05 April 2006

Autism and God

I’ve written briefly about autism and religion in No wheelchairs in heaven? What about autism? Recently, I’ve been giving a bit more thought to the subject. The discussion that follows is primarily from a Christian perspective, mainly because that’s the one I’m most familiar with, but I believe the basic concepts transcend any particular faith or denomination.

One of the many things that all parents must think about is what – and how – to teach their kids about religious and spiritual matters and how important religious practice will be to the family in day-to-day life. This is no less an important matter for parents with autistic children, though the approach and expectations of parents may need to be adjusted to suit the needs of the child.

Many blogs by parents of autistic children discuss the importance of religious faith in their lives and how it helps their family find needed strength and understanding. Some of these also discuss questions of accomodation and acceptance within their church, with varying degrees of success. It is along these lines that the story of Matthew, a 10-year old autistic boy in Phoenix whose family is in a dispute with the Catholic Church over accomodations for Communion, has been told in various news stories.

A quick summary of the situation:

The Catholic Church has told the parents of a 10-year-old autistic boy that, because the child cannot consume the host, he is not receiving Communion properly. Until he does, church officials say, he cannot partake of the church's most meaningful sacrament.

According to a letter from Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, delivered to the Lake Havasu City family on Feb. 12, the boy cannot accept Communion in the Catholic Church until he can "actually receive the Eucharist, actually take and eat."
Beyond the practices of specific denominations, or individual congregations, this situation raises the even more important question to parents: “What does God (in this case, the Catholic version) think about this boy who is unable to physically accept the Eucharist?” There are several articles and blogs that address this question from a theological standpoint, so I’m not going to go into any detail here (see the list of various news stories linked to above.) But it is a question that believers of all faiths and denominations must grapple with.

In Matthew’s story, the boy’s father has the following to say:
"I took my son to CCD (religious education) classes for two years to prepare him," said Moran, a stay-at-home father. "He deserves it."

Moran also said his son realizes that he is doing something special. When he was not allowed to go to Communion on Feb. 26, "it was terrible," said Matthew's mother. "Matt screamed and cried because he did not get his Communion."
This intrigued me on many levels. First, these are assumptions by the father on why his son was upset about being denied communion. The father assumed it was because his son was upset that his ability to accept the Eucharist would affect his relationship with God. Perhaps, though, Matthew’s reaction was based not on the content of the situation but the context: his well established routine had been violated. And we all know that (warning: gross generalization ahead) autistics don’t like their routines messed with.

Can autistic kids, in general, have true religious beliefs, true faith? Do they understand the meaning of, for instance, the death and resurrection of Jesus? Just because they can learn and participate in the rituals, does that mean they get the abstract meaning, the reading between the lines? (To be honest, this is a question I wonder about with NT kids as well.)

As parents, I think we all have an idea of what God thinks about our autistic children. I guess the question I’m asking is: What do our autistic children think about God?

tagged as: Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, Religion, God, Roman Catholic Church

4 comments:

Bridget Schafer said...

I am a Roman Catholic and my son is autistic. I am not offended at all that he is not permitted to receive The Blessed Sacrament. He was baptised and confirmed. As far as I am concerned (and my pastor agrees), my son is a saint on earth and he will go straight to heaven when he dies. Since there is no way of knowing for sure if he understands that the host is NOT bread, but the actual body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, it would be a sacrilege to allow him to receive Holy Communion. And he does NOT NEED to - he is a part of The Church and God loves him just the way He made him.

Brett said...

Bridget, thanks for sharing your thoughts. This is a very personal area, and one that presents serious challenges to parents, both in terms of raising your child and better understanding your faith. I'm glad you and your pastor have been able to figure it out.

Anonymous said...

I am a Catholic, sort of. My son being struck with Autism has devastated my faith, which I have tried to hang on to. I've read works both simple and profound to justify my faith. More importantly, I have prayed, and cried out to God, both for my son and for other children even more disabled than him, but with no appreciable result.

My quandry is not that I do not believe in God. I just have a hard time believing He cares. If He is all powerful, all caring, and all loving, I wish He'd shed a little mercy on the poor kids in my son's classroom.

catechist said...

I had the honor a few years ago to be a "pal" to a young man as he prepared to receive First Communion. With time, repetition and the support of family and church staff, it became clear that he understood the meaning of Eucharist and was able to receive his First Communion. Certainly, this is a most personal decision on the part of parents, but I do strongly believe that the Church needs to have strong, caring, inclusive religious education programs that enable children with autism, like my pal, and other disabilities, to learn about and receive the sacraments according to their ability.

The extent of religious education should be governed by the ability of the child, not the ability of the church to provide catechesis.

I will forever be grateful to my pal for the lessons in faith and persistence that he taught me.