Continuing our thought from last week, the need for prayer is one that all humanity shares – yet can become a source of discomfort, isolation and marginalization if those praying for us fail to see what our actual needs are.
“Prayer for Healing” is ubiquitous among cultures and gatherings, usually at the top of our petitions. And, why not? As many things as we are able to control, our physical and mental health remains a wild card. Unexpected accidents, illnesses and circumstances take us by surprise all the time and seem the least fair of any of our challenges. How many times do we lament that we have done everything right, and still, [fill in the diagnosis] appears on the scene and wreaks havoc with our health and our plans?
Many people see autism this way, particularly in the lives of the very young. Parents, grandparents, older family members and caring adults see signs of distress in an otherwise healthy child and, rightly, take steps toward early screening and intervention. It is most often this distress which raises our own distress as caring adults. Who among us does not feel stirred to act when a child is struggling?
As a matter of course, the signs of autism do not make it to a diagnostician unless they are causing distress. We never hear of parents bringing their child to a clinic for evaluation of their high reading level, astonishing aptitude for retaining and applying information or their indescribably deep emotional reactions to the situations they observe going on between others. It is always a case of malfunction: not being able to speak, not being able to calm their agitation, not able to follow public expectations.
Caring adults have a very full bag of emotions. Empathy for the struggling child is often very high, but there is also the frustration of not being able to help the child and the feeling of responsibility for the behavior that does not conform. There is internal pressure to maintain control, external pressure via the critical looks and comments from others, and then, there is the sheer humanity of being overwhelmed and overloaded ourselves when the children in our care are unable to regulate themselves.
These dynamics feed into prayer gatherings, which ought well to be havens of support, encouragement and hope. By praying for one another and our collective needs, we come together as a community and experience the promise of better days ahead, assuring one another that “this too shall pass” and that God “heals the brokenhearted and binds our wounds” (Psalm 147).
So sets the stage for the person who stands and prays for someone to be healed, or cured, of their autism.
As Missionaries of St. Thorlak, we commit ourselves to assuming the best in everyone, to searching for their best intent even in the things which perplex and infuriate us.
Not every person praying for someone’s autism is insensitive or coming from superiority. The majority, we are guessing, come from a place of empathy with the suffering that comes from autism, and a feeling of helplessness to remove that suffering, particularly from those who are younger. Philosophically, there is that fine line between the suffering that impedes a person and the suffering that fosters growth and perseverance, and most times, people who pray for cure are asking that the debilitating suffering be gone.
(So, then, why don’t they just SAY that, instead of making autistics feel like freaks, or burdens?)
Maybe we can help by gently, positively outlining a few talking (or reading) points.
First, autism does have some very distressing elements, but it is not a disease. It is a neuropsychological variation of heightened sensitivity across all our processing channels. By comparison, a disease is something that erodes a working system. Autism does not erode our system. It IS our system.
“Cure” implies disease. It also implies a permanent change. Someone with a malignant tumor is right to pray for a cure, because permanent change is very desirable when it comes to disease. Please, God, stop this attack on an otherwise working system, and stop it permanently!
Healing, on the other hand, does not imply cure or permanent change, even though many of us use “healing” and “cure” interchangeably. It is equally important for autistics to know the difference as it is for those who pray for us.
Healing is a constant and ongoing process in everyone, no matter how we are wired, no matter what our circumstances may be. Healing, in a very real sense, is our routine maintenance. For as long as we live in this world and encounter other people, there will be wear and tear on our bodies, minds and emotional health. Healing is the process of attending to the rips, dings, bruises and wounds we acquire along the way. Prayer is a wonderful means of healing and routine maintenance which benefits everyone, both those who pray and those who receive the graces from those prayers.
Whenever anyone offers to pray that our autism may be healed, is it possible they mean to help us with the routine wear and tear that arises from being autistic? If we were automobiles, autism would be much more reckless of a driver than neurotypicality. Figuratively, our brakes, tires, valves, cylinder heads and shock absorbers bear the brunt of the intensity of the autistic lifestyle, meaning our self-care and maintenance needs are higher and more frequent. Think of healing prayer for autism as complimentary maintenance being offered to us, rather than someone telling us that our car is a clunker by praying for a trade-in or an upgrade.
Next week: Talking points on praying for healing vs. praying for cure, when it comes to autism and disability
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