Baptism is a sacrament that many in the faith want to pursue. But, what if your loved one has an Intellectual Disability (ID) or Developmental Disability (DD)? Can they be successfully baptized? How do you help them understand and prepare for baptism?
As a Christian mother, I had a God-given desire to see my child with Down syndrome baptized a few years ago. At the time, she was 8 years old, nonverbal, and dealing with a myriad of health conditions.
I was puzzled, at first, on how to prepare and teach her, but then I realized I knew what to do. As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I help children understand new situations and concepts all the time using multiple visual and auditory methods. I just needed to apply them to a religious act.
Perhaps you have found yourself in a similar situation, and you aren't sure how to prepare your loved one for baptism. There are some simple strategies you can use to help you effectively communicate and explain baptism.
Before you start teaching your loved one, you will need to have an important conversation first. It is vital that you talk with your pastor regarding when and how the baptism should take place. Your loved one may be able to perform the baptism like anyone else in your church. Some, like my daughter, may need some small accommodations for it to be successful. Should the baptism be private or public? Should it be at a certain time of day that is better? Should the family surround the baptism area to ease fears?
Once you know the plan, you can then communicate it in your teaching to your loved one. For my daughter, I ended up doing all the following techniques over the span of about two months to prepare for her baptism.
1. Start the discussion and simplify your speech: Talk to your loved one using words they understand to prepare them for the baptism. Tell them what will happen, who will be there, and when it will be, if a date is chosen. Circle the date on the calendar to start a countdown to the baptism as it gets closer.
It’s important to pick words your loved one will understand and continue to use those words to be consistent. I used the phrase, “You will go down in the water and right back up,” in our talks. I can’t stress enough the importance of using consistent vocabulary which through repetition will build understanding. If your loved one uses sign language or a communication device, make sure words like baptism, water, and church are part of their vocabulary.
2. Video priming and modeling: Videos are essential tools for helping those with ID/DD understand what will happen in a baptism. Words alone are often not enough to reach full comprehension, which is why videos are perfect tools. YouTube has a wide variety of baptism videos from various churches. During the videos, narrate what is happening using the simple speech you have previously thought out and chosen. ("They are going under the water. They come right back up. They are happy.") Some people may need a video from their specific church showing exactly what will happen, which may require some planning and legwork. ("This is the water. Here are the steps that lead down to the water. You will sit here.")
There are also videos online that can teach the fundamentals of baptism as well, such as John’s baptism of Jesus. These can help your loved one understand the why behind the act.
3. Stories: Books, especially those with pictures, add another layer of understanding. I used an illustrated Children’s Bible for my daughter. I also ended up writing my own short story to explain the spiritual aspect to her, which allowed me to use vocabulary that she understood. If you are familiar with the concept of social stories, then writing one of those may be beneficial too.
4. Practice for the event: As the day of the baptism gets closer, it’s time to start practicing in real life. You can have your loved one practice with dolls in a basin as you narrate what will happen. You can practice with your loved one in a bathtub or swimming pool. I never took my daughter under the water in our practice sessions, since she only needed to do this for the real act. I focused on leaning her back to get her hair wet and raising her back up.
If your loved one has an ID/DD and there is a desire for baptism, I want to assure you that it can be done. My daughter came out of the water with a smile on her face and still signs about her “swim” at church nearly four years later. Like almost anything with my daughter, it took repetition and systematic teaching to prepare her for the event. Using my professional knowledge, I was able to help her spiritually, and I pray these strategies help you too!
Evana Sandusky is a God-fearing wife and mother of two children. Since becoming a parent, Evana has spent many hours driving to specialty appointments, praying beside a hospital bed, and helping her children through various issues related to their different diagnoses. When she's not engaged in motherly duties, Evana is a pediatric speech-language pathologist where she serves babies and toddlers with autism, feeding disorders, and other developmental delays. You can connect with Evana on twitter, Facebook, and her blog, A Special Purposed Life.