Many of you know the Dr. Seuss story Horton Hears A Who. One day, Horton the elephant hears voices coming from what looks like a mere dust speck sitting on a flower. Horton chooses to listen and trust his hearing. He discovers that this seeming speck of dust is in reality a world inhabited by the impossibly small race of the Whos. Others around Horton ignore, disbelieve or ridicule him when he tells them of the Whos. They decide to “cure” Horton by boiling the dust speck. Horton does all he can to save the Whos. Yet, it is only when the Whos make enough noise to overcome the disbelief of everyone else that they are saved in the end.
As an autistic person as well as a Catholic priest, this story resonates with me on several levels. I see myself in that small object that others dismiss as a speck of dust and never ask themselves if there might be more here than meets their first impression. I see myself in Horton, who perceives something that others do not perceive at first and who is disbelieved and ridiculed.
When you look at an autistic person, what do you see?
You may not even see the autism, first of all. In physical appearance, at least, autistic people look like everyone else. Since most autism ministry in the Church is focused on autistic children and their families, you may not focus on the fact that these children one day become adults. Since autistic adults have had more experience in hiding some autistic traits and blending in, you might not see their autism right away.
What you do see as autism may seem odd or unsettling to you. You may think of the autistic savant who was the main character in the movie Rain Man. You may think of the autistic child who makes noise during Mass. You may think of someone who is socially awkward.
It doesn’t help that everything that experts point out that identifies someone as autistic is described in pathological terms. We seem to be socially inappropriate. We seem to have little or no empathy. Emotions seem to be absent or to suddenly explode out of nowhere. We seem overly anxious.
When you see such things, think of that person as the speck of dust from the Dr. Seuss story. They may be overlooked like a dust speck at first, but there’s a whole world waiting to be discovered that can be perceived by anyone willing to take the time to stop, look, and listen. Offices and programs have their place, but so do relationships. If the Church is serious about ministry to and with autistic people, then talk to us. Get to know us. Stop trying to put us in slots we were not designed for. See how the world looks from our eyes. Practice empathy.
A simple analogy from the world of sports may help to explain what I mean. Let’s call typical social life ‘basketball.’ “Normal” people are born knowing basketball. They intuitively understand its rules. They know when to dribble, pass, shoot, or rebound. Autistic people aren’t naturally gifted in basketball. We’re awkward with the ball. We don’t dribble or pass well. Therefore, everyone who understands basketball calls us disabled. Yet, we want to have some expertise at basketball. We want to get to know other people and relate to the world at large. But because we aren’t born for basketball, it is difficult and very tiring for us. No amount of “try harder” advice will help. Drugs may help with some of the awkwardness but don’t address the real issue. You see, autistic people were born to play baseball. We intuitively understand its rules. However, while everyone wants us to excel at basketball, who bothers to understand that we excel at baseball? Who will take time to discover the world within a “dust speck?” Who will see us, as autistic people, for who we really are? Who will recognize our autistic traits as potential gifts to the Church?
Our social awkwardness as autistic people may come across as pathological. Yes, social situations are very difficult for us. The potential gift to the Church that comes with this is that we are much less vulnerable to denying reality. If we see an elephant in the living room, we will say so. If an Emperor has no clothes, we will say so. We will spot anomalies in how we as a Church are living our faith and ask why we aren’t more consistent. Our social awkwardness, as challenging as it can be, brings with it a prophetic gift to the whole Church – if the Church desires to grow in faithfulness to the Lord.
Our focus on our special interests may also come across as pathological. Yes, it is true that an excessive focus on one thing can be detrimental. However, our special interests draw us out of ourselves and open us up to connections with others who share these interests with us. In other words, these special interests teach us how to love. They are the first things we love with all our heart, mind, and body. They prepare us to love the Lord in the same way.
When people in the Church speak of ministry to autistic people, they often think of our need for sensory-friendly space. This is a real need for us. Many of us are very sensitive to certain colors, sounds, and smells. Many of us are overwhelmed by the mere presence of a large group of people. This is an essential part of welcoming us, but not the only one. We need you to see us for who we are. We need you to listen to us and do your best to understand us. We need you to discover what we bring to the Church and to value it.
When you see us, what do you see? Do you see a mere dust speak and then dismiss us as having no value? Or will you stop, look, listen, and risk discovering the world we bring with us?
Fr. Mark P. Nolette, 3/22/2021.