Critique of “God Loves the Autistic Mind” (Fr. Matthew P. Schneider)
The full title of this book is God loves the autistic spirit: prayer guide for people on the spectrum and those who love us (Boston, Pauline Books & Media, June 10, 2022). To see the publisher’s book page and Amazon page for more information and purchase.
In a press release for this book, it was noted that “more than 3.5 million people in the United States live with autism”. One of them is my eldest son, Paul (now 31): a very special, talented, Orthodox young Catholic man who has blessed our family and his many friends immensely, and 649 current subscribers to his YouTube channel: The nerd of the catholic game. Thus, I have a particular interest in this book, which is an accessible, down-to-earth volume and a first-rate resource.
Pr. Schneider writes from his personal experience. He was diagnosed with autism after becoming a priest and has used the opportunities and resources of his priesthood and the internet (and now a book) to reach, educate and encourage many people regarding autism.
One of the results of these efforts is this wonderful book, which is an encouraging resource for autistic people, who often feel alone, alienated and frustrated living among those of us they charmingly call “neurotypical”. It is also a mine of useful information for all, to better understand and appreciate our autistic brothers and sisters, who are not “abnormal”; just different.
As the subtitle suggests, it is primarily a prayer guide for autistic people (it is said to be the first of its kind). But Fr. Schneider also explains throughout the book what it is to be autistic in a non-autistic world: most often drawing on his own experience. Everyone can learn and benefit from their ideas. I certainly have. I give it my highest recommendation.
I would now like to quote a few excerpts, in order to give readers the “flavor” of the book. Appendix A (“What is autism?”) is very helpful. Pr. Schneider explains that people with autism experience ongoing difficulties in social interaction, including:
not reading social cues, difficulty with eye contact, clumsiness in communicating with each other, difficulty maintaining relationships, or difficulty speaking. (p.192)
He repeatedly mentions that not all autistic people will have all the traits. But most have plenty, allowing experts to make generalizations. Another prevalent characteristic of autistics is repetitive and focused patterns, interests, and activities. He specifies :
This criterion includes repetitive motor movements (stimming or beating), insistence on similarity, very obsessive or limited interests, hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity. . . (p.192)
Pr. Schneider then describes several other common traits:
Autistic people have different sensory processing. . . . An autistic person who is over-stimulated will have a strong reaction such as shutting down or collapsing. A meltdown may seem like a tantrum to some, but it’s an involuntary response to being overwhelmed. . . [later, on page 208, he compares these meltdowns to the overheating of a car]
Autistic people think differently. . . .
Autistic people move differently. . . .
People with autism communicate differently. . . .
Autistic people socialize differently. (pp. 193-194)
On page 29, Fr. Schneider made a point about autistic people that I didn’t know:
We tend to move from a set of specific points to a general principle rather than the other way around. . . If I want to imagine the scene or contemplate the words of the Lord, I want to know all the details.
On a related note, he states:
We need to help autistic young people with rational explanations of faith or seek them out if we are autistic learning faith. In this, it is important to use a lot of inductive reasoning, not just deductive. (p.35)
I personally resonate with this, as a professional Catholic apologist, whose task is to rationally explain and defend the Catholic faith and Christianity at large. I’m glad to hear that it seems people with autism notably benefit from an apology. Pr. Schneider added:
If we understand the logical reasons for God’s existence and then the logical reasons for worshiping Him on Sunday, we can easily be firm. We just need to learn this logically. (p.39)
In the first paragraph of his Introduction, Fr. Schneider, citing academic studies, explains another important – and disturbing – fact about autistics and religion that I had never heard before:
We feel more like an outsider in social groups, including church. In fact, we’re almost twice as likely as anyone else (1.84 times) to never go to church, and not going to church is more likely for us than for people. suffering from any other condition. Additionally, people with autism are much more likely to be atheists and agnostics, or to create their own religious system. (page 1)
On page 19, he similarly writes: “For many of us, Sunday Mass will be one of the most difficult things we do each week in terms of social interaction and social issues. sensory.
The heart of the book is the 52 meditations which occupy 121 pages out of 211 in total. Pr. Schneider explains on page 68 that each consists of a story (often drawn from his own life), a biblical passage, a reflection and a short prayer. I would like to conclude my review by offering brief excerpts from two of them.
13. In the eyes of God, being autistic is not bad.
My return to the psychologist after being diagnosed with autism was difficult. . . . It seemed like a sentence of constantly being a failure as a priest. . . .
It took me a few months to come to terms with being autistic, but I think I did it. I realize now that it is a gift that God gave me. Of course, sometimes it’s a cross, but everyone has his own cross: I now know clearly what my own cross is.
‘Cause you shaped my inner parts,
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works!
You know me well (Ps 139:13-14).
. . . Christianity is unique in that it recognizes how wonderful people are and what dignity they have, regardless of their mental or physical condition. . . .
We might think of autism as just a negative or just a pain, but we can often enjoy some things more and find happiness in things that others couldn’t. . . . God wants our happiness as people with autism, even if that happiness is not the same as that of others.
Lord, who created me in your image and likeness, who trained me in my mother’s womb to be autistic, help me to accept this and find happiness in this. (pp.95-97)
52. Missionaries to the Autistic World
. . . Being autistic, I have a perspective from which, without even too much effort, I can think of things that neurotypicals miss because of their different cognitive structures. . . .
I could also explain [i.e., to parents of autistic children] that it is no sin to walk out of mass for two minutes if a sensory break is needed, and that stimulating toys or weighted blankets are fine for prayer or even mass. It seems so obvious to me, but parents trying to help their autistic children for years have never thought of them. This shows a certain role that we autistic people have in evangelizing our autistic comrades.
All of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither man nor woman; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Ga 3:27-28).
. . . Because autism is a different brain structure, it will always be about a different culture, and in many ways the difference is deeper and more dramatic than most cultural differences. . . .
Evangelism in any culture begins from without, but to be comprehensive and effective it must involve the full understanding of those within the culture. . . .
If we each take our mission seriously, we will help change the narrative of the stereotypical autistic being an atheist. Autistic people tend to be atheists or serious about a religion. We don’t have the social pressure to be semi-religious that happens to those who go to church a few times a year and somehow believe. We believe or we do not believe. Those who complete this book will hopefully be able to help some autistic people move from disbelief to belief.
Jesus, you want to speak to me and my autistic companions in a way that can be understood. Help me share with my autistic peers this joy of knowing you. (pp. 187-189)
Certainly, these wise reflections from Fr. Schneider will challenge those of us in the wider Catholic and Christian community to make every effort to make autistic people feel more comfortable in the church and in the environments Christians and ways of thinking and believing. We owe this to them, in Christian charity, and we must apply the practical and loving approach of Saint Paul in his own life. He had “made himself all to all, in order to save some in any case” (1 Cor 9.22, RSV).
Autistics will benefit greatly from reading this book as they will be encouraged in God’s acceptance and love for them, and learn ways of praying and worshiping for autistics who cannot to help and comfort them in their life of Christian discipleship.
Photo credit: picture of the Pauline Books & Media page for this volume.
Summary: Pr. Matthew P. Schneider’s book, God loves the autistic spiritoffers a very useful guide for autistic people in prayer and an indispensable help for us, the “neurotypicals”.