There is something really special going on in our midst, something that might easier happen in a small church than in a larger one. This is the confirmation class for Walter Boyles.
Walter is an autistic child on the low functioning side of the spectrum. He is almost non-verbal and has a number of mannerisms. He also has a warm smile, a deep sense of belonging to our church, great parents, and quite a network of supporters within our church family. Now he has reached confirmation age.
But what does one teach a young person in Walterâ€™s condition? There are no special needs confirmation class curriculums for Walterâ€™s level. Walterâ€™s mother, Sandy, and I knew only one thing: We would not want to pursue Walterâ€™s confirmation just for the sake of the ritual.
The Elders of the church supported us in this. Early on, they expressed concern that the curriculum for Walter would not just establish requirements for Walter to pass. This would contradict our understanding of Godâ€™s grace. Instead, the Board of Elders wished for a curriculum that focused on Walterâ€™s potential for learning and growth in the faith.
Back in 2005, this sounded well intended but also very ambitious. However, before we knew it, we received help from two great sources.
The library of the Boggs Center at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey provided sample curriculums for higher functioning children. Rev. Bill Gaventa, the leader of the Boggs Center, helped us compile a list of learning goals and objectives. This was then reviewed by a member of our church, Heather Epstein, and her husband, Dan. Both are special education teachers and fluent in a teaching approach called Discrete Trial. Finally, Heather and Dan translated the curriculum into the language of Discrete Trial.
Thanks to their work, we soon had four lessons divided in numerous sessions, all compiled in a thick three-ring binder with spreadsheets. Each session contains learning tasks broken down into sequences of ten trials each. The outcome of each trial is recorded onÂ a spreadsheet. This makes success measurable.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Walter has made tremendous progress in these sessions. Since May, 2007, he has learned the following:
1.Â To go alone from Fellowship Hall to the sanctuary when prompted.
2.Â To recognize the cross as a special object.
3.Â To distinguish our pew Bibles from other books.
4.Â To recognize us pastors.
5.Â To sing the Gloria Patri together with others.
One of the most exciting features of Walterâ€™s confirmation class is the involvement of other church members. Some have served as distracters to help Walter distinguish between a pastor and a layperson. Our seminary professors, John Coakley and David Waanders, have served in addition to Susan and me as robed pastors during our sessions. This has helped Walter realize that there are many pastors. Other church members have helped teaching a particular trial session or filling in the spreadsheets.
We teach twice a week, Friday evenings at our home in Jamesburg, and Sunday mornings before church. Come spring, we will celebrate Walterâ€™s confirmation. By that time, it will be a feast for our entire church family because so many of us have taken part in these classes. What a powerful manifestation of Godâ€™s love this is.
Thank you, First Church!