The Autistic Works of Mercy
Many are familiar with the Christian practices known as “The Works of Mercy.” There are two groups of such acts, divided into corporal (actions producing physical benefit to others) and spiritual (actions producing or demonstrating moral benefit to others). The traditional corporal and spiritual works of mercy are drawn from Scripture and have been taught since the earliest centuries of Christianity.
“Mercy” itself is an interesting choice of wording. Why aren’t these called “acts of kindness,” for instance? Kindness is implied in mercy, yes, but these go beyond being nice; they risk being nice when it is not necessary by giving the benefit of the doubt. They extend kindness unearned… maybe even undeserved. Rather than pausing to gauge worthiness or eligibility, mercy acts now, out of sheer, foolish love. For example: The first corporal work of mercy urges us to “feed the hungry.” Common decency does not let anyone go hungry if we can help it. Common courtesy offers someone food when it’s mealtime. But are we obligated to offer someone food when we were not expecting to, or when they will make no effort to contribute anything in return? Technically, no. “Mercy” is one up from “kindness,” going ahead even when there are acceptable reasons not to.
When it comes to autism, there is a good-sized gap between people’s expectations and our shortfall in meeting them. Some of this is just the way it works out. Some has to do with the invisibility of our limitations. Much depends on pre-existing notions, information and attitudes, along with the dynamics of each situation and how far people are willing to extend themselves past what they originally thought was “right.”
Autism was not written about in Biblical times, of course. But it is both discussed and better understood today, and as such, there are ways in which mercy can be both demonstrated and shown through autistic lenses. These imperatives, these Autistic Works of Mercy, can be studied in scriptural context just as well. They are ways of extending mercy to autistic people, and they can be merciful acts performed by autistic people. These acts apply to anyone, from any walk of life, having any neurotype. Thus, these are acts of mercy inspired by autism, but ultimately, applicable to all.
THE AUTISTIC WORKS OF MERCY
Believe the unseen
Autism is a largely interior, invisible state of being, even when our traits are noticeable. If someone speaks of their autism, expressing surprise might be a natural response – but a merciful response will assure that we believe what is said. “The unseen” refers to the interior workings of a person’s mind: their intentions, their emotions, their imagination, their wishes and their yearnings. An autistic person is pondering and processing an enormous amount of information at any given moment, and so, their facial expression, communication or outward behavior may look like they are in serious thought (because, they are). Facial expressions will not convey even a fraction of what is actively going on within the heart and mind. It is an act of mercy to acknowledge that our inner world is real, alive and thriving – even when others can’t see it or know what is happening there. Avoid being quick to criticize those whose outward actions are hard to interpret. Raise our expectations, and allow others show us what we do not yet realize.
Honor the boundary
This would be much easier if people made boundaries clear from the beginning (in which case, we’d simply honor them, even when we had other ideas). Many times, however, people do not stop and think about their limits, and few people state them explicitly upfront. There is a very simple workaround for this, and that is: ASK FIRST. Then, honor. By asking, we not only extend courtesy to a person’s boundaries, but we might also help them know where their limits are… and, we offer the gift of mutual respect as we do.
Invite the reluctant
This is crucially needed among the autistic community. On any given day, our social energy gets used up quickly by things that are not necessarily fun or fulfilling, yet we have the same needs for connection and enjoyment as everyone else. It takes an enormous amount of resolve, energy and skill to put ourselves in situations most people take for granted. There are some days we just can’t. There are others where we are willing to push. Then, there are days when we are ready and able. We can’t often tell far in advance which kind of day we’ll have until we are there. We also may not know how to join in an existing group or how to express interest in an activity that is unfamiliar. Being invited is a huge, huge gift – even when we do not accept that invitation. Why? Because it reminds us that we matter, that we are valuable, and it gives us something to work toward. (Extending to us the freedom to accept or decline an invitation is a way of honoring our boundaries, by the way!) Even if we have said “no” ten out of ten times, please, invite us again. Our needs may feel intimidating, but please, let us decide if it’s too much or just right. The willingness to include us is a true gift.
Recognize the struggle
This is an opportunity to remember that autism is not devastating, but it can be very exhausting and discouraging. Ordinary tasks can feel like uphill battles. Having to explain our needs (sometimes, not realizing them ourselves) and keep up at the pace of everyone else takes a toll quickly on our health and functioning. When we reach a point of saying we need a break or that we are done for today, we mean it. We are not trying to cut corners; in fact, it can be quite humbling to admit we can’t go any further right now… and, a tremendous gift to be able to say that in a place where we will receive support and encouragement for when we start up again.
Quiet the heckler
This is the only work of mercy here whose outcome is out of our control. If we think of ourselves at a performance where an audience member begins disrupting those on stage, we are largely unable to prevent their outburst. Even security cannot guarantee silence from hecklers. What we can do, however, is express our disapproval of their behavior and ask them to refrain from further disruptions. Or, if that heckling happens to be in our own voice, we can stop being disorderly… or hold off saying anything in the first place.
If we paid a great deal of money for tickets to see a performer who is not living up to our expectations, we may be theoretically justified in complaining. But are we ever actually justified in disrupting someone who has the right to be doing what they are doing, even if they are doing it poorly? What about those genuinely giving all that we have, even when it is not enough for those around us?
There is a great difference between feedback and heckling. People are entitled to let us know when we need to do something differently or better in line with expectations. But heckling is a form of shaming, and it is demoralizing to endure aggressive and rude comments when we are running short, whether our performance is on a paid stage or in the ordinary company of our peers. Chances are, we know we are failing. Verbal shaming does nothing but cultivate resentment, isolation and hostility. Let our voices remain merciful when the need for feedback arises.
Offer interpersonal rest
Autism and spoon theory have much in common. Autistics begin with a limited amount of interpersonal energy each day, and each task uses our available units until our energy is gone and we need to recharge. Some days we start out with a full battery. Others, we have not fully recharged before jumping in. Some tasks require only a little energy; others deplete our supply after only a few minutes. Freedom to rest allows us to recharge and function more fully when we return. Our need to rest from interpersonal activities is very real, and offering this gift shows a true interest in our wellness – which we do not often encounter, especially when our need to stay home or sit quietly is seen as something wrong or an affront to those who are more inclined to interact. Offering us rest is a true sign of friendship.
Embrace the irregular
Every one of us has a set of patterns we know and follow. We have our own rules, preferences and sense of what is good. We also carry a rough sketch of our expectations for what will happen and what the people around us will do. Life does not always cooperate with our plans, however; nor do those with whom we live and work and encounter in our daily doings. Some people do things in completely different ways than we expect. We can become outraged or impatient when things seem too different. Sometimes, irregularities are objectively wrong for the situation. Most times, they are just… different. For those times when different is just different, letting it go can cultivate peace instead of strife… and, can help us feel accepted and valuable, even when we know we are different.
One last word for those of us on the autism spectrum:
Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves can be hard to comprehend. Many days, autistics feel like we are asked to conform to other people’s expectations, which puts our neighbors BEFORE ourselves. We have difficulty finding that balance between meeting our own needs and meeting the needs (or, expectations) of others. Perhaps these works of mercy can be a beginning, for those of us who are autistic, to understand how God desires us to be treated. Perhaps we can learn to love better by extending these acts, first, to ourselves, and letting that be the example for how to love our neighbor.
- Aimée O’Connell, T.O.Carm.
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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