people doing other things at church, like ushering, serving as an assistant catechist or participating with the Knights (of Columbus), it makes other people realize they don’t have to treat me different, sometimes they just need to have more patience when it takes me longer to do a task or if I do it differently than you thought I should,” Goodwin said with the help of his mother in an email. “For a long time I didn’t want to do things unless my mom or another family member was with me but getting involved in these other activities and learning that other people accepted me has helped me to become more independent.”
Mary Adams said her son is a good listener, has a great memory and is quick-witted.
“He is direct and honest; things to him are black or white. There is no gray and some people have an issue with that. I know I’ve gotten upset with him at times and then thought to myself, he is telling the truth, why am I getting upset?” Adams said. “He has always just had an openness to wanting to help others, he is very giving and he just beams when he has the opportunity to help someone. Whether serving at our church Outreach (Center) or leading therapeutic horses so children with disabilities can enjoy something positive, it just makes him happy.”
Goodwin said he is not defined by his disabilities.
“I really don’t know what all my disabilities are; I am just me,” he said.
For Catholic resources regarding autism, visit ncpd.org/ministries-programs/specific/autism.
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