For anyone expecting an invocation of the Heavenly Powers to step in and rescue us from the dreadful specter of autism, we apologize. Our post this week begins with a gerund, not an adjective. Our intent is to suggest ways that prayer for autism might be healed. Why? Ask any autistic. There are few things which feel more alienating than having someone approach us with such pity that they feel it necessary to plead with the very fabric of the universe to fix what went wrong in the making of us… to cure us of the things that seem so frightfully different… to step in on our behalf – because, somehow, we are impaired to such a drastic extent that we can’t see or make these requests for ourselves.
Exaggeration for effect? Or brutal honesty? Perhaps a little of both. And most definitely not a condemnation of intercessory prayer. The gesture of praying for one another is a beautiful and life-giving aspect of community and belonging. It is foolish to say at any moment that we are not in any need of prayer, as we all have some need or another – and prayer, in its purest form, is both conveyance of gratitude and acknowledgement of our interdependence. But it happens, more often than not, that autistic people find offers of prayer more jarring than encouraging. For that matter, any manner of disability runs the risk of being marginalized by prayer.
Why is this so? Scripture contains many references to disability and disabling conditions. The language is stark and candid: a man born blind; a woman with a hemorrhage; a crippled beggar. The disabled have their own community within the bigger community, even with a well-defined manner of livelihood (even if only begging in the temple courtyard). When Jesus arrives in the story, he brings a supernatural gift of healing – the long-awaited sign of God among us. How does He go about this healing? He does not do so from superiority or pity from above. He asks first. He listens. He responds to what the person wants or seeks. He forgives sins.
---- Forgives sins? Yes. And He also casts out demons, in some instances. We are not looking to go down the theology of each of these, nor to deny the literal reality of both. Yes. Jesus did both of those. But it is extremely important to recognize that He did not do so in every case. He did so when it was called for. Yet we should not overlook the significance of each of these examples. When Jesus forgives sins, He is not stating that the sinful behavior of the person being healed caused any particular malady. He is, however (… at the risk of oversimplifying theology), starting with psychological and emotional healing that, in the spiritual life, takes precedence over physical impairments. How many of us live in anger and unhappiness because of the stumbling blocks we attribute to God making the rules too difficult, or even arbitrary in our minds? Again, we are not delving into the theology behind these gestures, but rather, noting that they have significance in Scripture and relevance to our potential for spiritual growth even beyond the literal significance we see here. Perhaps we can summarize forgiveness from sins as being a first step in healing from the fallen ways we respond to the hurts in our lives.
What does all of this tell us about the way we ought to pray for, with and about disabling conditions? Many times, it is our prayers (or manner of prayer) which need to be healed BEFORE praying for healing can truly begin. And so, we offer here some suggestions and reflections to ask as we formulate our prayers, either for ourselves in our conditions or on behalf of others.
May these thoughts guide us on our journeys toward the healing we desire... and the healing we need.
by Guest Author Valerie Boles
Among Catholic families, few occasions come close to the celebrations of sacraments. Baptism, First Reconciliation, First Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony and Holy Orders are all very special occasions for very good reason. Questions begin to arise, however, when an autism diagnosis enters the picture. Is the autistic person eligible? In most instances, yes. It is the preparation that is more often an obstacle than the sacrament itself.
To validly receive the sacraments, a person needs to have sufficient formation in their faith, information about the sacrament and an earnest desire to seek that sacrament. (Although infant baptism would seem to be the exception, that takes place with parents and Godparents pledging to fill those roles until the child becomes aware of its meaning and graces). There is nothing inherent in autism that would prevent any of these conditions from being met, even in light of the wide range of learning styles, cognitive functioning and communication needs we see in the autistic community.
The one point that repeatedly comes up is the matter of preparation. Nearly every Catholic parish follows the same path when it comes to preparing congregants for sacraments, and this is where autistic children, teens and adults run into difficulty. This week’s guest writer Valerie Boles takes a closer look at sacramental preparation among the autistic community.
The current state of our sacramental preparation is one that emphasizes large group activities and classes. There are ice breakers and crafts and loud games and quiet time. In trying to meet the needs of all backgrounds and all learners, there are frequent transitions and many volunteers.
The world of frequent transitions and many faces and many quick commands is not amenable to autistic people. It is not a learning environment. The most common way that both parish staff and parents approach the faith formation and sacramental preparation for autistics is to ground their efforts in integration, that is to do everything in their power to have autistic children and adolescents participate side by side with their typically developing peers by any means necessary.
This is a heroic, often Herculean task. Involving autistic people in our faith community is necessary for all of us.
This essay is not to say that there is anything wrong with integration; it is to propose a new way of looking at the faith formation of autistic people.
Our first priority cannot be integration. It must be a relationship with Christ.
Integration poses so many extraneous problems which may become obstacles to a relationship with God. The sensory and social difficulties and uncertainties have the potential to dominate the typical formation experience for autistic people. When our anxieties are high and we are just trying to make it through the day without a meltdown, there is a very small chance that we will be able to engage the existential realities our formation encourages us to think about.
Trying to make it through without a meltdown is the reality of many autistic people during our typical, loud, transition-riddled faith formation events. I am not saying that we should allow this to be an excuse for relegating autistic people to the sidelines. Everyone deserves to be a part of this chaotic community. What I am saying is that integration is insufficient spiritual formation for the autistic community. We must first always consider whether or not we are creating the space for autistic people to encounter Christ, especially during our spiritual formation activities.
There are as many ways to encourage faith formation as there are people. All ways must include two components: unconditional, predictable loving relationships and prayer. With Christ at the center in prayer and modeling Christ’s love in our own relationship with those we are trying to form, we demonstrate by experience what our faith is. We must demonstrate the beatitudes, not teach them.
One on one formation
The most easily implemented faith formation model to implement is a one on one relational interaction. This could be to meet and discuss issues of faith or to meet and discuss issues of life. It is important that we view this more as mentorship than tutoring. The person and their mentor (someone older and more mature in the faith) could meet in a coffee shop bi-weekly and just catch up on the events of the week and discuss issues of faith. When I did this, I always had something that was on my mind to bring to my student (the ten commandments, discerning right and wrong, the sacraments, etc.) but I would always start first with prayer and relationship. I have never read a Bible passage in which Jesus began teaching without first relating to his disciples. I would bring up our topic, explain it briefly and concretely and then just chat, allow the topic to sink in and let my student bring it up again when he was comfortable. The core of our sessions was prayer and relationship.
Another alternative would be to set up a community based activity that is more predictable and less fast-paced. This could be a prayer group that meets regularly with children. This could be a prayer group that meets regularly made up of people of different grade levels. The advantages of a program like this is that it is not expensive or exclusive to autistic people. This could be an advantageous program for anyone with or without a diagnosis.
Family based formation
Susan Swanson out of Boston College wrote several articles regarding a family based approach for people with more severe expressions of autism. Her program involves the catechist going to the home of the family and helping children label moments with their family which demonstrate the love of God. God often explains the love of Christ for the Church as a marriage. Swanson’s program capitalizes on a person’s experience of love within their family and broadens their understanding of family love to include God, especially the experience of God in the sacraments.
Parish Based Program
Deacon Lawrence Sutton details a parish based model which includes the entire family and peer mentorship. This is a very specific model in which the principles of the program balance catechesis and inclusion. The specifics of this program are outlined in the book, How to Welcome, Include and Catechize Children with Autism and other Special Needs. This program is more difficult to set up than some of the other alternatives we have discussed but this program is by far the most comprehensive. The program has gotten good results at a variety of parishes so if it is possible to set this one up, it is the Gold Standard.
Sensory Based Play
For younger children, a more multi-sensory approach may be useful. Catholicism includes within it many sensory experiences. The feeling of Holy Water, the smell of incense and the feeling of sitting and standing and kneeling. The faith is meant to be experienced and explored in a sensory way. Using a catechetical method like the Catechesis of the Good Shepard allows children to explore the faith in a developmentally appropriate way. This is helpful for children of all ability levels.
Valerie Boles is a graduate student of occupational therapy at Saint Francis University. She is passionate about finding creative ways to communicate the Gospel. In her free time, she enjoys camping, listening to podcasts and reading.
"I believe in the Holy Spirit... The Holy Catholic Church... The Communion of Saints..."
These words are repeated any time the Apostles' Creed is recited, and also through the more elaborate phrasing of the Nicene Creed at Catholic Masses every weekend: a chorus of voices forming one community comprised of individuals, families, friends and visitors of many walks of life and many stories coming together to celebrate and reaffirm the faith that holds all in common.
The Catholic Church is an incredibly large, diverse, worldwide community. From the very beginning, this Church has consisted of the most ordinary of people. The first Apostles were neither scholarly nor wealthy, and nearly every Scriptural figure had some need, foible or messy situation to which we can easily relate. Disabilities abound in Scripture, from physical impairments to neurological conditions. From merely an anthropological standpoint, we can deduce that the population back then had its own gradation from mainstream to marginalized for one reason or another, not terribly different from what we see today.
The stories in Scripture, especially the words of Jesus Himself, show not only compassion and empathy, but also a distinct celebration of the gifts that each of these individuals brought to their community. The faith of the early Church was enriched and embodied by acknowledgment of the frailties that drew out the humanity in each of its members. The same can be said of the body of the Church through each successive age and period in history: the poor, the vulnerable, the failing and the complicated exist side by side with the strong, the polished, the wealthy and the successful. Indeed, many moments of epiphany occur when strength encounters weakness and the true meaning of Christian love is revealed.
When the community affirms its belief in the Communion of Saints, we acknowledge those souls throughout time who have exemplified in their lives what Jesus intended our own lives to look like. Saints, even as a subgroup, have the same distribution of traits and circumstances as any other community, from privileged to disadvantaged and every degree of challenge in between. (For more on what makes a saint a saint, visit our previous Missionary Thought here. )
Patronage is a special designation among the canonized saints which recognizes their lives’ specialty or devotional association. It is rare that any given saint is not known as the patron of something, even nominally. A random search on lesser-known saints might turn up, for instance, those like St. Boris, who lived a pious Christian life cut short at the hands of his jealous pagan brother. His holy example is commemorated on the Orthodox calendar with feast days on May 2 and July 24, but his story does not lend itself to a cause more specific than pious Christianity itself, and he is not known for any specialized patronage.
Are saints like Boris simply unlucky, victims of antiquity and the long shadows cast by better-known saints with more popular devotions? Not at all. Sainthood is not a popularity contest, though proprietors of religious goods can attest that certain saints’ prayers and images are in higher demand than others. St. Peregrine, for instance, is the Patron Saint of Cancer Patients. St. Anthony is the Patron of Lost Items. St. Joseph is Patron of Workers, Carpenters, Fathers, Happy Death and The Universal Church, along with several locations and municipalities … and, off the record, many will attest, selling one’s home. If sainthood itself is akin to attaining an honorary rank of distinction, being awarded patronage is like earning clusters on top of canonization. In actuality, patronage is little more than specialization of prayer based on that saint’s unique personality and manner. Since St. Genesius was an actor, it is only natural that actors feel he can more closely relate to, and pray for, the needs of a performer than, say, St. Lydwine, who hailed from Holland and fell ill after an ice skating accident. She, unsurprisingly, is Patroness of Ice Skaters and the chronically ill.
Many canonized saints are patrons of the locations they are most closely associated with. St. Patrick has Ireland (though he was born in Britain) and St. Bridget has Sweden. A good number of saints are patrons of their geographic see. Such is the case with our namesake, St. Thorlak, born and raised in Iceland, where he would elevate the sanctity of this remote nation in the sixty years he lived.
And so, here we are, at the intersection of autism and spirituality. Whom shall we call upon in patronage? Who is the Patron Saint of Autistic People, that we might turn to that saint for inspiration, prayer, encouragement, and enlightenment?
(That’s right, not even Thorlak. There is currently no Patron Saint of Autistic People.)
To be most fair, there has never been as widespread an understanding of autism as what has taken shape in the past decade. Autism is an elusive and enigmatic condition that has run the gamut from shame to celebration over its years as a diagnosis. While we as a human race still have plenty to learn (and plenty of stereotypes to reconsider) about autistic thinking and neurodiversity, we find ourselves at a point in time more favorable toward autism than ever before. As life catches up with this trend, so, too, Catholics worldwide are beginning to understand and recognize autism as a valid and distinct variation within the community. It seems a ripe time to consider who might be “the” saint worthy of that official designation, “Patron Saint of Autistic People.”
We, of course, already consider St. Thorlak as our patron here, and, most definitely, a patron of autism. There is nothing preventing him from being that to us and to all who turn to him for inspiration and spiritual guidance. His manner and way of living feel autistic, sound autistic, and very likely would have been called autistic, had such a word existed in his time. Many autistics use his way as a pattern for connecting to God more meaningfully… for learning how to find strength in vulnerability… for coping with the days when overload tries to destroy our sense of wellbeing… for relating to people who do not relate to us… for understanding, recognizing, addressing and preventing the spiritual starvation many of us encounter on a daily basis.
As the Octave of Pentecost reaches its close, now is a very acceptable time for the Holy Spirit, through the workings of the Holy Catholic Church, to lead the community here toward the Communion of Saints. In designating a Patron Saint of Autistic People, the Church will both recognize the gifts brought by the autistic community to the Kingdom of God, and offer that same community the gift of our own decorated, saintly champion with clusters.
Let us pray that it happens soon!
JOIN YOUR VOICE TO THE CAUSE!
The Mission of Saint Thorlak is compiling a portfolio of written notes from readers around the world, stating why they feel St. Thorlak deserves the title Patron Saint of Autistic People. Specifically, we are seeking to answer the question, “In what way is St. Thorlak a patron for autistic persons?” Why St. Thorlak? Why autism? Notes need only be brief and heartfelt, and would be very greatly appreciated as we build our case. If you are moved to contribute, please send your note to firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you!
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