Q: How does spiritual starvation tie into having autism/ASD?
Q: How does “spiritual starvation” tie into autism/ASD?
A: It may be helpful to explain how this Mission came to be.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak originated with a deep stirring in the heart of one person who spent many years observing and contemplating the problem of spiritual starvation. An idea, and then a solution, came into better focus after considering this question through the lens of having autism.
The root cause of spiritual starvation is disconnection from others, which is completely independent of diagnostic labels. Spiritual starvation is not caused by autism; neither does autism guarantee spiritual starvation. However, the effects of having autism greatly increase the likelihood one will experience some degree of disconnection in their relationships. Therapies for people with autism/ASD focus on the ways they are different from their peers, validating symptoms on one hand and teaching ways on the other to adapt to social expectations. Teaching to people’s differences, however, ingrains them as part of a person’s identity. If discussion of our common humanity is neglected, a disconnection is automatically in place. It is crucial to remember that people with autism sometimes focus so well that concepts appear either/or, black/white, 0/1, open/closed, with no shades in between.
Make no mistake – autism IS a difference. Denying that helps nobody. But it is a difference only to the degree that anyone is ever “different,” no matter what aspect you examine. Autism is not an identity. A person’s name, a person’s character, yes – those are identifiers. But “autism” belongs in the subset of a person’s traits, not in that person’s identifier field.
Back to the idea of teaching social skills: Learning appropriate behavior and how to recognize and respond to unspoken cues gives anyone an advantage. These used to be called “communications courses” and were offered only to those going on to public relations and high power sales careers. Teaching these skills so intensively to children who are already naturally more attuned, more observant, more reflective… and already very well aware of how it feels to be on the outside looking in… cultivates tremendous insights.
-- Which often go stale and neglected once these children hit middle and high school, and are sometimes discarded completely once they reach higher education or employment.
In essence, helping people with ASD learn social skills makes them different again, in an entirely new way, once they reach adolescence.
Then again, ALL young people wonder where they fit in, or if anyone notices them, or if they make a difference to anyone. This is not exclusive to having ASD! Young people thrive or starve spiritually based on their ability to form connections, regardless of diagnostic status.
The “WHAT IF” moment: What if a program were developed in the same manner as that of social skills programs, only with a focus on SPIRITUAL skills?
Differences can be advantageous, sometimes, can’t they.
Our Mission was founded on the realization that this world we live in consistently finds large numbers of people who are introverts, yes, and have difficulty connecting because of that… but just as many who are outgoing, but lonely… social, but detached… successful, but unfulfilled.
In other words, spiritually starving.
By patterning our methods on those used to teach social skills to students with ASD, then elevating the material from an elementary level to a higher, spiritual level, we aim to reach:
We want this to be accessible to everyone – a pattern of approaching relationships that anyone can use, so that we can all experience the fulfillment of connection, and we can all support one another as we do it. We hope to impart these principles to the people who seek our guidance so that THEY take this to those in THEIR circles, becoming everyday missionaries themselves.
The hard work which people with autism devote to finding their way is our inspiration. We turn to them to show us the needs of the human heart and help us teach everyone these fundamental skills of spiritual fulfillment through connecting with others.
Q: I do not have autism. Can the Mission of Saint Thorlak help me support people with ASD (autism spectrum disabilities)?
A: Yes. The Mission of Saint Thorlak can help you support people.
(So, yes, that also includes those with ASD).
Our Mission statement is rather nebulous with respect to autism. We are out to end spiritual starvation, letting people with autism lead us on our way. Our advertisements say that we offer spiritual skills for those "affected by" ASD. Does that mean our material applies to those with ASD, or those without? Who, exactly, are those “affected by" ASD? That could mean… anyone.
We did that on purpose.
The beauty of our model is that our approach is particularly comfortable and helpful when applied to people with autism, but in actuality, it is applicable to anyone.
We *are* a ministry with autism specifically in mind. People with ASD have a particular set of needs unique to ASD, and it does nobody any good to pretend that it does not require thoughtful consideration and occasional modification to help people with ASD partake in the things the rest of us are doing.
Couldn't we just as well say the inverse – that it requires thoughtful consideration and occasional modification for people without ASD to partake in things that people with ASD are doing?
We don't mean to be absurd, but our point is that either case is a matter of recognizing our common humanity and being considerate of one another whether there are diagnostic labels or not.
Let us break this down in another way.
For people with ASD, The Mission of Saint Thorlak wants to be a starting point for the next level of social skills. Once elementary skills are in place, we want to introduce social skills at a secondary, or spiritual level. We want to help people with ASD to be able to see the perspectives of others in terms of our common humanity. People with ASD spend their first six years of school learning how their thought processes are different from those around them; now, we want to show them how their hearts are the same as everyone else's.
Back to the question at hand: If you do not have autism but are seeking to help people with ASD, you can see them on an elementary level, looking systematically at their traits and symptoms, and treating them accordingly… or, you can see them at the next level, as a human being like yourself, with the same spiritual needs that you have… and, you can treat them accordingly.
If you are here to find ways to support people with ASD, we very earnestly suggest that you start by asking yourself what you need, as a person… and then, get to know the people you wish to support. Get to know them – not their symptoms, not their diagnosis. Get to know who they are and why they are passionate about the things that move them. Then, let them know YOU, and your needs as a person. Show them who YOU are and why YOU are passionate about the things that move you. If you're lucky, they will join you in friendship and mentor you as you begin the scathingly honest, scathingly beautiful tasks of seeking and admitting the truths of your common humanity.
Trust us. Your sincere interest in the humanity of the people you want to help contains every element of every suggestion you could ever find in all the manuals, encyclopedias, training programs and seminars put together.
Humanity is our specialty. If that's something you are looking to pursue, then, yes, the Mission of Saint Thorlak can help.
We continue our Q&A this week with this question:
“I am affected by autism. What can the Mission of Saint Thorlak do for me?”
Before we answer, we need to give you fair warning. Everything we say and do is said and done deliberately, contemplatively and, in food terms, would be considered nutrient-dense. We are out to feed souls, and with a talented contemplative poet as our spiritual patron, we intend to do so with rich context and multi-layered meanings. We are literal and figurative, metaphorical and lyrical. And oh, how we love words and word origins. Words are our ingredients, and if we are looking to serve the spiritually hungry, we must strive to choose wisely.
You will forgive us, then, if we wonder about the manner in which this question is asked.
What can this Mission do for ME?
= What does this Mission have to offer, that I will find useful?
What can THIS Mission do for me?
= What makes this Mission better suited than others out there?
What can this Mission DO […for me]?
= How will my undertaking this Mission benefit me?
Well, before we go too far into the deep, let’s start with the assumption that this was an ordinary question deserving a basic overview.
For someone affected by autism, The Mission of Saint Thorlak can:
The Mission of Saint Thorlak is appropriate for individual participation by means of:
The Mission of Saint Thorlak is appropriate for group participation by means of:
* Group activities will maintain a slow, contemplative format regardless of group size. Groups may be led by you, or you may join as a participant. Groups may be formed in any number of ways. There might be a group formed spontaneously by people of similar interest… as part of a parish youth group… in a college/young adult group ministry… as an extracurricular or homeschool group… truly, the possibilities are limitless.
* Groups need not be limited to people with autism diagnoses. We deliberately say “people affected by autism” because that includes people with ASD and people who have someone with ASD somewhere in their circle.
An important note: The materials necessary to conduct Mission groups are in different stages of completion and have not yet been posted. We will prominently announce when these materials are available for download.
There, that was easy. Easy question, easy answer.
Not so fast.
Let’s answer those other two connotations.
What can THIS Mission do for me?
= What makes this Mission better suited than others out there?
In short: Nothing.
That’s right. We are a contemplative apostolate hoping to end spiritual starvation in the world. If this resonates with you, either because you are spiritually hungry and find nourishment here, or because you want to do something to feed hungry souls, then we’re very glad to have you here. We are not a business. Our bottom line is: How many souls are still starving on our watch, and what are we going to do about it? If our Mission not a good fit for you, we pray you find what you need.
Then: What can this Mission DO […for me]?
= How will my undertaking this Mission benefit me?
Ah. This is our favorite.
Your decision to join hands with the Mission of Saint Thorlak will be of some benefit to you – we can almost certainly guarantee that. It’s not because of anything we do, though. It’s the very act of joining hands, of stepping forward, that will bring you what you need.
See: We are here to promote need. By admitting our need, we draw others to us. By exposing our need to others, we affirm that they are necessary to others around them… and, their response provides the nourishment we needed. Caritas is impossible without need… and, surprising though it is to realize this: unlike physical need, spiritual need is a choice.
(Don’t worry. We’ll get much deeper into that later on down the road.)
So, then, to recap: What can the Mission of Saint Thorlak do for you?
You tell us.
Over the next few weeks, we will be examining the basics which frame The Mission of Saint Thorlak, including a job description for anyone who is ready to become a bona fide Missionary, and a greater, more detailed study of each our objectives.
Let’s start with one of the more frequently asked of our FAQs: “How is this a ministry for people with autism/ASD, yet it claims to serve everyone?”
Here’s how we see it.
1) We aim to be a resource for people with ASD who have aged out of primary and elementary level social skills [“how to make and keep friends”] and are ready for the more challenging adolescent and young adult questions [“why is it spiritually beneficial to make and keep friends?”].
There are several reasons to reach out to youth and young adults with ASD:
-Whether by circumstance or consequence, youth and young adults with ASD are generally more likely to be found on the outskirts of social circles and the community at large. The neurological realities of ASD make it extremely uncomfortable to be among noise, crowds or in groups whose purpose is unclear or not personally interesting. Also, people with ASD at any age have greater difficulty forming and maintaining relationships than people without. The root of this is the same anxiety that impacts early childhood, only now it is less socially acceptable to show it. This anxiety impacts all areas: physical (increased heart rate, for instance), cognitive (such as thinking about what might go wrong) and emotional (feelings of dread, embarrassment, fear, or even resentment).
-Ordinary living with ASD is filled with challenges that others don’t see. There are no solutions, just determination to succeed. Sometimes, that can be exhausting, and socializing is often a casualty. Yet, putting aside relationships can become a habit which can eventually lead toward spiritual starvation. It is all a matter of balance.
-Young children with ASD now receive a great deal of social and emotional support. Once middle school comes, these supports start dropping off – right when the social scene turns volatile, unpredictable and confusing even for the most confident individuals. The Mission of Saint Thorlak offers guidance and support at this very level. Tweens, teens and young adults need something more elaborate, something that better anticipates adulthood than the preschool and primary social lessons they had growing up. Learning about relationships in terms of spirituality is well suited to this age group, and that is exactly what we aim to do. We hope our particular Missionary training will pick up where elementary social skills leave off, and equip these marvelous young souls to live spiritually well-nourished lives for all their years ahead, in all that they do… and, that their mission work “accidentally” helps countless others in their paths to do the same.
2) As you read this, we hope you see that this echoes the needs of adolescents and young adults across the board. Why single out people with ASD when everyone can benefit?
Anyone can be at risk for spiritual starvation. There are all kinds of people who are isolated for one reason or another. Therefore, it’s important to remember to check our margins, wherever we are, whoever they are, for hidden treasure. People with and without ASD face the same social and emotional situations across the board, and anyone can starve in spirit, ASD or not. (Hopefully, not on our watch!)
We feel there should be no distinction in who can learn the spiritual mechanics of friendship and spiritual nourishment. By only teaching people with ASD these skills, we exclude great numbers of “other” young people who need the spiritual nourishment of friendship just the same.
We see a very effective solution to both of these needs. In our ministry, we encourage people without ASD to seek out those people with ASD to genuinely learn from them – about the real value of relationships, and the importance of understanding the other person’s point of view before labeling, dismissing or misconstruing their intentions. As we expect people with ASD to learn these skills, so we should expect people without ASD to learn them just as proficiently – and, who better to mentor them than the people with ASD themselves? Spiritual awareness and sensibility is invaluable as we all work together to combat and prevent spiritual starvation, and hopefully reinforce to people with ASD that their contributions are valuable just as they are to our community.
3) On that note, we admit our bias: We hope people with ASD will undertake this ministry with us… to understand, recognize, address and prevent spiritual starvation in the community at large.
By virtue of their diagnosis and developmental traits, people with ASD tend to have many distinct advantages which suit them ideally for our brand of mission work, and we hope they will forgive us for singling them out in direct recruitment. What can we say? We only want the best. Sports teams send scouts to high school and college teams with the best records to draft prospects; why can’t we?
In short: People with ASD have experience and knowledge that people without ASD cannot. They have natural advantages in the ways of preventing spiritual starvation, yet many don’t even realize it. That’s okay; we’ll step up and ask them to be our mentors.
4) Finally, in terms of human behavior, the idea of being sent on a mission fires people up to push past obstacles that would otherwise be too difficult or painful, especially when they are motivated by CARITAS. Our thought is that the very act of taking up our Mission will help people with ASD accomplish their social goals as greatly as the Mission itself. We hope that recruiting people with ASD stirs them to consistently put these social principles into action, in spite of the very real pain and anxiety they routinely face by living with ASD in a non-autistic world. It’s easy to backslide into isolation when it’s just you, but if you are a bona fide Missionary committed to ending spiritual starvation in the world, you know there are a lot of souls counting on you… and you find a way.
And thus, we reach our conclusion, in much fewer words than all the explanations above:
We are a ministry for everyone, so that people with autism may find their way.
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak