As our Churches reopen, we pray everyone will return, including children and adults with autism spectrum disorder. It is fortuitous timing: April is also National Autism Awareness Month (or, for the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, Autism Appreciation Month).
Faith and autism: Adults and children need resources and encouragement
This presents us with a good opportunity to discover more about autism and resources that parishes and individuals can use for faith formation, spiritual growth and more.
Autism spectrum disorder is, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a developmental disorder that affects approximately 1 in 54 children, as well as adults diagnosed, in some cases, long after childhood. Persons with autism have social, behavioral or communication challenges, which can sometimes be quite severe.
"Autism is a different brain structure that creates advantages and disadvantages for life," says Legionaries of Christ Father Matthew P. Schneider, who was diagnosed with autism in 2016. "This brain structure means that we have less of a filter on sensory input, so often need special sensory conditions or need to do things to regulate sensory input."
Other challenges include having trouble understanding what other people are thinking or feeling and an inability to interpret the social cues of others as persons who do not have autism would. This can make interaction with others difficult.
"I find that our brain structure differences," says Father Schneider, "are often like being a foreigner in a neurotypical (nonautistic) world."
Still, as members of the body of Christ, all people with autism have unique gifts to bring and a right to a place at the table. The National Catholic Partnership on Disability's decision to use the word "appreciation" in regards to autism harmonizes beautifully with our faith.
Charleen Katra, executive director of NCPD, explains, "NCPD often highlights the importance of words and the meanings they carry. Hence, in April, NCPD chose to transition from autism 'awareness' and 'acceptance' to autism 'appreciation.'"
The NCPD website – www.ncpd.org – offers informational resources on autism in English and Spanish and catechetical materials specific to faith formation. It has also produced virtual opportunities for everyone to hear from important voices in the autism faith community.
These include a blog post on autism appreciation by Father Mark Nolette, who lives with autism, and a bilingual Facebook event with an autism self-advocate and an autism mother of three.
There have not been many resources about Catholic spirituality and autism, but there is some progress. Father Schneider, familiar to some via his Twitter handles @AutisticPriest and @FrMatthewLC, explores faith, particularly prayer, and autism through regular interaction with others from around the world on social media. He has also written an upcoming book, "God Looks on the Autistic Mind with Love: 52 Devotions for Autistics, Aspies, and Those Who Love Us," slated for publication by Pauline Press.
"The first part [of the book]," says Father Schneider, "covers how autistics pray differently from neurotypicals, and the second half has a series of 52 daily devotions for autistics."
Within the faith family, parishes can build fellowship with persons with autism by, for example, providing a sensory-friendly environment for prayer or offering a Catholic social group or Bible study. And within Scripture, although there is no direct mention of autism, there are verses with deep meaning all can relate to.
"If I had to pick one verse, it might be 1 Samuel 16:7: 'The Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart,'" says Father Schneider. "Often we on the spectrum have pure hearts, but to others we can appear differently. Nonetheless, God, the relationship that really matters, knows our heart."
Pratt's website is www.maureenpratt.com.