The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
In exploring God’s infinite perfection, the Baltimore Catechism leads us to three more attributes to ponder, and all in one sentence. Question 20 of Lesson Two explores the style in which God governs his creation by asking if God is just, holy and merciful. The answer given is a threefold, interrelated “yes,” with each attribute explicitly defined:
Just: Providing what is deserved, whether merit or punishment
Holy: Exalted in goodness
Merciful: Less exacting than justice demands
The Baltimore text gives an example of a judge in a court of law who is motivated by wisdom and virtue. A criminal found guilty in this court will be sentenced according to what is right – no more, no less. Occasionally, circumstance will arise where the person’s guilt is mitigated by factors beyond control, such as impaired thinking, ignorance of the law or extreme and immediate need. In such cases, a just judge would show mercy by overriding the typical sentence with something more fitting, and in no way does this suggest the judge is corrupt or bending any rules. A just judge follows the rules. A holy judge asks what is morally right. A merciful judge considers each person’s humanity and frailty, and keeps or adjusts decisions based on what will lead that person to a better way of life.
When taken together, these three attributes form a solid platform of checks and balances. Any overreliance on one detracts from the ability of the others to achieve their intention. God’s justice is no less real than God’s mercy, yet neither dominate, nor do they switch off and on. All three operate simultaneously at any given moment: justice and mercy bound together in holiness. However many sermons, books and homilies may focus on one aspect over the other, the reality is a constant, perfect and simultaneous triad.
Our post last week considered God in the spiritual tradition of St. Thorlak, which portrays Him against the backdrop of His purpose, which is LOVE. God brought creation into existence with love, through love and for love… so, it ought to follow that God governs creation likewise: with love, through love and for love. This is where we can find a solution among those who assert one aspect of God’s governance over another (that is, the fire-and-brimstone image on the one hand, and the none-are-ever-condemned image on the other). LOVE is what motivates and binds justice, holiness and mercy into one cohesive truth. 1 John 4:18 shows how this works: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” If God is wrathful, there is reason to be afraid – either fearing God’s punishment for what we have done, or fearing that we can never reach or maintain a level of goodness to stay in the safe zone out of God’s way. Likewise, if God holds none of us to any standard of virtue, nothing in any other part of the catechism, or any religious teaching, makes sense. Some will say that Jesus’ death erased sin and guarantees salvation for all, even to the point of eliminating the concept of hell or damnation. That also fails to hold up under scrutiny and test, and it gives rise to a different kind of fear – that of everyone making up their own rules, justifying themselves without consequence, and gradually losing sight of the common good.
Perfect love casts out fear. If God is the essence of love, there ought to be no fear or chaos in God’s governance. The triad of justice and mercy bound by holiness is perfectly balanced, with neither fear of wrath nor moral chaos. Loving justice defends those who are abused and restores what is taken by holding abusers accountable. Loving mercy considers those who stand accused and invites them to choose the better way before the evil of their actions is locked in. Both exist simultaneously. Nobody loses. Those who decline God’s invitation to holiness reap the fullness of justice… and, those who accept God’s invitation to holiness reap the fullness of mercy.
Next week: The Holy Trinity
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Lesson Two of the Baltimore Catechism outlines the characteristics of God which most of us have heard in one way or another. Most of these qualities are beyond anything we can relate to in human terms:
Without anything like this in our concrete reality, it falls to our imaginations to construct our idea of God. That presumes, however, that we have a well-functioning imagination. Many of us do not, and even who do still find this far past the range of speculation. It often seems that our concept of God comes out like the mythical gods of long ago: Giant, thunderous, demanding, frightful in abject perfection (with ourselves, by comparison, looking like wretched fools or worse). In other scenarios, God ends up like a forerunner of Santa Claus, a benevolent grandfather figure who sees everything we do, knowing all that we feel, think and say, and exists to dispense gifts to us based on our merit. Imagining God can feel like living in a snow globe, existing solely for God’s amusement – or abandonment when He tires of watching us. It gets to be such absurdity that we eventually dismiss the whole thing as either too big to imagine, or outright fiction. Autistics particularly struggle with the contradiction of concrete realities which consist of abstract qualities. Perhaps, then, we might start with the implications of God rather than trying to comprehend His descriptions. St. Augustine took this approach in his teachings, and over the centuries, he would influence many others, including our own St. Thorlak. How did he – a scholar, and also a likely autistic – present these heady realities of God to the medieval Catholics of Iceland, few of whom were literate, all of whom labored day and night to survive on fishing and farming in an unreliable and punishing climate?
Thorlak’s intellectual leaning was a peculiarity to his fellow Icelanders, including those at the Oddi, the center of Icelandic scholarship. He found his niche 1,359 miles (2,187 km) abroad, studying theology at the renowned Abbey of St-Victor in Paris. He never intended to subsist on academia, though. Thorlak was eager to return to his homeland with the mission of bringing this marvelous knowledge of God to those unable to pursue theology. And, in the way many fellow autistics have of drawing out profoundly simple yet powerful solutions to confounding complexities, Thorlak showed a way to see the unseeable God by using the backdrop of His purpose: LOVE.
In that manner, then, let us employ the Catechism’s list of attributes to understand not a demanding deity, not an indifferent toymaker in the sky, but One who embodies and defines the essence of love.
We, being human, have the limits of our minds and senses; thus, the first three attributes reflect the limits to how we can know God. God is spiritual, perfect and infinite. Spiritual suggests He exists within the interior and unseen realm, the experience itself of being. One of the earliest translations of “spirit” is “breath.” We can think of God as the breath that says “yes” to all that has existed, exists now, and will exist far beyond our participation. Perfect means complete, whole, without flaw. Infinite: God encompasses the totality of all that is. Since creation is very much alive and unfolding, that totality is not finished, nor can we comprehend how far back it goes or how far ahead it will go on.
Without beginning, without end… everywhere… all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful: These are, in one sense, embellishments on the notion of being infinite. God’s essence and intentionality infuses and sustains all creation, which includes us and the world around us and the universe in which our world exists. But more specifically, these reflect the intentionality of God. He exists not just to exist, but to be, see, know and act. Why?
What if the answer is love? If God is love’s very essence, then creation is the expression of joy so ripe that it had to be given form. The “love” that is God is that creative love underpinning the interests which propel our spirits. God’s love is no mere greeting card sentiment. God’s love is all-consuming, all-knowing, all-seeing and without end. God’s love of the very notion of humanity and earth and universe, and all its intricacies, is indistinguishable from God Himself, and exceeds the capacity of God to remain statically fixed or detached. It is such a burning drive that God, unable to be contained, brought it all into being to experience it.
Repeat: God did not simply imagine us. The delight He took in imagining us was so consuming that He was moved to experience us. Hence, God actively sees, knows and empowers what He has given form and substance.
Autistics know the difference between thinking about something and experiencing that intense rapture which drives us, draws us forward, consumes our minds and feels like the meaning of life itself. Onlookers call this our “special interest.” We go along with that terminology because it avoids degrading our joy into something pejorative, like “obsession,” but it grossly dismisses how greatly that joy affects us. (To the point, who would ever gaze upon a loved one and whisper, “You are my special interest?”)
With “love” as God’s backdrop, we see that he is neither dictator nor spy in the sky. God supplies all, designs all and sustains all because He is love which cannot be contained.
This may still be too much to comprehend or believe, especially when we look around and see everything that is NOT love. Where did all the mess come from, and why does God not step in and clean it up for us? We will continue this discussion as we explore more of the Catechism. In the meantime, let us recall that list in answer to the question, “In what manner does God love us?”
Spiritually. Perfectly. Infinitely. Without beginning or end. Everywhere. Seeing and knowing all, and loving us with all His power.
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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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!
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