As many of us are settling into new settings and routines built around the academic year, we want to take time to pause and reflect on how we communicate as Missionaries of Saint Thorlak. We have previously examined our Missionary Statement and Objectives in terms of how they might be experienced and enacted by each of us as we go about our days in the ordinary places we live and work and rejoice and struggle. All our Missionary actions hinge on relationship and communication in one way or another, both on the ends of giving and receiving.
The capability to communicate is often confused with, even substituted for, actual relationship. We find ourselves greatly influenced by emotions of real people and emotionally-loaded digital content alike, and, yes, we autistics are particularly attuned to our emotional climate, whether our faces or words might suggest otherwise. It is very easy to get caught up in emotions surrounding those causes which impassion our hearts. It is even easier to defend these causes when we feel empowered by others speaking out and writing passionately in words which resonate in our own struggles.
The purpose of this week’s thought is to glance at our communication habits and see how well they align with our spiritual concept of relationship. Why do this? Because: As we relate to others, so we relate to God. Our communication habits reflect the manner in which we connect with one another, and, so also, with God.
These questions are meant to guide us in self-reflection. They are not intended to be asked aloud.
“Communication” can be any form of conveying thoughts or ideas to others. It can be verbal or non-verbal, graphic or text, spoken or written, electronic or face-to-face.
May this brief exercise help set the tone for our role as Missionaries-in-Place, bringing the methods of our patron Saint Thorlak in line with what is relevant to us in our time… and seeing how it brings us all, collectively, to deeper connections with God and one another.
MISSIONARY THOUGHTS weekly posts will resume on September 30.
In the meantime, please enjoy the following article on the Nicene Creed by Fr. Mark Nolette as a complement to our Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking. This article originally appears in HARVEST magazine, a publication of the Diocese of Portland, Maine, which can be accessed here:
This week, we are very grateful to be able to share this conversation about inclusion, autism and initiatives underway in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to meet you! Can you please tell us about yourself, your position in the Archdiocese, and how you arrived here?
I am a graduate from the University of Dayton with a BA in Religious Studies and a minor in both Women’s Studies and Social Work. Beginning in 2004, I served as Coordinator of Youth Ministry and married my college sweetheart, Andy. After our second child was born, I felt called to be a stay-at-home mom in order to focus on our family. I am now a mom of four children (Ava- 12, Ella- 9, Andrew- 6, Greta- 4). Last year, I started to feel the pull to re-enter ministry work. I applied for the position of Associate Director for Respect Life Ministries for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and was fortunate to be offered a job-sharing position with my now colleague Kara. I love my job and have really enjoyed working in this position for the last year. Currently, I am working towards certification in Special Needs Ministry.
My position in the Respect Life Office is very versatile. Our focus is the God-given dignity of the human person from conception until natural death, so as you can imagine, we have a lot on our plates. We cover everything from abortion to disability awareness and advocacy to human trafficking to capital punishment. To see the whole range of topics that we minister to, check out our podcast: Being Prolife at www.catholiccincinnati.org/being-pro-life/
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati offers an impressive collection of autism and special needs resources on its webpages, particularly relating to inclusion, social support and optimizing learning styles. How did the Archdiocese go about compiling these resources?
We have researched other pages to find useful resources and have also created some original materials based on feedback from families who have members with special needs and those who work in the field. Our goal is to provide as much as possible for those with disabilities: the deaf community, the blind, those with autism, and those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“Autism” is a construct that has been defined and redefined several times since it was first recognized as a diagnosis in the 1940s. How would you characterize the philosophical approach taken by the Office for Respect Life with regard to autism?
Our goal is to help those with Autism realize how very needed and wanted they are in their parish communities and the church at large, and to encourage meaningful participation in the Sacraments and parish life. We are all part of the Body of Christ and we need everyone’s inclusion and participation for us to truly work towards creating God’s Kingdom here on Earth. Those with Autism have just as much to contribute as the rest of society. The important focus is for us to grow in our understanding of one another so that we can love and embrace people for who they really are.
We are also working towards advocacy and awareness within our parishes. Through our Sensory-Friendly Liturgies (which are held during regularly schedule Mass times) we are trying to eliminate the stigma that is often felt by those with Autism and other special needs.
Do you have any personal ties to autism?
When I was in high school I baby-sat for a five year old boy who was on the spectrum.
I also had a young man in the youth ministry program at a parish that I worked at who had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. He was very near and dear to my heart and we are still in touch.
While I do not have any immediate family members who have been diagnosed as on the spectrum, two of my children have been diagnosed with significant sensory processing issues.
Have you collaborated with any other Diocese in developing parish-level resources for the autistic community?
We are currently in conversation with the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan and the Diocese of Fort Wayne, Indiana in order to share resources and information. Our office is also in communication with the National Catholic Partnership on Disabilities, which has a wealth of resources. The Toledo and Columbus dioceses have also both shared resources with us.
You already offer Sensory-Friendly Masses on a regular basis and have a well-established outreach for families. What other initiatives or ongoing activities are in the works?
We are hoping to create a sense of community and perhaps put together a planning committee that would work towards advocacy within our parishes. Our role will be to act as a resource in helping the parishes within the Archdiocese of Cincinnati do a better job at welcoming those with Autism, and making the appropriate adaptations to provide meaningful participation.
How have the autistic Catholics in your area helped develop these initiatives?
We have several families who have children with autism on the planning team for our Sensory-Friendly Liturgies. We are hoping to reach out to those with Autism and families who have members with special needs to be a part of our planning team. The most important thing right now is for people to share their stories. We want to know how we can better meet the needs of those who might feel marginalized or those that feel that the Catholic Church does not have a place for them.
Have you gotten any feedback from autistic Catholics? Can you share any of that here?
Yes, we have gotten feedback from Catholics with autism and their family members! Here are a few quotes from our Facebook page @specialneedsAoC :
“It is great to go to church with my family. I can attend the sensory friendly mass calmly because I feel I am accepted as I am. Good people coordinate setting up the room and bringing communion. I feel so blessed to know them. Good to participate and learn about our faith and receive the sacraments. Children hear God’s word and learn that they belong to a church family. Meeting awesome friends and talking with them is something I look forward to. We are lucky to have this opportunity and I wish more people take advantage and bring their kids to mass. It is nice to have some place to feel God’s presence.” ~RS
"We really enjoyed the mass. It was very welcoming and we felt we could truly relax and enjoy God's presence with other families experiencing a similar life journey. The picture map of mass was a wonderful tool to help explain the flow of mass. Thank you to everyone who helped arrange the mass and I look forward to attending future similar masses."
"We absolutely loved it, and we look forward to the many more masses we can attend like this in our area....my daughter is starting middle school, and we would LOVE an adaptive CCD or RE program too."
Are there areas (overall, not simply in your Archdiocese) in which you still see needs waiting to be addressed among autistic Catholics?
Yes there are so many. I feel that we are just touching the tip of the iceberg, but I hope that with time and intentional effort, we can work to make improvements across the Archdiocese and hopefully the entire Church. As I mentioned before, the biggest need we have as a church is for those with autism to share their stories. With increased awareness, more change will come.
FREE SPACE: Please use this space to add anything you feel is important or would like to share, personally!
Thank you so much for this opportunity to share what we are doing. I strongly believe that as we connect with other dioceses and work with the other offices within our own Archdiocese we will be able to better meet the needs of those with Autism in our parishes.
I also want to thank you for the work that you are doing. The families that attended our recent Sensory-Friendly Liturgies absolutely gravitated towards the St. Thorlak resources.
SPECIAL THANKS TO NOELLE COLLIS-DEVITO FOR THIS INTERVIEW.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT http://www.catholiccincinnati.org/ministries-offices/respect-life-2/inclusion-ministry/autism-idd/
Towards a Spirituality of Autistic Life
by Fr. Mark P. Nolette, Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak
The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. By the Lord has this been done; it is wonderful in our eyes. – Psalm 118:22-23
A thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. – 2 Corinthians 12:7-9
Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God. – 1 Corinthians 1: 26-29
What does it mean to be Catholic and autistic? How can autistic people encounter the Lord in their lives? What do autistic Catholics offer to the rest of the Church, to the entire Body of Christ? How does an autistic person exist in the image and likeness of God? Can God have an autistic face? If so, what might such a face look like?
First of all, let us recall that autistic people remain human beings. Autistic people are also sinners in need of redemption. We need the grace, reconciliation and salvation that is found in Christ through His Church. We need to be incorporated into the very life of the Triune God. We need the Church. We need the Sacraments. We need prayer. We need the example and the inspiration of the saints, both past and present. We need to live lives of committed, faithful, just and persevering love. In all these ways, we are the same as all other people.
Yet, we are not quite the same. We are on the autism spectrum. For some of us, it may be more obvious than for others. Nevertheless, for all of us on the spectrum, autism is a reality that permeates every aspect of our lives. Autism is a way of being in the world, or perceiving the world, and of responding to the world that makes us “different”. Not better or worse; simply different. We would then expect that our life of faith – the way that we as autistic people encounter God and respond to God – will be at least somewhat different than that of others because of our autism. Not different in the sense that we experience things that no one else experiences at all. Different in the sense that certain experiences that are present in the lives of most people – at least to a limited extent – are far more prominent in our lives because we are autistic.
Think of these examples. Everyone deals with other people, but only certain people are very social and choose a calling that requires such a social nature. Everyone is alone – or needs to be alone – now and then, but only certain people choose to live alone as something essential to their calling. It is the same with us as autistic people when we see ourselves in the midst of humanity as a whole.
What does it mean to be autistic? If we look to the DSM-5 under “Autism Spectrum Disorder “ (note the term ‘disorder’), we will find a description of various characteristics. Intense special interests. A strong sense of being apart from others. A love of routine and of ritualized behavior, and a hatred of change. Difficulties with empathy. And so on.
Note that all of these characteristics are considered abnormal and therefore pathological. They are seen as weaknesses, as expressions of a disturbance or disorder, as symptoms that something is not right with us. To be different from the vast majority of other people makes us somehow disordered, pathological, psychologically unwell. That’s the unspoken implication of the way that all the behaviors that set us apart as autistic are described.
Now, it is possible that any or all of these behaviors could become pathological. This can happen if we do not know or accept that we are autistic, and do not understand why we do what we do or respond as we do. This can happen if others have somehow abused us or taken advantage of us. This can happen if we find ourselves in a life situation that is simply too much for us as autistic people. But – and this is a BIG but – autistic behaviors need not be pathological. As Tony Attwood noted in his book on Asperger’s Syndrome, if you leave an autistic person alone – or pair that person with someone who shares one of his/her intense interests – there is no sign of pathology at all. None of our autistic behaviors need be pathological or bad or destructive. In fact, it is my contention that every one of them can become a way for us to encounter the Lord, and for others to encounter the Lord in us. Yes, that which has marked us off as unlike others, or inferior to others, can become the cornerstone on which the Lord builds His grace in our lives.
Accordingly, I will now explore several experiences or behaviors that are characteristic of us as autistic people, and show how each one has a definite parallel in the story of God’s relationship to His People throughout the Scriptures and the history of the Church. This will help us, as autistic people, to reframe these experiences and behaviors as encounters with God, and it will help those who are not autistic to see how autistic people, by their very presence in the Church, are reminders to the whole People of God of some fundamental truths about God and about what it means to belong to God in His Church.
1) The Experience of Otherness
We autistic people – even before we know ourselves as autistic – experience ourselves as ‘other’, as different in some definite but almost inexpressible way from other people. There is often a profound sense of being disconnected from other people. We may want to connect with others or fit in now and then, but may have no clue how to do so. Looking at other people, we may feel like anthropologists studying some newly-discovered primitive tribe. (What are they doing? Why are they doing that?) Usually, we are content to be alone, even though we value our friends and want to be with them from time to time. Even among friends, however, we feel ‘other’; we feel different. Others tell us that we are different, and that is rarely said as a compliment. We feel misunderstood, isolated, alone. If we do not understand what this sense of ‘otherness’ can point to in a positive sense, we will end up seeing it as a negative reflection on ourselves. We then feel hopelessly flawed, or hopelessly unseen.
Can we find an experience of otherness in our Catholic tradition? Definitely! From the very beginning, God is called holy. We usually associate holiness with great goodness, but that was not the original meaning of ‘holy’. ‘Holy’ meant ‘other’. “I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst.” God was seen as the Radically Other. God was not like anything else we could know in our world. God is Other. If God is holy in the sense of being Other, then His People must also be Holy. They must be Other. They cannot be like the nations that are all around. Here is where the sense of holiness as goodness enters the picture. We are Other as God’s people. Therefore, we cannot live like everyone else. No, we must live according to God’s ways. This sense of God as Holy, as Other, and the sense of God’s People as also Holy and Other, is found in both Old and New Testaments.
In this light, we can say that one important reason why we as autistic people, because of our unusual sensitivities, feel like we are ‘other’ is because we have an unconscious sense of the presence of God who is Other. Moreover, our presence among the people of God is meant to remind them that they, too, must be ‘other’. They cannot live like everyone else does. They belong to God, who is Other. Their lives need to be in harmony with the ways of God, which are not necessarily the ways of nations and cultures. This is not a popular message in a society that claims to honor diversity but demands uniformity. Followers of Christ must be different. We must be Other. We autistic people help remind our sisters and brothers of this.
2) Repetitive Behaviors/Love Of Routines/Hatred of Change
We autistic people tend to like doing things in a certain way. We usually like to have things in certain places, and to follow certain routines. The unexpected can be very hard on us. It takes time and effort to adapt to any change. We may soothe ourselves with repetitive motions. In a society that values newness and change, such behaviors and attitudes appear as problems. Other people cannot understand why we act as we do, or why change is so painful for us. They only see it negatively.
Can our Catholic tradition enlighten us? Yes. We have already spoken of the holiness of God in our tradition. How do people respond in the presence of the Holy? In the Old Testament, they did special washings, they followed certain rules, and they maintained a certain distance between the Ark of the Covenant (which symbolized God’s presence) and everyone else. In the New Testament and in the Church since then, we have liturgies, sacraments, and various styles of prayer. In other words, we have established routines, repetitive behaviors that rarely change, when we are in the presence of the Holy. That’s what liturgy is. That’s what ritual is. That’s how people have instinctively responded to the presence of the Holy for thousands of years. That’s how we as Catholic Christians respond to the Holy among us now.
In this light, we can say that our routines and repetitive behaviors – though they do soothe us – may also flow from an unconscious or subconscious sense of the presence of the Holy, of God, among us. We can see them as reminders that we are in God’s presence always. Other people, who are not autistic, can learn to see these behaviors as reminders that they, too, are always in the presence of the Holy – God – no matter where they are or what they do.
3) Special Interests
We autistic people, from our earliest memories, have had a sense of otherness, of separation from people in general and the world around us. We perceive ourselves as unique in ways we cannot define or express. This sense of otherness would appear to lead us into the direction of total isolation. But then, something draws our attention. Something that attracts and fascinates us. This thing becomes the first breach in our isolation, a crack through which the beauty of the world first captures our notice and through which our wonder and awe first pour forth. This is not obsessive. This is falling in love with the beauty of reality. The thing that enraptures us could be something generic, like dinosaurs, or something more specific, like a specific part of a vacuum cleaner. To others who do not share this love, our focus seems excessive and obsessive. To us, it is sheer delight. Our greatest act of love is to share it with someone else. Here is where we first learn to love.
Can our Catholic tradition say something about this? Yes, indeed. We have something called the doctrine of election (and I’m not referring to voting). It means that, out of all the peoples of the world, God chose a people – Israel – for Himself. Not because Israel was better in any way, nor because God hated other nations, but because God wanted one people to come to know Him, to witness to Him, and to be the means through which all the nations of the world would find the blessing of faith in Him. This sense of election continues in the New Testament and beyond. Those who become members of Christ’s Body, the Church, are the new Israel, the new People of God. We are chosen, not because we are better than others in any way, but for God’s own purposes: that we might witness to the world through our lives the Gospel given us by Our Lord Jesus Christ, especially in His Passion, Death and Resurrection. We are the “breach”, so to speak, through which Christ can pour forth His love and grace into a wounded world.
In this light, we can say the following. First of all, we autistic people can think of our special interests – whatever they are – and tell ourselves, “I am one of God’s special interests. God loves me even more than I love my favorite things!” Secondly, our special interests remind others that they, too, are chosen by God to be a part of His Church and that they are loved even more than we autistic people love our interests (and that’s saying something). Thirdly, our special interests are really a training ground for love. In first learning to love one thing, we begin to learn how to love other people and God as well.
We autistic people run into a serious misunderstanding on the part of other people when it comes to empathy. Because we may have difficulty knowing what we feel, let alone expressing it, people may assume that we do not feel for others. The problem here is that people do not realize that there are two kinds of empathy, as Simon Baron Cohen points out in his work: cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to “read” another person and understand what that person is feeling. With autistic people, cognitive empathy is impaired or even absent. We usually have a very difficult time in reading someone else’s feelings, until we learn to do so after many years of life. Affective empathy is the ability to care about how the other person is feeling. Some studies suggest that autistic people often have a high degree of affective empathy, even if they cannot always demonstrate it well to others. If we are told that someone feels upset or hurt, we will feel upset or hurt.
Combine this with the autistic person’s usual sense of otherness or isolation, and something interesting begins to emerge. If an autistic person acts on his/her feelings of affective empathy, that person is not likely to feel much affirmation for that act of love. This is partly due to the autistic person’s sense of isolation, and partly due to how difficult it is for the autistic person to express feelings or other inner motivations. For example, here is a story about a young autistic man who began to serve at a homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Some of the homeless people accused him of being “a bad man” because he did not seem warm like the other volunteers. Stories like this one suggest that, whenever an autistic person chooses to love, that love (if it is to last) will become an unconditional love very quickly. The young man had very little feedback or praise, and lots of questions in his own mind. But he believed that this ministry was what God was calling him to do, and that was enough. If that isn’t unconditional love, I have never seen it.
Here we get to the very core of our Catholic tradition. Our faith tells us that God is love. But what kind of love? A total, selfless, unconditional love. A love that seeks a response, to be sure. Nevertheless, an unconditional love. We have St. Paul’s meditation on love in 1 Corinthians 13. We have St. Paul writing to the Philippians about how Christ emptied Himself, took the form of a slave, and died on the Cross out of love for us. We have numerous other witnesses to this love – not to mention countless saints who incarnated this Love in their lives, each in their own way.
In this light, we autistic people can see our affective empathy, and the misunderstandings we may encounter as we try to serve others, as an invitation from Our Lord to love as He loves, to have His love dwell in our hearts in all its fullness. People who are not autistic, but who understand that we are, will see in us a model of disinterested love, a love that gets nothing out of it, but loves for love’s own sake. Is this not the kind of love most needed in our world now?
Now that you’re warmed up, see if you can go on from here. Think of some characteristic of autistic people that I have not mentioned here. Does it remind you of anything you have ever read in Scripture or learned about your faith? See if you can make a connection like I have here.
It is my hope that these few words will help people both on and off the spectrum to see autistic people in a different light. God often chooses those whom the world dismisses and works His wonders in and through them. Autistic people are among God’s little ones. Let no one tell you otherwise.
After touching on a few more of the current topics regarding the spirituality of autism, we will be returning to posting our Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking. To prepare for that, we offer this week’s post as a checkpoint of where we are in the lessons we are examining.
Previous posts have covered nearly all of Lesson One of the Baltimore Catechism. The Lesson concludes with the following questions and answers:
How shall we know the things which we are to believe?
We shall know the things which we are to believe from the Catholic Church, through which God speaks to us.
Where shall we find the chief truths which the Catholic Church teaches?
We shall find the chief truths which the Catholic Church teaches in the Apostles’ Creed.
This week, let us comment on these two questions.
The Baltimore Catechism was ostensibly prepared and published for use by school-aged children being raised in the Catholic faith. However, it is still a valid and informative resource outside that context – for instance, as a starting point for those unfamiliar with, or seriously questioning, the Catholic faith. To that end, this week’s questions seem almost circular. “How do we know what to believe, if we want to be Catholic?” – “Find out by being Catholic.” It also seems a bit too direct for many sensibilities if we conceptualize “The Catholic Church” as a monarchy (or worse, a dictatorship). Autistics often feel the tension between a desire for truth and the cultural persuasion to see truth as a relative construct.
In reality, the Catholic Church is a much broader entity than a mere governing board. “Church” means both the community of believers and the structure surrounding us – both in a literal and figurative sense. The structure can be both bricks in the building in which we worship and the beliefs we hold as part of that community.
The Catholic Church as a community of believers does indeed have people in charge, from the top down, and these people are as human as anyone we know. Some of them are skilled leaders. Some are shining examples of honesty and integrity. Some are insincere. Some are manipulative. Some start out one way and are influenced into acting another way, for better or for worse. All are human. All have the same potential for growth, for grace and for salvation. If any of us are looking for that one leader who makes no mistakes, who never lapses in judgment, who has no weaknesses, let us stop here. We will not find perfect people in the Catholic Church. But this is a function of our humanity, not a failure on the Church’s part. We are exactly as likely to find flawed people anywhere else we look. The Catholic Church was not established on any pretense of perfection, and anyone who tells us otherwise is plain wrong. (The Church does exist, in part, to teach us to strive toward perfection, but the understanding has always been that we are not there yet, and cannot reach that mark until we have completed our earthly lifetimes).
The phrasing of the Baltimore Catechism does reflect its nineteenth-century origin. However, it remains accurate to say, “If we want to understand the Catholic way of life, study the totality of the Catholic Church, and we’ll find out.” And, yes: Catholics do believe that God speaks to us through the design and operation of this Church. The Baltimore text explains that this includes the teachings of the Pope, the councils, bishops and the priests. We can go further and add deacons, lay ministers and earnestly practicing Catholics in the pews. The lives of the saints also give us great insight about what it means to live the Catholic faith. Though there are certain basic tenets, there are as many valid expressions of this faith as there are individuals following it.
These basic tenets are indeed enumerated in the Apostles’ Creed. This prayer is more often recited in private or small-group prayer than the Nicene Creed, which is prayed by the entire congregation at Holy Mass each week. The two creeds are basically the same, with the Nicene Creed being a revised wording to more specifically define elements of the faith causing confusion prior its clarification in the fourth century.
The Baltimore Catechism proceeds next into a detailed discussion of the Apostles’ Creed. Our Spiritual Director, Fr. Mark Nolette, is producing a series of articles diving into the relevance and complexities of Nicene Creed. Fr. Nolette's series will be an excellent resource for our Annotated Catechism. When those links become live, we will post them here.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak’s reach is growing, and so are our needs. Right now, our website is available only in printed English. While many of our devices offer page reading and automated translation into other languages, many of us know this is far from ideal in capturing the spirit of what is written there.
In short: We need writers and speakers of other languages to volunteer their time and talent in translating our resources.
We will begin with the fixed quantities: the prayers and the informational pages come first, and then we can consider how to go about translating the other content. Trying to imagine more than that at this stage (such as, translating our daily social media reflections) requires greater long-range vision than even our wild optimism can muster – yet, we never presume to limit the workings of God, and are open to any pleasant surprises that might come our way.
The details, then: If you, or someone you know, would like to take part in the Mission: Translation project, fill out the form on this page and await further instructions. We will get back to you with your assigned portion and the particulars of getting that back to us. Please note there are opportunities for both audio dictation and printed text translation.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak is not yet incorporated in the business realm. We are 100% volunteer. We pay in gratitude and prayer, both of which are sincere and heartfelt, and we’d like to offer this as an opportunity to connect with one another in a new and profoundly meaningful way. Those in our readership who strive to support the autistic community, here is a way to do so without need of fundraising. Fellow autistics, here is a way to share your gifts, literally, with the world.
Please share this opportunity in your other communities as well. This is crowdsourcing at its most pure, and word of mouth is our greatest asset. Think of as many creative applications as exist in your circles. School project? Service opportunity? Badge earning? Club activity? Senior center offering? Date night? After-dinner plans? The possibilities are endless. Please, share this with those you know and on social media.
One more thing: Please, PRAY that this far-reaching vision may take shape in real time and real space. All to the glory of God!
Please note: We will be returning to our Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking in September.
Quite a few people ask us questions about prayer. Very often, these questions center around conflict, mercy and forgiveness. Many of us who have endured criticism, misunderstanding, bullying, thoughtlessness and betrayal do not feel well-disposed to prayer. Even more pronounced are those who have the courage to say that they are too angry to pray – and this anger is often directed at God Himself. Life can be stacked very unfairly, and autistic life seems all the more so. A God who already knows how greatly we struggle ought to give us a break now and then, especially when it comes to things that are not our fault. Unexpected losses – from jobs to friendships to death – just add to the insults we find ourselves processing.
Injustices happen all the time. Unyielding hearts make our lives unbearably hard. Social cues are hard enough to memorize… and now we have to parse out which ones are the ones we stick to, and which ones we compromise, when it comes to “loving our neighbor,” “honoring our father and mother” and “forgiving seventy times seven times.” The Gospels preach mercy and love, oblivious to the pain we feel, and more oblivious to the minds of those causing us pain. We know the message. We know the challenge it presents. But when does it apply to the others around us? When do our friends, family members, coworkers, neighbors get to hear that the message is also for them, that they too are obligated to reach out to us, understand our limitations, accept our differences, extend to us seventy times seven more opportunities to get it right? And that we do not deserve to be talked down to, ignored, ridiculed or discarded?
This is where prayer short-circuits. Justice and mercy only make sense when they apply equally to everyone, not just some of us. It is all the more confounding to try and pray when we ourselves are wounded. It feels prohibitive, if not absurd.
The answers we provide as Missionaries of Saint Thorlak are not definitive solutions or platitudes, but rather, are reassurances and reminders of some key points about prayer itself. For one, prayer is nothing more than turning our mind toward God. Sometimes it involves words; many times, it does not. All times, it acknowledges on some level that God’s love for us is real and unconditional, even if we do not feel it, even if we do not understand it. We must concede that much as true. It may be that we do this grudgingly or skeptically, but there must be some form of accepting that God loves us no matter how messy things are at the moment of prayer.
Secondly, there are as many emotions resulting from prayer as exist in our human palette. Angry prayers are no less valid than joyful prayers. To expect happiness in every prayer is as unrealistic as expecting our daily conversations to be chipper and cheerful 100% of the time. God created humans as emotional beings. We glorify His design by embracing those emotions, authentically.
A suggestion we often give for a starting point in situations like this is the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, since this is a relatively short devotion with easily memorized and familiar words. In the wondrous ways of the Holy Spirit, saying this prayer seems to open doors toward acceptance and forgiveness which ordinarily remain barricaded. Here is how we experience this working: the words themselves, when examined literally, are directed toward God – the Head, the Creator, the Designer – and refer to Jesus, the One who endured the worst of all human mistreatment. Jesus was sold out by his friends, shrugged off by his relatives, mocked by his superiors and beaten (literally) by the crowd… for nothing they ever consistently pinned down, other than the fact he made them see things they did not want to look at in themselves. The Divine Mercy Chaplet’s refrain says this: “Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Your Dearly Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world. For the sake of His Sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world!”
What this prayer does is take the injustice we hold and show it to God, begging Him to use it to make things right again.
“For the sake of all the horrible things people do, show us what good can come out of it!”
“For the sake of the greatest injustice of all, restore things to the way you intended them to be!”
“For all the ways people hurt one another, grab their attention and show them that enough is enough!”
Theologically, there is much more to the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ than these simplifications. But this is the essence of messy prayer. When we’ve been hurt and stepped on too many times, we aren’t in a good place where deep theological meditation is going to mean much. We need something for when we are messy. We need a prayer we can pray in hurt, just as well as in anger, just as well as in pleading, just as well as in praise.
“For the sake of His Sorrowful Passion” – so that Jesus won’t have put up with this horrible treatment for nothing – “have mercy on us, and on the whole world.” That includes having mercy on So and So, who refuses to help, who calls me horrible things, who mocks me to my face and behind my back, who won’t speak to me, who treats me like a burden, who is never satisfied. Have mercy on Those People, too, who infuriate me with their ignorance and refuse to listen to other points of view. Have mercy on the ones I can’t.
It’s shocking for many to imagine praying like this, especially when we have been taught to love and forgive. Yet, how quickly we forget one of the last prayers said by Jesus Himself as He was being dragged through the streets in public humiliation: “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.”
Even Jesus Himself – who forgives people repeatedly, throughout Scripture – cannot, and DOES NOT, forgive those attacking him in his hour of disgrace. He delegates it to God, who is able to forgive outside the bounds of linear time, who will exist beyond Jesus’ last breath and who can wait eternally for these people to finally come to their senses and use that opportunity to see where they were wrong.
Yes, we are called to pray. Yes, we are called to love. Yes, we are called to forgive. But it was never said that it will not be messy. In fact, most authentic prayer in Scripture took place in very messy situations, if we read the stories. And, in all cases, messy prayer triumphed.
May we, then, help each other in our messy times, our messy lives, with our messy prayers… and, together, witness and experience the Truth and Mercy of God in our community.
This week, we continue our look at How to Welcome, Include and Catechize Children with Autism and Other Special Needs by Deacon Lawrence R. Sutton, PhD.
From A Catholic Parent of Autistic Children
The first thing which really stands out for me is that this does not read like the other books I have read by autism experts describing autistic kids. Here we have a licensed psychologist and former manager of his state’s Bureau of Autism Services writing about autistic children in a way that states all the same facts as every other book, but does so with the intent of explaining how autistic kids develop relationships – with themselves, with peers, with teachers, and with the world around them. The “understanding autism” section lists all the usual headings – social skills, communication skills, rigid and restricted behavior, stimming – but describes how autistic behaviors are kids’ ways of making sense of the expectations of other people. It reads like a two-way translation guide, rather than a list of “deficits we can expect.” As a parent of autistic kids, it feels great to have an “expert” acknowledge that our kids’ behaviors are their unique and complex ways of compensating for the things they can’t understand!
I also appreciate the honesty in this book when it comes to how it feels to have kids whose behaviors don’t make sense to others. Parents are often told on the one hand that this is how our kids cope with the world, and then, many times, we are told on the other hand that, in settings like church, they have to curb these behaviors for the sake of not bothering others. This book candidly acknowledges that some parishes are not yet comfortable with autistic behavior, and it just as candidly challenges such communities to examine these attitudes from the perspective of autistic children and their parents. If all parishes truly welcomed autistic kids the way the author’s parish does, we would see drastic increases in church attendance and participation, and I know it would bless the entire community.
What I enjoyed best is reading about the program itself, which is described in the second half of the book. A lot of this section applies more to parish staff than me as a parent reading it, but the idea is that parishes can offer individual instruction to autistic kids by having teens (who have been trained and prepared for teaching the faith) act as mentors. I know my children would take to this model immediately if it were offered at our parish. It is positive peer role modeling at its best, and could see my kids coming week after week if they knew their mentors were waiting to greet them and cheer them on. What a beautiful way to make faith come alive! What’s more, the parents bringing kids to instruction also form their own supportive group where we would have the forum to share our own fears and triumphs and realize we’re not alone. So many times I have brought my kids to things and felt like a misfit myself because nobody else realizes what a huge deal it is to get my children there in the first place, never mind the dread I have of the phone call saying they need to get picked up early. It’s very isolating. So, this program also has a support in place for parents like me who really need it.
Overall, this book is an inspiration to read. The only critical point I have is that some people will be put off by Lawrence Sutton’s use of person-first language. The book repeatedly talks about “children with autism.” It is not an issue for me, but I know a lot of people prefer saying “autistic children.” With everything else written in such a positive tone, I don’t think this was meant in an ableist manner, and I don’t think it should be taken that way. I certainly did not feel put off! Thank you, Deacon Sutton, for answering the call of God in your parish in such a beautiful and far-reaching response!
For the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at the book How to Welcome, Include, and Catechize Children with Autism and Other Special Needs by Lawrence R. Sutton, Ph.D. This book, published in 2013, highlights the success of a parish-based sacramental preparation and religious education program designed to give autistic children an opportunity to engage in learning about their Catholic faith which recognizes and celebrates the traits which distinguish them from non-autistic fellow Catholics. Dr. Sutton is an autism specialist who is also an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church.
The book is a fast read and is organized, as its title suggests, as a practical guide for other parishes to consider implementing programs in a similar fashion. The conclusion points to an actual curriculum which arose from Dr. Sutton’s pilot project and may be purchased through the book’s publishing company, Loyola Press; however, the book stands on its own points quite well and does not come across as a promotional tool.
We thought it would be helpful to review the ideas in this book from the different perspectives of those who are most likely to pursue this topic in the first place. This week, we hear from an autistic Catholic adult.
"Lawrence Sutton directs much of his writing toward championing the children likely to struggle in a classroom setting because their processing styles are not compatible with that mode of teaching and learning. He does so in a wonderfully descriptive and supportive way by discussing behaviors which might be pegged as disruptive, but instead explains how these behaviors function as means of coping with the sensory and emotional overload of being autistic in a large group setting. He never once characterizes these behaviors as problematic. Rather, he emphasizes that autistic children quickly reach their limits in large settings and rely on stimming to modulate their anxiety and increases focus. In many settings, through no fault of anyone involved, stimming creates distraction and discomfort for those in charge and those in attendance. He places no blame on either side, which gives the book a very positive and encouraging feel without compromising anyone’s needs, be those the needs of the child or the needs of the teachers to comfortably maintain focus.
Reading this book brought several thoughts to mind from my own experiences growing up. I dreaded youth groups and religion classes because the setting overwhelmed me and I made minimal connection with the material being presented. I was more the type to hide in the background; my anxiety did not create any disruptions or distractions because I coped by trying to be invisible. As a result, the sense of being part of the parish community was never real to me. I felt like a visitor in my own church, week after week. Dr. Sutton’s approach addresses this need equally well. From the very first chapter, he emphasizes that religious education and sacramental instruction, at their very foundations, are based on relationships: between parish staff and parishioners, between parishioners, between teachers and students, between mentors and mentees, and, ultimately, between each individual and God, who is revealed ever more fully in each sacramental encounter. Group instruction, in his estimation, should come together only by leaders and attendees knowing each other as individuals in the same community. Therein lies the greatest value of this book, in that it does not attempt to fit autistic children into yet another group – it spells out how to know each autistic person one at a time, and thus celebrate their presence by meeting them wherever they are in their ability to participate.
I am far past the age of sacramental preparation and religious instruction, so I read this more as a spectator than one who would benefit directly. That said, Dr. Sutton’s philosophy inspires me to the point where I would gladly help implement programming like this in my own parish… which speaks volumes, since I am just as reluctant now as I ever was to be visible among large groups. The program described in this book would be wonderful to see in action, and I would gladly volunteer my 'autistic expertise' in teaching others how to understand people like me. In that sense, then, Dr. Sutton’s approach benefits all, including autistic adults like me, who are still seeking new ways to experience God in the life of the parish."
Last week, we made the distinction between praying for healing and praying for cure. There are many occasions when cure is appropriate and desirable to pray for – namely, when looking at an otherwise healthy system that is being eroded by disease, illness and imbalance. Healing, on the other hand, is appropriate and desirable for anyone at any stage of wellness or illness. Healing is a restoration, a refurbishment, a renewal of something that is already whole but has experienced physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wear and tear.
When it comes to disabilities, many people think to pray for cure. We must acknowledge a certain logic to this, if the person praying for cure is the disabled person. There are plenty of disabling conditions which create hardship and impairment to the point of chronic pain, unhappiness and loss of livelihood. It is reasonable to think that some disabled people do desire radical change beyond a restoration to their baseline – they want renovation. It is just as reasonable for a person to ask for this kind of miracle in their prayer. We see this happening in Scripture, and we see Jesus affecting cures of many chronic and disabling conditions.
But what about autism? Should there ever be prayers to cure autism?
The simplest answer: Only if I am autistic, and I would like my autism to be permanently transformed into neurotypical wiring.
In all other cases [i.e., I am not autistic, or I would not want to be neurotypical], the answer is “no, thank you.”
HEALING, on the other hand, is nearly always reasonable to pray for, either on our own behalf or for another, autistic and non-autistic alike.
For the most part, these guidelines jibe with most people. However, there are some who will make the case that there are severely disabled people who cannot effectively communicate their desire to be prayed for. Consider, for instance, the nonverbal autistics who are unable to express their thoughts and emotions in ways most others understand. Do those people long for a cure? Is it appropriate to pray for their deliverance from that which impairs them to such an extent that they cannot even pray on their own behalf?
There is a safe response, in that we who petition Almighty God for healing and cures know that He knows best. Sometimes, when our cure will bring us closer to God, it will be granted. Other times, our disability serves a greater purpose than we can see, and cure is not given us. And so, if we errantly pray for someone’s cure, the outcome is not ours to decide.
The bigger issue is whether we should presume that person wants what we feel is best for them. Once again, we offer the simplest response: if we base our prayer on what WE FEEL is best for others, we risk offending their right to seek God’s will for themselves. If our prayer is based on what TRULY IS best for them, we cannot err.
We conclude with some concrete suggestions on the points mentioned above.
Helpful ways to pray for others:
It is better to rethink our intentions if our prayers:
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