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Vulnerable Members of Society




Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew that, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”[1] April is not only the month dedicated to Easter, but it is also dedicated to people with disorders on the autism spectrum, which include people like me. While people on the autism spectrum can be very complex, they can also be holy souls that have a perspective beyond our understanding. Sadly, many of them are often ignored because their behaviors can be hard to tolerate, which makes loving them more difficult. If we can better understand Autism Spectrum Disorders, or ASDs, we as a church can love the least of these brothers and sisters even more.


What are ASDs in the first place? The National Institute of Mental Health describes them as a group of disorders which affect communication. Difficulties communicating and interacting with other people usually start happening during the first two years of life.[2] Persons of any race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic group can be affected, although it is nearly 4 times more common for young males to be diagnosed with ASDs than young females.[3] In addition, having siblings with ASDs, older parents, and low birthweight increase the risk further. Among the most common symptoms of ASDs include poor eye contact, difficulties with back and forth conversation, facial expressions and body language that do not match what is being said, and higher or lower sensitivity to sensory input such as noise, light, clothing or temperature. As a result, making friends can be extremely difficult for them and frustrating at times.


People who are affected by these developmental disabilities can have strong abilities too. They can retain details for long periods of time. They are strongly able to learn things visually and auditorily. Many who have ASDs are gifted in math, science, music and art. I was diagnosed on the Autism spectrum at age 3, which forced my parents to sacrifice so much to give me the best possible treatment I could get. They hired a number of behavioral, speech and occupational therapists, child psychologists, and “para-professionals” to work with me nearly 40 hours a week, which is nearly 6 hours a day. I also was put through Special Ed classrooms so that I could get more individual attention for my education. This also helped with my sensory issues as I had difficulties with large gatherings or parties, especially noisy ones. Through the years, the more I exposed myself to noises and large crowds, the better I was at handling it, and now I can go to a live show or sporting event without being triggered as much.


In my adult life, I have experienced loneliness and periods of depression. As it turns out, this is not uncommon. 48% of autistic adults are reported as feeling lonely and 57% report feeling depressed.[4] As disheartening as these numbers can be, I thank the Lord God everyday that I have family and friends who support me and will invest their time for me, whether it’s doing big or small things. I also credit my prayer life in helping me move past people who have wronged me or have taken advantage of me, often for their own selfish reasons. For all of this to happen, I believe that through my family, God put the right people in my life in order for me to overcome my disability. I would even go on to do many great things, including being a part of various parish music ministries and the Elevate Young Adult Core team. With everything I have overcome, I know we as a Church can always do more to serve people with ASDs in the most profound ways possible.


A number of programs to teach children with ASDs to be able to attend mass have been developed, including those in the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Pittsburgh. There were several autism related incidents in the Church that triggered such programs. For example, a family with an autistic son was asked by the usher to leave because of his behavior.[5] In another incident in Pittsburgh, two autistic children were denied communion.[6] The Newark Archdiocese has since stated that if an autistic child’s behavior prevents them from attending mass with their family, a special curriculum for First Eucharist preparation should be implemented in order to allow the child’s participation in the Mass to the extent possible.


What if there are no programs or resources for autistic individuals? While I do not remember ever being a part of a special religious education program like in Pittsburgh or Newark, I know that God has provided me with what I needed to attend Mass as an autistic individual through the efforts of my family and parish community. With that said, there are autistic individuals who are intimidated by other people and there are other people who are intimidated by them. When that happens, it is very easy to isolate ourselves from such individuals or treat them in a way that makes them upset. The first step in having a relationship with an autistic individual is to accept who they are with patience and understanding. How can we accept Jesus if we are not able to accept those who are in great need? There are those autistic individuals who can easily be confused, so we must be prepared to answer questions they have for us. If we don’t know the answer, we must promise them that we will seek it out for them so that they can be at peace knowing we will address their concerns. Above all else, we must assure them that we are praying for them always.


Numerous Saints are thought to have had an ASD in their life. One such Saint is Joseph of Cupertino. He was a holy man of God throughout his life though he was a subject of mockery and ridicule because of his frequent outbursts of anger. Joseph was also absent-minded and sensitive to his surroundings, including certain noises like school bells. His behavior often was misunderstood, which prevented him from thriving in the seminary or a religious community like the Franciscans. In spite of that, he persevered and the Franciscans enrolled him in the Third Order. During that time, he was assigned odd jobs in the monastery. After many years, he finally became a member of the community and eventually ordained a priest. During his priesthood, Joseph was best known for levitating while celebrating Mass, which prompted others to tie him by the leg so he wouldn’t hit the ceiling. His story shows that those who are developmentally or intellectually challenged can still be holy and pious people.[7]


As a church, it is necessary to do what is loving and just for our brothers and sisters with ASDs. We can only achieve this by acceptance and understanding of these individuals. As Jesus states in the Gospel of Matthew, it is our duty and obligation to do what is good for those who are vulnerable. The souls of autistic individuals and those with similar disabilities depend on how we interact with them, and we are ultimately subject to the judgment of God for what we did or did not do. It is and always will be a blessing to know that I am a part of the Elevate team to minister to young adults and be a sign of hope for those with disabilities. May we always love and protect one another, especially those with ASDs, as God has loved and protected us.


References

March 2018. Autism Spectrum Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd.

2023. Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html.

Gallagher, Tom. 2009. "Autism, the Mass and religious education." 15 October 2009. Ncronline.org. National Catholic Register.

2024. Housing. Rockville, Maryland: Autism Society. https://autismsociety.org/resources/housing/.

Kosloski, Philip. 2017. 3 Saints who may have had autism spectrum disorder. Aleteia. https://aleteia.org/2017/02/08/3-saints-who-may-have-had-autism-spectrum-disorder/.

2023. Teaching Children with Autism and Other Disabilities to Attend Mass. Newark, New Jersey: Archdiocese of Newark.

[1] Matthew 25:40

[2] "Autism Spectrum Disorder." March 2018. National Institute of Mental Health.

[3] “Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder.” 2023. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

[4] “Housing.” 2024. Autism Society

[5] "Teaching Children with Autism and Other Disabilities to Attend Mass." 2023. rcan.org.

[6] Gallagher, Tom. "Autism, the Mass and religious education." 15 October 2009. Ncronline.org.

[7] Kosloski, Philip. "3 Saints who may have had autism spectrum disorder." 8 February 2017. aleteia.org.


 

Paco Quebral is one of our Young Adult Core Members and long time parishioner at St. Greg's. Paco is a man of many talents and you'll see him in many roles including the music ministry where he sings, plays sick keys, and melodica.


If you see him at church, feel free to come up and say "hi"! You can also check out the Coffee Talk episode with Paco here sharing more about this topic.

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