authentically autistic catholic…

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Since discovering neuordiversity reigning supreme in our family, it has been a struggle to align certain core values and customs of the Catholic church with the newly discovered science on brain function. You see, to be authentically Catholic and at the same time Authentically Autistic, for example, there is not the structure in place yet to approach teachings that are understandable to the neurodivergent individual.

If anything, the approach that has been used to live and teach the Faith “because that’s they way it has always been done” is driving away those who no longer find living inside that box of someone else’s making a comfortable place to be.

Let’s take two examples.


This is a big one. Probably the biggest problem.

For a neurotypical, the checklist of sins makes sense. And, with due diligence and a critical sense of introspection, they will dutifully check off those offenses accordingly.

But for a neurodivergent, they can look through the same list and declare, ‘But none of this applies to me!”

Is this a sin of pride? Of arrogance?

From the perspective of the typical person, it is. But there is a failure to realize that there are multiple factors the divergent person experiences that do not apply to those with different life perspectives.

Memorize the teachings…

To a neurotypical person, memorizing is normal. Because it has been the standard for hundreds of years, it is assumed that this is how the Church has always taught.

But if you read the church as it existed in the New Testament, that wasn’t the way it worked.

Living examples of the faith stood before the crowds. Talks and visual demonstrations provided the context of what the Church was all about.

There were no Bibles or catechisms to memorize. Defending the Faith was much more simplified.

You live what you believe…or you die. Pretty straight forward.

But today that is not the case.

Even in the classrooms…

As a former Assistant DRE (Director of Religious Education), I butted heads for a few years with the DRE concerning this very approach to training students.

“Teach them the ‘why’ of their beliefs, not regurgitation of rote memorizations. They won’t understand what they believe. Without that understanding, they certainly will have no ability to defend their Faith in a world that will challenge them.

“Secondly, teach them God’s love. If they don’t understand or embrace this one aspect, they will eventually question His motive and end up hating Him.”

I was driven out of the position for being “too Protestant”.

But was I?

No. I just saw things from a very different perspective. And the DRE, being influenced by two older, long-time catechists who refused any changes, told me either I had to shut up or leave.

So I left. I left that parish and never looked back.

How the brain perceives differently…

In has been discovered recently that the brain of each individual behaves cognitively in different ways. What was once considered to be a terrible disability has now been recognized as just a difference in processing information.

Yet the stigma still remains.

Picture in your mind what an autistic or ADHD person looks like. Are they images of a child hugging his knees and rocking with incoherent mumbling in the corner? Or a child who flies off the couches and can’t sit still, chattering a million miles an hour and unable to focus on anything in particular?

“We must fix this and make them like us!” cry the neurotypical people. “They are suffering! They are in pain and can’t handle life around them! They’ll never make it in the ‘real’ world!

If that were the case, what would these same people say about Elon Musk? I don’t see him rocking in any corners.

How about Colin Furze, who is as hyper as can be?

What do each of these high profile people have in common?

They are each neurodivergent.

And they, being allowed to go beyond the confinement of the societal business models, are all successfully self-employed.

And those are just two of the millions of examples of neurodivergent success stories throughout human history.

We need to fix this perception…

Nearly every characteristic of the neurodivergent listed in the latest DSM (DSM-5 as of this writing) used to evaluate individuals is considered “abnormal”.

…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….”

Father Nolette,

Abnormal? Against what metric?

As it turns out, it is against what the majority of people supposedly act like. Sheep in the flock, unwilling to embrace those who are differently wired. Treating our beautifully authentic brains as if they were a computer processor that just needs to be “reprogrammed”.

And that is patently unfair.

Thankfully, there have been an increasing number of voices who decry the labels slapped on them by society at large.

Authentically Autistic Catholic…

This, also, is beginning to have inroads in the Church as well.

There have been several priests in the Catholic Church who are boldly leading the way. They propose a reconsideration of these neurodivergent individuals within the the Parish life. Accommodations that are not difficult to enact. And a greater understanding that these people are not psychologically impaired.

These people just process information and stimuli differently.

  • Constant noise and having to offer a “sign of peace” or have someone try to hold hands during the Our Father is disturbing to those who don’t like to interact with others in the same way as everyone else.
  • Bright lights in the church or parish hall causes uncomfortable sensory stimulation in the eyes.
  • Loud talking before and after Mass is irritating.
  • Constantly droning music or people reciting the Rosary out loud before Mass while trying to stay quietly before the tabernacle is disruptive to the very concept of meditation or conversation with God. And certainly not conducive to preparing to receive Our Lord in the Mass.

These are not wrong things. They are just not right for everybody.

Especially the neurodivergent, like autistics.

There needs to be a positive change…

Instead of being upset with the family who has a disruptive autistic child in Mass, try looking at them in a different light.

Perhaps the lights, sounds, touches, smells are setting them off. Maybe making the lights a bit lower, cutting back on the incense, and stop with the music during quiet times would be an option.

And maybe, just maybe, you can step in and help the parents cope if they’d allow you. They might appreciate the small respite.

As for what is considered the normative approach to the sacred, maybe that can be tweaked as well.

Just because something is an expression of devotion to some does not automatically make it a devotion to all.

A wonderful priest, Father Mark P. Nolette came up with an expression of Stations of the Cross for Autistic People. It is beautiful. It actually makes the Stations come alive and make sense for those who are neurodivergent.

Abstract ideas or rote memorizations of facts do not appeal to the neurodivergent. They need concrete, practical theology. Not homilies that reach theological boundaries that even the neurotypical can’t grasp.

Parish Priests might reconsider their approach to the congregation…

Perhaps examination of consciences can be developed that fit into a different way of thinking. Rosary meditations that consider the reality of a person’s experiences instead of etherial meditations on past historical events. Homilies that touch on the practical application of the readings into everyday life.

Make Catholicism something solid and graspable by those who do not see things in such typical ways.

Don’t consider this a remake of what is working in parish life. The changes actually have great advantages.

We are often considered the “canaries in the coal mine” when it comes to sensory stimulations and teaching styles. Changes for those who are autistic often help those who are not because they react faster to overwhelming stimuli often ignored by neurotypical people.

Patron Saint of Autism…

While not yet officially declared, there is a push for one particular saint to be declared the Patron Saint of Autism. He is one most of us here in the West have never heard of.

Saint Thorlak, a famous Bishop of Iceland in the 1130’s. Much of his background indicates that he was, indeed, autistic. He was different than the rest of his community. And, unlike our society today, he was not only not shunned for it, he was celebrated.

Hope for a rethinking of neurodivergency…

There will posts to come that will cover how to be Catholic and Neurodivergent at the same time. There is no one size fixes all approach because we are all different.

If you feel like a ship adrift in a sea of unfriendly, ignorant people, you are not alone.

The world is now being faced with overwhelming evidence that neurodivergent people exist. That they have always existed.

More than this, they are not ill, nor are most disabled. They don’t need to be “fixed”. They are beautiful just the way they are.

As an inspiration for the success of those who are different is the reality that sanctity doesn’t just reside in neurotypical people. In fact, it is far easier for neurodivergent individuals to live both authentically as neurodivergent and deeply Catholic. Our understanding of God is far deeper and very different than just some “Spiritual Being”. He becomes, for us, a true Friend. The only One who never judges us based on our difference, because He made us perfectly just the way we are.

Opening up the doors to embrace a difference in processing the world around us will only serve to open up the world in a much different way to all of us. It is an expanse of our narrow way of viewing life to begin to see the world through eyes that embrace the universe in a much different way.

And that includes our spiritual life.

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