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.
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