Q: I have a son with autism. Many people with autism are concrete thinkers who can't understand abstract concepts (things they can't feel, see, touch or experience directly). How do I explain God and heaven to my son? What happens to people with disabilities who don't believe in God simply because they're unable to understand? - S.
A: Recently, I answered a question about offering communion to Alzheimer's patients. People with Alzeheimer's don't understand some things, but my advice, confirmed by Catholic teaching, was that they know more than we imagine. What is true about them is also true about your son.
On the surface, your son has a mental disorder, but deep down there is a spiritual need and, I believe, a spiritual understanding. The challenge you face is finding a way into the soul of your son.
My approach and my advice is focus on feelings, not abstract ideas. On a sunny day, smile at him and then say God is smiling on us today by making the flowers grow. God loves him and loves the flowers and loves all people. The feeling of being loved is a bridge to God that may reach him.
My other suggestion is to pray in front of your son. Particularly try to pray prayers of thanks. Saying, "Thank you, God, for this apple." is a way of connecting what we eat with what we receive. Saying, "Thank you, God" for many things helps build the idea that everything in our life is a gift. Finally, try to bless your son at night before he goes to sleep. If he will allow it, touch his head with your hand and kiss his head before you tuck him in.
And for you, let me urge you to end your day with a prayer of thankfulness to God for your special son.
There's an interpretation of Exodus that teaches that Moses not only put the tablets of the law that he received on Mount Sinai into the ark of the covenant, but also was commanded by God to add the broken pieces of the first tablets that he broke in anger after seeing the people worshipping a golden calf. I love that idea. The broken and the whole were together in the same ark.
So, too, we are all in the embrace of a loving God. Those of us who are mostly whole and those of us who are slightly broken are all together in the same ark. The image of God is upon all of us. Your son is very lucky to have such a loving and spiritually sensitive father. God bless you both.
Note from Rabbi Gellman: Your responses to my column about Alzheimer's patients receiving communion have moved me deeply. Here's an example:
M., of Massapequa Park, N.Y., wrote:
"My grandfather was in the hospital at 93, dying of old age and Alzheimer's. I used to go every night after work to see him and visit until the nurses asked me to leave, or I fell asleep. When I would arrive, my grandfather didn't recognize me. He kept calling me his childhood sweetheart, Georgianna. Every night, I would pray the rosary with him. My grandfather would pray along with me. He would try and hold his finger as if holding a rosary bead.
"He never forgot his prayers or how to pray. I brought in his rosary beads from home and left them by his bedside. My grandfather could no longer communicate with me, but he could communicate with God. It was the most incredible thing to watch this man who was dying recite the rosary. Even the nurses were in awe.
"Although I have no medical background to offer a professional opinion, I would simply like to say we never know what is in someone's heart - only God does.
"Those last few weeks with my grandfather dying were so painful to watch, but his devotion to God was still there even though his mind wasn't."