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August 10, 2023 REL Topic- Inclusion, REL PD - Catechist, REL PD - Leaders

Faith through the Eyes of the Autism Spectrum

According to a March 2023 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 out of every 36 children in the United States are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a neurodevelopmental disorder that sometimes affects social communication and interaction, behavior patterns, language, and cognition. Our diverse and worldwide Catholic Church is made up of many adults and children with special needs and Autism. The National Catholic Partnership on Disability recommends that personalized and individualized attention and accommodations and diverse resources be available for those with special needs to ensure that all persons with ASD can meaningfully participate in the Church. In this article, you’ll read a personal account of a faith journey from the perspective of a Catholic adult on the Autism spectrum, and the ways that her faith has grown through her study of faith and lived experience. Plus, you’ll have the chance to register for a 2-Part Masterclass, Helping Special Needs and Autistic Students in Catechesis presented by Father Matthew Schneider. The “Autistic Priest” and Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology at Belmont Abby College.

catholic-faith-through-the-eyes-of-the-autism-spectrum

An Ongoing, Personal Faith Journey

One’s journey of faith is always ongoing. Our faith grows, expands, and changes as we experience life and encounter God and others in different ways. I was diagnosed with Aspergers at a young age, and I remember having many struggles and still do. I had a sense of God, but I didn't really think about my faith or religion often as a child. I had a desire to read the entire Bible when I was twelve, and I did. I memorized a lot of Scripture and, although I had some favorite parts such as the Gospels—the Song of Songs, and others—at that time, I didn't understand it, although I thought I did.

The Three Key Components of my Formation

There were three key components in my faith formation: my school, my own study and research, and the lived experience of the faith that I encountered.

Catholic school

When I was fifteen and was in Catholic school, I expressed a desire to get baptized. School helped me grow in my knowledge of theology which enriched me in the Catholic faith and helped me connect the meaning of prayers.

A passion to study the faith

Many Autistic people have specific things they are intensely interested in. I have several, and one of these is theology and Religion. I suppose it was this that motivated my passion to study further in the Catholic faith. I feel a connection with Jesus and his life and with the mystery of the Trinity, and I read as much as I could. I remember searching for books written by mystics and saints, reading John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena, and various others. I continued this learning and still am doing so to this day, this time with lectures and podcasts about mysticism, social justice and Catholicism, Vatican II, and the papacy of Pope Francis and its impact. Age and experience have given me increased self-knowledge to understand what I missed in the past and given me humility and an open mind with which to learn and grow more.

Lived experience

The final aspect of my faith formation was lived experience. I learned these aspects of faith simply by doing and living them in an organic way. During Mass, I watched people and imitated what they did and said until I had taken everything to heart and mind. As I did so I contemplated the prayers and what they meant. When I learned prayers, I learned and memorized them as I prayed them and either chose to use them in my faith life or not, depending on whether they helped me be closer to God.

 

This practice really helped bring prayer to life for me. Instead of being something I simply memorized on a page, prayer became something that I lived and contemplated. When I was younger, I had a far more rigid understanding of faith and a very ritualistic one. I think this was due to my immaturity combined with the fact that many autistic people tend to have black-and-white thinking. As I grew, experienced, and encountered different kinds of people and deepened my prayer life, I began to understand that the Catholic faith is not a set of rules, but rather a life lived with love and in love—made for loving others.

 

As I grew, experienced, and encountered different kinds of people and deepened my prayer life, I began to understand that the Catholic faith is not a set of rules, but rather a life lived with love and in love—made for loving others.

Connecting Resources with Lived Faith  

I think an important aspect of faith formation is providing different resources for people to learn throughout their life, including during childhood. My learning grew when I connected prayer, Scripture, history, and more. I believe that for faith to become a living thing it must be integrated in a personal way in our lives, not simply something confined to books and memorization. We need to live and contemplate the teachings and prayers of the Catholic faith to encounter the living God as a friend and nurturer, not simply as an abstract concept, to remember always God is always living within and among us.

More Perspectives from the Autism Spectrum

Beginning August 16, Father Matthew Schneider, the “Autistic Priest'' and Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology at Belmont Abby College, will provide an inside look at students with an autistic mind and offer insight into how they learn, experience faith formation, and understand the Catholic faith. This FREE virtual event will help you learn how to help special needs and autistic students in catechesis in two classes. In Class 1Seeing Autism from the Inside you’ll learn more about the perspective and perception of autistic children through a sensory, social, and cognitive lens. In Class 2—Practical Tips for Special Needs and Autistic Students you will learn how to put this understanding to work to make accommodations in catechesis, prayer, and the sacraments.

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Register for Helping Special Needs and Autistic Students in Catechesis 2-Part Masterclass hosted by Father Matthew Schneider now!

This Masterclass is in English. For resources in Spanish, watch La catequesis para personas con discapacidades as an alternative.

The shared voices and perspectives of the many Catholics on the Autism spectrum help enlighten unique faith journeys. Understanding and responding to these perspectives open all of our eyes to faith formation that engages different learning needs and leads more Catholics to experience faith, in the words of our guest author, as “a life lived with love and in love—made for loving others.”

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author
Katherine Pezo was diagnosed as autistic at the age of eleven and became a Catholic at the age of fifteen. She completed her high school curriculum at the age of 12 in an independent school, but then also attended 10th, 11th, and 12th grade in Oakcrest, a Catholic School for girls, for the purpose of social growth and development and to further her passion for the Catholic faith. She attended The Catholic University of America, majoring in theology. Katherine is passionate about history, world cultures, mythology, art, and animals. She enjoys activities she finds calming, relatable, and therapeutic, including writing, drawing, walking outside, reading, listening to music, playing video games, research, and spending time with her cat.