A funny thing happened during our August hiatus here at the Mission of Saint Thorlak. A flurry of "Contact Us" forms began coming in from different regions of the world, surprisingly all from people seeking spiritual direction. The timing of this coming during our inventory clearly pointed to this being a theme needing to be addressed, and so we started doing our homework in our weeks off. Where might we look to assist teens and adults who have real and relevant questions about how to better experience God, both personally and as part of their faith communities?
Bottom line: There is not much out there.
There are several options for social stories and manipulatives which younger children may use and bring with them to church services. There are growing numbers of churches offering "sensory-friendly" services or worship spaces to help accommodate those who need quieter or more kinetic space. But what is there to help the autistic older children and adults who seek to comprehend the spiritual purpose for coming to church in the first place?
One adult who contacted us has graciously permitted us to quote her requests directly. Her words describe the need much better than we could summarize.
Wow. This is just one person!
Other dilemmas that have been brought to us concern relationships with difficult people and how to reconcile the need for healthy boundaries with Christian teachings. Still others have shared deep pain about participating in the Catholic sacraments. Verbal limitations are a huge obstacle to the sacrament of Confession, for instance, where the normal expectation is to speak directly to the priest. The matter of anxiety and scruples just complicates things all the more. It seems to be random luck as to whether or not a parish has a priest who is familiar enough with autism to know how to comfortably address these practical issues among those who think, feel and experience life as people with autism. Furthermore, the majority of spiritual teachings not only defy ordinary logic, but they tend to evoke emotions which people on the spectrum process differently than most others. If we are missing bricks in our foundational experiences of our faith, we have all the more difficulty grasping what these practices are supposed to look like and feel like.
The most ordinary daily processes are already more difficult to master, more deliberately studied, more cautiously approached and less obviously understood for autistic people than nonautistic people. Something as abstract – and so very, very serious – as faith is easily brushed aside as one of the optional things in life that we might get to if we can solve all those other, ordinary things first.
Well: If it’s optional, then, what about those of us who opt to pursue it?
Besides those already named, here are some more topics that could use better, more concrete explanations:
The longer the list, the more it resembles some sort of “Catechism for Autism”… and, the more we realize that there really could be such a thing, one day, if anyone takes the time to compile such a resource: an explanation of the faith, using words and examples and suggestions for accommodations to make spirituality more accessible for those who desire it but cannot yet grasp it.
Someone has to start somewhere.
Pray: Heavenly Father, let there be a way we can better know You!
Contemplate: What are the areas of our spirituality that pose the greatest difficulty in our connecting with God and others?
Relate: Ask others these same questions, and realize they are more common than we might have first thought.
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