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Debbie Frey’s son Dallas uses headphones to help deal with his sensory processing disorder.Photo courtesy Debbie Frey

It was when she and her husband were leaving a movie theatre that Debbie Frey first came across the concept of a sensory-friendly zone.

They were walking out of one theatre at a multiplex when they came upon a sign that offered a movie-going experience that was not too taxing on the senses: the theatre would not be as dark as most, the sound would be at a lower level and children would be allowed to move around the room rather than be glued to their seats.

“Where was that when (her son) Dallas was three?” Frey asked her husband.

Dallas, now 10, has been a challenge for the Freys as he has been diagnosed with sensory-processing disorder, a condition in which the brain has trouble responding to information that comes in through the senses. There are studies that suggest as many as one in six children experience sensory symptoms significant enough to affect functioning in everyday life (the Sensory Processing Disorder Scientific Work Group, 2009).

Seeing the movie theatre poster got the Freys to thinking as they drove home. As a youth minister at her parish, Mary Mother of God in Oakville, Ont., Frey thought it would be a great idea if there could be a Mass formatted for children like her son. She soon found that a number of American parishes, particularly in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, had been running Masses for children with sensory sensitivities.

So if some American parishes were catering to kids like Dallas, theatres as well, why couldn’t Mary Mother of God? After all, it fell in line with work a committee at the parish was already doing.

“We had been evaluating a lot of our youth events and making them more accessible for kids with special needs,” said Frey, and they were having some success, “but we obviously want to be able to receive them well and have them get the maximum benefit.”

So the parish will start offering on a monthly basis a sensory-friendly Mass, beginning Nov. 10 at 3 p.m., catering to people with a variety of sensory issues, including autism, Down syndrome and ADHD. Congregants are encouraged to bring whatever helps them with their sensory sensitivities, such as noise-cancelling headphones, sunglasses, blankets or comfort toys. Lower lights, softer music, shorter homilies and the freedom to roam will be some of noticeable differences from an ordinary Mass.

 The pilot project is to run until June and the parish will evaluate it along the way.

“We’re taking it and trying to meet each family’s individual needs as they appear,” said Frey.

Noelle Collis-DeVito is associate director of the Cincinnati archdiocese’s Office for Respect Life Ministry and has been a valued sounding board for Frey as she sought to launch the special Mass. Frey was amazed at how far the Cincinnati archdiocese had taken the concept. About 10 parishes offer such a Mass.

“It’s kind of interesting to see all the different parishes and how they’re all making it their own,” said Frey.

In a video posted to the Cincinnati archdiocese’s Facebook page, Collis-DeVito enthusiastically spreads the word about the sensory-friendly Masses. She explains how the Mass is held in a less stimulating environment and that it uses the children’s lectionary to make the Bible more literal. But the most important aspect, she stresses, is getting the people in the pews.

“We want you there in the pew and that there isn’t any stigma,” said Collis-DeVito. “We just want you there. Without you the Body of Christ is not whole and we need you to be part of that body. We can’t be whole without you there.”

The Freys have gone through the issues of a child who is triggered by the sights and sounds that can overwhelm a child with sensory sensitivities, as well as the looks from disapproving parishioners bothered by an agitated child. She’s hoping that will be solved by the new Mass where these children can roam around and not be constrained by the norms of the regular Mass.

“It’s understood that this is what’s going to happen and the people that attend and the presider are able to accommodate that,” said Frey.

The response so far has been overwhelming, she said. Pastor Fr. Isaac Tharayil was welcoming from the start, and a single post on Facebook has already reached more than 8,000 people and been shared by the Halton Autism Society and the Halton FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder). She’s heard from parents from as far away as Brampton and Cambridge who wish to attend the Mass, including Charelle Jollymore, who will be making the trek from Brampton with her seven-year-old daughter with autism.

Like the Freys, Jollymore has experienced the challenges of sitting through the entire Mass and a child who experiences sensory overload and the extreme emotions and even out-of-control tantrums that accompany this. She sees this Mass as a “huge positive step in the Catholic community.”

“I’m grateful that this parish is offering this opportunity as I feel it will benefit in helping us adjust and get a few steps closer to more progress in attending regular Sunday Mass,” said Jollymore. “It makes things feel a lot less stressful being able to attend (sensory-friendly) Masses knowing that those there completely understand, can relate and are helping to make the surroundings more welcoming for those who face challenges. It makes you feel truly welcomed and accepted.”

“We’re seeing fruits and we’re seeing graces already,” said Frey. “Doors are opening pretty naturally.”

Source: Mass … the sensory-friendly way