April is Autism Awareness month. Eugenic ideologies have reared their ugly head again amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, making plain many societies’ utilitarian ethics. I cannot think of a better time to be mindful of those among us who have to fear for their lives simply because they are different. Here, I interview Fr. Matthew Schneider, LC, an autistic priest, about autism, prayer and the liturgy in the hopes that we may take a small step toward becoming more inclusive of those that societies so readily discard when our churches reopen.
Let’s begin with some basic terms we’ll be using in this interview: neurotypical, neurodiverse, autistic vs. person with autism. How would you explain these terms?
Autism is a variation in brain structure. It is not characterized by a single trait but a combination that varies a bit between different autistics. Some of these characteristics are: sensory irregularities (hyper- or hypo-sensitivity), difficulty reading social signs and thus a difficulty understanding what others are thinking or feeling, literal thinking and use of language, and difficulties in executive function. Many of these primary characteristics are not directly observable by an outside observer, so non-autistics will often notice secondary characteristics. Some examples: sensory irregularity may come out as stimming or fidgeting to moderate sense input exteriorly or in meltdowns from sensory overload, difficulties in executive function may be displayed as rigidity in schedule, etc.
Neurodiverse and neurotypical are correlative terms. Neurodiverse usually refers to someone with autism or related conditions like ADHD or OCD, while neurotypical refers to those who do not have any of these conditions.
You shared on your blog that you were diagnosed as an adult, after serving a year as a parish priest. As the saying in autistic circle goes, “when you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.” Looking back, how do you think autism made you experience the Mass — as a celebrant and member of the assembly — differently from your neurotypical peers?
Personally, I think I have tended to grasp the faith more on the intellectual side than the emotional side. For me, one of the most important books of my teen years was Kreeft and Tacelli’s Handbook to Christian Apologetics, which goes through the rational arguments for many aspects of the faith. I think that has extended to a certain extent to the liturgy. I may not pick up on the emotions of the homilist but I definitely pick up on the intellectual content. I definitely appreciate the consistency of the liturgy. I went to an evangelical service as a teen and found the whole indeterminate structure difficult to follow. Beyond that, I would suspect I experience the liturgy itself pretty close to normal. The social time often right before or after can be a little more of a challenge.
Many autistic individuals have sensory issues with Mass. Although, I do have some autistic sensory issues, most Masses don’t cause an issue in this regard for me. I am still amazed by priests who can do back-to-back big parishes Masses on Sunday. I can say something the 9 and 11:30 Masses, but I need some alone time to recharge between them.
Liturgies are often celebrated in ways that aim to stimulate the senses. What are some immediate ways that churches can better accommodate those with sensory processing differences, which is one of the more commonly shared effects of autism, be it hypo or hypersensitive senses?
For those on the hyposensitive end, I don’t think much needs to be done besides accommodating if they are swaying back and forth at the back or need a weighted blanket over them during Mass. Hyposensitivity can usually be resolved by the person adding more sensory input and most can learn ways to do so that are minimally disruptive like what I mentioned.
Hypersensitivity is a little more complicated as you need to lower the lights, turn down the microphones, avoid incense, avoid florescent lights (since these appear like strobe lights to many on the spectrum), etc. A number of places around the country have done a sensory friendly Mass of this style. Another aspect often in such Masses is that they use the same songs each week to help with autistics’ executive function difficulties and preference for sameness.
A sensory friendly Mass should ideally be weekly at the same place and time. As we are a small minority of the population (current estimates say 1 in 54), it may require several nearby parishes coordinating to have one Mass. A variation on the sensory-friendly Mass that has also happened in other places and I think what most parishes should be able to do at one Mass a week is the “reverse cry-room” where you turn down the lights and sound system in there and make it a place for those with sensory issues, especially hypersensitivity.
Sensory-friendly Masses would not be exclusive to autistics. Obviously, families of autistic individuals would be invited as it is good to go to Mass together. However, I think it is best to leave it open to everyone: some elderly people start having sensory issues related to other conditions or some neurotypicals may just prefer that style.
Let’s talk about the self-stimulatory behavior of “stimming”—repetitive body movements or movements of objects that provide calming effects for autistic people. How do you suggest churches create space for stimming safely during the liturgy?
I think some stimming just requires those around not to worry about it. I have often been in a lecture or other social event and pulled out a small item to stim with. (As a celebrant or concelebrant at Mass, I notice I sway at times but this is not usually too obvious.) I carry items I know that don’t make much sound or light but provide my hands with a nice tactile sensation. If a person does this in Mass, all that needs to happen is that those around need to know this helps them focus and not to be judgmental.
If someone needs more significant stimming like some kind of jumping or a vocal stim, then we should help with further means. Something like swaying can be done at the back or in a “reverse cry-room” as explained above. Others might require that individual to step out of the Mass for a minute or two to get out a verbal stim before coming back. We can be less judgmental on those aspects: most people don’t judge when parents step out for three minutes to calm their child or take them to the bathroom. I hope the community can similarly accept if an autistic young woman needs to step out for a few minutes to maintain composure.
You’ve tweeted about the idea of creating a prayer book for autistics. Could you say more about what would make the prayers unlike other prayer books that already exist?
Well, this is currently a book I’m working on. I don’t want to give away too much: maybe year or so when it comes out, you can interview me about it. I can give three ideas though. First, a big difficulty for autistics is what psychologists call theory of mind. This means that through their words, facial expressions, etc. people intuit what other people know, think or feel. Most people do this subconsciously but we autistics often lack such automatic filters, but can sometimes do a poor but passable job through conscious effort. The initial stages of prayer, thus are difficult as a certain amount of prayer is based on us grasping what God knows, thinks or feels, which can be a challenge for us. However, once we overcome that difficulty in developing a prayer life, we get to the second point. We know that God can read our mind directly, not just hear our words and see our face like other humans, and he can implant a thought in our mind, not just speak to us in words or work through the senses. I think that our autistic tendency to think in ideas but not directly in words can help prayer progress faster at this time. Prayer is one form of bidirectional communication not requiring sensory processing. Finally, I think we will tend more towards intellectual prayer over emotional prayer.
“Nothing for us, without us” is an on-going cry of the disability rights movement. It strikes me that it is important to hear this cry when planning and celebrating liturgies as well. Parents of autistic children tend to be involved in churches with religious education programs for children with special needs. However, I wonder if there are as many autistic adults involved in ministry, or if they tend to feel shunned. How can churches urge more participation by autistic people in liturgical ministry?
Finding autistic individuals in a local community who would be interested in Catholic activities, whether Mass, catechesis or small groups might be difficult as you are correct that many feel excluded and thus don’t actively participate. Let me offer a few ideas. Deacon Larry Sutton wrote a book on catechesis for autistic children and I think his idea of starting small is good: even if at first you only have five people, the word might get out and in a few years others who are on the sidelines start participating. Another point would be to make a simple announcement at Mass asking for autistic adults and parents of autistic children to email a certain person to organize something to serve this community. Most parishes have a few who are autistic but blend in enough that it might not be obvious to everyone else. Another idea would be to approach local autistic groups and see if they could send out a note offering something to autistic Catholics.
Thanks for your time, Fr. Schneider!
Fr. Matthew Schneider, LC is an autistic priest with the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi and a doctoral candidate in Moral Theology at Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum in Rome. He blogs on autism, bioethics, and other topics on his blog, Through Catholic Lenses. Follow him on twitter @FrMatthewLC and @AutisticPriest.