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I learned how much inclusion matters by attending mass apart from everyone else

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One of the most overwhelming concerns a special needs family faces is the fear of isolation from our communities. We must always weigh the decision whether venturing out will be worth the anxiety or misunderstandings and judgement from onlookers should our child be triggered and their behaviors become troublesome.

While I'm a big believer in ensuring Skyler has the opportunity to experience all the world has to offer outside of our home, I had to take a hard look at why I was choosing exclusion over inclusion in some situations. I was unknowingly putting the comfortability of others ahead of our own.

By our decision, attending mass for us meant sitting in the lobby, observing and participating from the periphery. We worried that Skyler's inappropriately timed clapping or excessive trips to the family restroom would inconvenience or upset the other parishioners, so we opted to avoid the stares and potential discomfort directed at us.

However, week after week, Skyler was calm and well behaved (often praying with his eyes completely closed) while oodles of parents with screaming toddlers or restless youth would flood the previously quiet lobby, completely disrupting our worship without a second thought.

It dawned on me, a little later than I'd like to admit, that we shouldn't purposely exclude ourselves from the one place that preaches 'all are welcome.' So what if he claps during the homily - maybe he's just feeling the good word! Who cares if he visits the restroom 10+ times in an hour - if others are watching and counting, maybe they should reassess why they are there.

This weekend, we opted for inclusion and proudly parked Skyler's 'custom pew seat' inside those glass windows and the most wonderful thing happened. A parishioner, who serves as a greeter most Sundays, walked over to us, introduced himself and said this, "I know we smile and say hi to each other frequently, but I just wanted to tell you that you have a beautiful family and you both are amazing parents." He asked all of our names and Skyler gave him the famous 'high one' (high five with only his pointer finger) as we thanked him for his kindness.

The point of my story is this... we should never feel the need to hide or exclude ourselves for fear that our truth or challenges could make someone else uncomfortable. The more interactions neurotypical children and adults have with families like mine, plentiful are the opportunities to appreciate and recognize the value, beauty and uniqueness of all people. We are all made in His perfect image and could learn so much from each other if we led with kindness and grace.

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