Yes, I know that children with autism can receive the Eucharist, that doesn’t mean my daughter can…or should

But for the time being, my daughter is not one of them. Maybe someday she will be, but not right now.

There’s been a lively debate in the special needs community, particularly among Catholic parents, about the sacraments and their kids with special needs. Lately, several both Catholic and non-Catholic friends have shared this post about Catholic parents who created a special curriculum for their daughter with autism and others. I think what they are doing is wonderful, I applaud and commend it, but it’s still not enough for Shelby,

In the post, the father is quoted as saying:

David explained, “What the bishops ask is that if you are going to receive First Communion and you’re a person with a disability, you need to be able to understand and do two things. You need to recognize the difference between communion and ordinary food, and you need to be able to receive reverently.”

Anyone who has spent more than five minutes with Shelby know that, at this time, she is not able to understand those two things. The tool the couple used to help their daughter is light years ahead of where my daughter is still at age almost nine.

It’s not so much autism that is holding Shelby back as it is developmental delays and sensory processing disorder. I will tell you right now, the SPD is what worries me most, because that very easily could impede receiving reverently. When you have an extreme reaction to certain tastes and textures, the experience could be one that horrifies me to imagine. But the developmental delays mean Shelby is cognitively only about two years old. In the Western Church, we don’t allow two-year-olds to receive the Eucharist (the Eastern Church does things a bit differently in that respect), and despite her chronological age, Shelby does not have the appropriate understanding. Period.

There are those, however, who despite being well meaning, have insisted that Shelby is being discriminated against. Particularly in the special needs community, even with valid reasoning, when someone is denied something, anything there is a rallying cry of “discrimination!” It’s a product of our larger society but disability/special needs advocates, while wonderful and desperately needed, are sounding the wrong cry on this in many (although not all) cases.

In Shelby’s case, no such thing is true. Shelby is not being denied the Sacrament because of a technicality like not being able to recite the Lord’s Prayer despite being able to clearly demonstrate knowledge and the appropriate behavior to receive reverently. That would be, at it’s best, the clericalism Pope Francis is always talking about and very possibly could be discrimination. No, this is not discrimination. This is the careful discernment of a mother who’s spent time agonizing and is now at peace. It has nothing to do with her being non-verbal or even because she cannot write. In my heart of hearts, I know and understand that it is wrong for her to receive when she cannot distinguish what she is receiving and is not able to receive with the proper reverence due the true Body and Blood of our Savior. In his book, 7 Secrets of the Eucharist, author Vinny Flynn explains:

When I receive Communion properly, I am not merely receiving something into me; I am actively involved in the process, fully present to the One who is present within me, uniting my whole being with Him, and through Him entering into a uniquely personal encounter with the Father and th Holy Spirit as well…

Now Vinny is not referring to children with autism or individuals with special needs in this passage, he is referring to adults who lacksadaisicly come forth to receive each week while making mental check lists in their heads and barely uttering an “Amen.” But the idea still works for anyone not able to realize what they are receiving in the sacrament. Shelby falls into that category. It’s also why we don’t allow just anyone to receive at Communion. Protestants, for example, cannot receive the sacrament. (Catholic Answers has this explanation as to why.) Yes, Shelby was born with autism through no fault of her own, but that doesn’t entitle her to be excepted to the rules governing who can and cannot licitly receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Her having special needs doesn’t qualify her for special treatment. Especially in circumstances of salvation. God knows Shelby and her heart and it is not a punishment for her not to receive, at least not at this point in time.

I think it’s wonderful that many children who were once thought not able to receive have ways to learn and receive now, but this does not mean that every child now has those abilities. It also does not mean that anyone should or will get a free pass. My child will receive the sacrament if and when I can discern her ability to understand and receive reverently, and until that time, she will give God the best she can.