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