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Schools Welcoming Students with Intellectual Disabilities

The Catholic Herald

Aug 24, 2023

Guadalupe and Timothy Williamson’s son Patrick, 12, has autism spectrum disorder and a rare genetic condition called Tubulinopathy, which causes brain malformations that result in both intellectual disability and developmental delays. He attends St. Anthony of Padua School in Falls Church with siblings Robert, 10; Michael, 6; and Lucia, 4.

“(Patrick) loves going to school, and he loves wearing that uniform,” said Guadalupe.

Previously, Patrick attended public schools, which went completely online when COVID-19 broke out. As Catholic schools began to reopen first, Patrick was distressed that his siblings could go to school while he couldn’t.

Then Timothy had an idea: Call Father Matthew Zuberbueler, who previously served the Williamsons’ home parish, St. Louis Church in Alexandria

“We knew he was now at a new school, St. Anthony’s,” Guadalupe recalled. “My husband said, ‘Why don’t you reach out to Father Zuberbueler, and ask him if they will consider taking Patrick?’ ”

Discussions followed. “They were very open to try,” said Guadalupe, “and that was the most important thing for me.”

“We love it at St. Anthony’s,” Guadalupe said. “They hired a Special Education teacher to work with him. We started seeing improvements immediately. He’s doing much better — and growing at a faster rate than he was in public school.”

She credits the different atmosphere with Patrick’s progress.

“The mindset at the Catholic school is just completely different,” Guadalupe said. “He’s more challenged; the expectations are higher … And he can do it; he’s proven that he can do it.”

Not only is Patrick learning more — he’s also happier, especially since all his siblings attend St. Anthony, too.

“They have the same friends; they talk about the same teachers — it’s all in the same community,” Guadalupe said. “That has helped him to feel included — to feel that he belongs.”

Other students were naturally curious about Patrick’s differences, so Amy Fry, St. Anthony principal, invited the Williamsons to speak to Patrick’s class.

“It was very powerful to have the parents come in and speak to the class — very openly — about what his challenges are; what the history of his disability had been,” Fry said. “The children were very moved by the parents’ willingness to share that — and personally asking them for their help.”

Patrick, who loves religion class, is a proud altar server at St. Anthony’s Friday school Mass. His experience led to a special role at a Mass officiated by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge — holding the paten for the Bishop while he distributed Communion.

“He was so excited — he had a huge smile the whole time,” said Guadalupe. “He still talks about it.”

The Mass accompanied an awards ceremony organized by Porto Charities, whose mission is to increase educational and employment opportunities in the diocese for people with special needs. Founded in 2009, the nonprofit has awarded more than $1 million in grants to diocesan schools and other local organizations serving students with disabilities.

“The diocesan strategic plan has a pillar in it for making Catholic education accessible,” said Diane Elliott, assistant superintendent of diocesan Catholic schools. “That immediately, to me, means accessible to individuals with disabilities. So, we are increasing our efforts to help parents who want their children to have a Catholic education be able to meet that goal.”

The schools office recently doubled its budget for Special Education teachers and consulting services. Bishop Burbidge, episcopal moderator of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, prioritizes welcoming children with special needs. 

“We want families and individuals with disabilities to feel like they belong — not that they’re just included,” said Elliott. “That sense of belonging is so important to everyone; it’s what gives us a sense of self-worth.”

Link to the article in the Catholic Herald

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