A practical guide to surviving church services

A practical guide to surviving church

Later we’ll consider some more things like, love, ego, logismoi, and other fun stuff. The first hurdle however is often the service, so some ideas on how to survive those might help.

Reiterating the point from the section on sin – if you do not have an understanding priest, find one. You do not need to find a priest who is an expert on autism. You merely have to find one who believes you when you indicate that something is a problem, is willing to work with you, and who doesn’t try to exorcise meltdowns. There may be ego involved in meltdowns, a topic we’ll consider later on, but once we hit that point there isn’t anything we can do about it, anyway, so our best bet is to predict and prevent them from occurring. Do keep in mind that we’re only trying to avoid meltdowns, not trying to avoid making an effort. It is alright that things are at times difficult.

Overstimulation is a serious risk in any Orthodox service, although at the same time the predictability of the services is bliss. But especially in large or crowded parishes, with a lot of people moving around, lots of noise, or in services that are less common, overstimulation occurs.

Below is what I do to make things easier, followed by comments from the other contributors.

My life in church is made more bearable by the use of an ‘anchor’, a person who, to me, is quiet. So many people are always having feelings at us, moving all the time, excessive body language…walking balls of stimuli. An anchor to me is a person who is reliable, quiet, and whose mere presence helps me relax because it gives me a focal point from which little to no stimuli emerge. That helps in blocking out the other things going on around me. To others it may be an object to hold, movement to make…anything that can keep the anxiety at bay. Icons tend to be quiet as well so doing a round of icon-staring may be an acceptable way of regaining focus.

Preparation for Sunday services begin long before the actual service. In my case, usually on Thursdays, when I try to determine how crowded or difficult a service is going to be. If it’s a regular Sunday, nothing unusual planned, then the standard preparation of making sure to be rested is fine. If it is a feast, or anything out of the ordinary, then I make sure not to plan anything on the Saturday evening before, or the afternoon after. Usually I just spend that time at home playing computer games or reading, emptying my head as much as I can so that I can more easily take what is coming on Sunday morning.

Unfortunately I have an hour and a half journey by public transportation to the church, and while I do not mind train journeys, crowds are not my idea of fun. A book or mobile are a necessary item. I have attempted to use the time for the pre-communion prayers, but that never worked very well.

I try to arrive early – not easy with public transportation – so that the church is still relatively quiet. The beauty of Orthodoxy is that the service starts with about a quarter of the people with which it ends; a perfect way to ease into it, as it were.

Also, at this time of the morning the lines for Confession, even if I only go up to receive a blessing, are still short.

A normal Liturgy, no matter the language, is by now familiar enough not to cause too many problems. The tricky parts are Confession and Communion, but those are predictable tricky parts and measures can be taken to get through them. At any rate, both receiving a blessing and receiving Communion take up a minute, at the most, and 60 seconds aren’t that hard to survive.

If the service is unfamiliar, I try to find one of the few people in the parish that I know fairly well – integrating and getting to know people is, obviously, a slow process – and ask them to explain to me what is happening. If I know ahead of time that the service is going to be unfamiliar, I ask them ahead of time if it’s okay to stick with them.

If you enjoy music, it may be an idea to join the choir. It provides a great deal of structure to a service, and gets you out of the general hustle and bustle of the crowd.

Ask questions. This will not make us popular, in general, since people usually believe that one or two questions should clarify any given topic entirely. Neurotypicals do not get that asking the same question, or sets of questions, simply means that they have not yet given the answer and the matter has not been satisfactorily resolved. How they manage to live with so many unresolved issues, I shall never know.

Now for the dreaded moment: the coffee hour after the service.

Do not let yourself be tricked into thinking that you must get to know the whole parish. If you get to know a few people, that’s fine. In a parish of 200, NO ONE knows every single person there, so why should you?

The most important thing is to find the balance. Put in the effort, but take care not to exceed your capacity.

Jonah: I find the quiet of going to church before the hours to be quite helpful. I have difficulty venerating icons in more than a mindless repetition sort of way when there are lots of others around. In the relative quiet of that time before the hours start, I can connect with and leisurely venerate the icons. If I arrive late I do not venerate the icons. I would just be going through the motions and it would not be helpful to me and might even invite pride.

If it is a crowded parish, communion queues and venerating the cross at the end can be sources of anxiety for me. I typically either sing in the choir and wait until the queue is actually moving (It typically does not until all the children have communed) or I am serving and commune among the first. If a special icon is present, the end of the service queue to venerate the icon is hazardous for me.

For me, the difficulty of Coffee Hour is the extreme noise. I have to concentrate just to hear my own thoughts and whatever the person next to me or across from me might be saying above the roar of noise of everyone else talking. It usually takes me a time to get away from this. It tires me out.

Phoebe: For example, I dislike touch, a dislike I share with many of us. Initially, after becoming Orthodox, this posed no great problem during Communion, because in that particular small church there were no deacons, and a distinct shortage of altar servants. Moving to a larger parish, however, meant dealing with deacons and altar servants standing next to the priest with the Chalice, holding the cloth, and who put hands on shoulders to move the person approaching into position and wiping mouths. In other words, torture.

Thank God for kind understanding priests and deacons who learn to predict reactions. Nowadays, I am allowed to hold the cloth myself, no one tries to touch me, and Father does not make me kiss the Chalice. There is a solution for many such problems, although admittedly I do still have some problems going up for Communion when I do not know the priest and deacons, or in unfamiliar circumstances. That’s just something to put up with; some things can’t be changed and just have to be endured. “It’s just this Sunday – next week things will be as usual,” is a very useful thing to keep in mind in such cases.

I am part of a parish where hugging is the number 1 language. A slightly unfortunate combination. Frequently it feels like I’m fighting off a horde of wasps. I shall never understand how it is possible that people invade my personal space uninvited, ignore all signs of my discomfort, forcibly TAKE a hug or kiss, and then consider ME rude for objecting. Neurotypicals are just weird that way. They can’t help it. It’s best to keep repeating that to yourself.

Nichole: I diagnosed myself after my son was diagnosed. We were like twinsies, except I didn’t have the behavioral outbursts he has. In church, I cover my head. It helps me feel a lot more peace. It keeps the social anxiety at bay. That’s not the only reason I cover, but it may be my favorite. My adult nephew with ASD came to liturgy, and he just took breaks going outside or in the nave to escape the incense, as it was overpowering. The incense doesn’t bother me at all. Some friends that I think may be neuro-atypical (as well as some older folks who may or may not be neuro-typical) have a problem with the volume level of our beloved deacon. I’m guessing some might have to put discreet earplugs in that would still allow them to hear the service. I tend to sit near the back, or lately, in choir, so that isn’t a problem for me. On a bad day, I may wince or catch my breath a bit if a sudden volume shift takes me by surprise. As far as coffee hour goes, I use general coping methods, like a forced smile and deep breathing, and holding my head up and trying to look at people’s foreheads, or even eyes and saying “Hi!” or even just smiling and waving. If people talk to you, it’s good to ask them about their day/week so you don’t have to talk as much. When I was really new, I would just take my knitting and keep my head covered, and not sit until my friends sat. Now that I’m used to people, I take my head covering off before entering coffee hour, and I actually talk to “strangers” a bit!

Experiment!

Sometimes it’s a matter of trying different things to see what works best for you. It may be other people have ideas or solutions you never considered.
Phoebe: I told my therapist about the problems I encountered in church with the people moving, crowding etc. She asked me where I normally stand – at the back, on the right side of the church. She suggested that as an experiment I should move to the front, so that the mass of moving, whispering, and pushing people is behind me, and I won’t see them. I tried that, and discovered that when I move to the front RIGHT, I will encounter a parishioner who (while undoubtedly a nice person) tends to sing along with the choir and has a voice that makes me want to tear out his voicebox with my bare hands. So I moved to the front LEFT, and found it a lot easier.

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A Sinful Problem

Are we hopeless? Faith and autism in the Church.

What to do, what to do with a faith that relies so heavily on connecting to others, to walk a mile in anothers shoes (as it were) while empathy is a problem, in almost all of us, to some degree? Is there any way for us to achieve as genuine and complete a faith as neurotypicals? Can we connect to God? Can we connect to our brothers and sisters?

The answer to the connection to the people around us in church is pretty much the same as it is everywhere. It’s tricky, complicated, and never entirely understandable.

Often it seems, especially after an afternoon of Googling, that controlling the children (and some adults) among us so that we do not distract those for whom the ‘normal’ ways do work seems far more important than that we develop a relationship, a connection to God.

And yet, we CAN!

God has no more problem understanding and connecting to the autistic mind than He has connecting to the neurotypical mind. He knows how to connect to us, no problem at all. Autism does not affect the part of us, heart, nous, however we call it, that connects to God.

Look, Ma, I’m a church!

Looking at the way a church is organized, there are quite a few comparisons that can be made to humans. The narthex and nave are our way of acting and our mind, in a sense. The altar is where the exciting things happen, and like in the church it is the heart and center, so it is in us. Our heart, the part of us that can connect to God is that.

I’ve not been to too many churches, but I’ve seen a few. Large churches and itty bitty tiny ones, where basically all that fit were the members of the choir; all four of them. Churches in rooms that weren’t originally designed to be churches.

The overall structure of the services does not really change. But in a large church, where the readers symmetrically march 20 yards into the church to do the readings, where the deacon censing the church takes about ten minutes, things obviously are a little different from a tiny chapel where, if the priest takes two large steps, he will have completed the Entrances and be right back at his previous spot in the altar, and censing is a matter of trying not to hit anyone. Nothing changes, and yet many things need to be adapted to the circumstances.

So it is with autism. The altar does not change; that is where we connect to God. But our mind is affected, and this has an impact on what works, and what doesn’t. The things that usually work, may not work as well for us, or not at all. The different setup of those with autism may make the connection between nave and altar very difficult, as if some of the doors of the iconostasis, the icon wall separating the altar space from the nave, get kind of stuck, interfering with the normal way of doing things.

It may be especially difficult because ironically, for most of us our default setting is to try and do things RIGHT and BY THE BOOK.

We inevitably fail. And are cut off from that part of ourselves, but that part is not destroyed.

So what then? We can connect to God. God can connect to us. The Church with its 2000 years of experience in the ‘how’ of things is not to be discounted, but some things simply do not work well for us, and some things are incomprehensible. But it is the ‘how’ that should concern us. The goal is the same.

Connecting to God is the most important. We would prefer a neat, organized, structured theology, resulting in a clean, defined path with obvious milestones, but the very fact that it isn’t, that it isn’t any such thing that moves to deification, that is our salvation. It sets us free to move towards that deification in any way we can, instead of frustrating ourselves in attempting to do what we can’t.

A problem of sins

Isn’t sin complicated?

It would be easy enough if we could just stick to the lists.

Something like this:

Have you committed, since your last confession (please place check to indicate sin committed):

  • Murder
  • Theft
  • Fornication
  • ….

And so on.

It isn’t hard to understand that those are sins. Murder is frowned upon, generally speaking, even if the definition of what constitutes murder may vary from one country to the next, and even from one decade to the next. Still, law is law. Problem solved.

If only. But in sin and confession, it doesn’t quite work that way. Sin is far more elusive when it deals with our own passions, and our relationship with others. A reaction that is right some of the time may not be at other times. There is a very high element of unpredictability, and the rules seem to change from one situation to the next.

We have autism – therefore we are automatically in the wrong. This is more or less the general consensus. Unfortunately, most of the time we have very little idea of even doing anything wrong, let alone know how it affects the other person!

The whole concept of sin itself is a bit of a mystery, because a simple idea of good and evil is insufficient.

Another issue is remorse. Remorse apparently relies on a feeling, and quite a complicated series of feelings at that. It is, I am told, not the same as guilt, which is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. Guilt just means beating yourself up all the time, figuratively speaking. I’ve yet to figure out remorse – it is far more complicated and I haven’t figured it out yet.

This makes confession complicated. What is sin, and what is not? Do we confess it all, just to be sure? It turns out some priests (and those in line behind us) find this exhausting. Causing other people exhaustion is a sin, too!

For those of us to whom this is a problem, it is not one easily solved. Again, an understanding priest can be a great help at this point. If you do not have such a priest, find one. It is no slight to your own priest. Autists find neurotypicals difficult to understand and this causes all sorts of social problems. Many neurotypicals find autism difficult to understand, and this causes all sorts of social problems. WE find it difficult to understand at times and we LIVE with it! Aside from that, attachment and trust are frequently secondary problems, not for any deficiency in the people involved, but simply because our differently connected brains also form attachments in different ways than usual. Find a priest you trust. Be pragmatic about this. It’s your sanctification at stake, after all.

Even though our parish has five priests, for confession and communion I am comfortable with only one (well, in as far as I am ever comfortable with confession and communion, that is). That is no slight on the other priests, all of them very worthy people. It is just the way it is.

Joe: One can do the right thing and be sinning. One can do the wrong thing and not be sinning. Sin falls outside right/wrong. So I can not just look at what I did (right/wrong) to gather what I need for confession. Even causing others pain is not a slam dunk for sin. Sadly I am struggling very hard to identify what boundaries define sin. Seeing sin as an injury/illness is the direction I have recently started looking and it appears to hold promise……...

The Autistic Adult and the Orthodox Church – the need for advocacy.

Slowly, very slowly, awareness of the existence of autism is growing in the Church – but mainly focused on children. However, autistic children grow into autistic adults. The challenge is not just how to survive services without overly upsetting the neurotypicals – the challenge is the same for us as it is for all Orthodox Christians – move towards theosis, unity with God. To do that, despite being Orthodox, we must at times employ unorthodox methods.

First things first:

Disclaimers:

  • He/She/It etc…mostly we’ve written ‘we’ but where ‘he’ occurs, you may read whatever other gender (or lack thereof) you feel is appropriate.
  • The writer of this article is not inclined to be politically correct, not seeing why one has to state ‘I have autism’ (or worse, ‘I am on the autistic spectrum’ as if it’s some sort of playground apparatus) instead of ‘I am autistic’ to imply that this is not the whole of what we are, but one can say ‘I am a man (or woman, see above)’ and everyone will already know that it is not the whole of what we are. No insults are intended, only impatience.
  • When it comes to severe autism, combined with intellectual disabilities, we do not have the skills to address the problems these people encounter in church and in their spiritual life. We strongly advocate that an interest should be taken in supporting spiritual growth and finding solutions for church attendance for the ENTIRE spectrum. However, while we (on the milder/highfunctioning part of the spectrum) are better able to explain and share experiences, that does not mean we are in any way capable of doing so for those who cannot. We know our limitations and hope that, by making a first tentative effort, others will pick up those parts that we by necessity have to leave for now.

How it started

After several unsuccessful afternoons of Googling, I drew the following conclusions:

  1.      There is information on autism within the Orthodox Church.
  2.      There is quite a bit written about how to keep autistic children sedate during services.
  3.      There is not so much written about how to actively engage autistic children during services
  4.      There is nothing at all written about the difficulties adults with autism face during service.
  5.      There is nothing at all written about connecting to God and moving towards deification when one has an autism  spectrum disorder.

And unfortunately I was looking for information on 4 and 5.

So it seems that there is only one way to get the information I am looking for – digging it up and writing it down myself. Of course, the downside of this is that it is subject to many errors, so I engaged some friends to read along.

I’ve written something about the topics I myself and some friends have encountered most frequently:

  1.      Are we hopeless? Faith and autism in Church
  2.      A problem of sins
  3.      How to survive services, a practical guide.
  4.      Love is all around – how to bring it in.
  5.    Moving towards God in mysterious ways

My experience is limited, as I’m on the spectrum, but do not represent the entire spectrum. But hopefully enough of us will find this somewhat helpful. I am Orthodox, even if I’m a convert who is still very much learning what Orthodoxy is all about. So, despite the positive experiences I have had as a Baptist, I am now Orthodox and writing from that point of view. I have autism, and write from that point of view. Neurotypicals are of course welcome to read along, but I’m writing for us, we who lurk somewhere on the autism spectrum and try to survive in Church.

I am also an adult, and this appears to be something that has been overlooked – that autistic children grow into autistic adults. We don’t grow out of it, although of course our behaviour and ways of handling difficult situations changes as we grow up. At the same time, expectations for adults with autism (especially high functioning ones) are much higher.
A completely unnecessary introduction to autism

(Which those who already know about autism can skip, but those who think they know about autism might want to read)

Officially, autism is a complex developmental disorder of the brain. In smaller words, the brain of people with autism works differently. It is also a spectrum, which means there is a huge variety among people with autism. Nearly half have average to above average intelligence; a quarter do not speak (yes, these two may occur in the same person).

It is distinguished not by a single symptom, but by a characteristic triad of symptoms: impairments in social interaction; impairments in communication; and restricted interests and repetitive behavior. Again, there is considerable variety in how and how severe these symptoms manifest themselves. Also, adults have often learned coping methods, which means the symptoms may appear more muted than they do in children.

Three main theories exist to explain the difficulties:

  • Theory of Mind: although this is by now a dated term, the general idea is that the brain of autists is better with systemizing, but doesn’t do as well with empathizing. Interpreting and relating to other people is more difficult.
  • Executive functions: organizing, planning, structuring. Autists brain have problems in sorting out the details and structuring activities. Structuring requires getting a good overview, which can be difficult.
  • Central coherence: the filter in a normal brain that immediately identifies the main subjects from the details, saves these important subjects to the brain while discarding the details, and makes sure all parts of the brain interact properly to form the bigger picture doesn’t work or works less efficiently in autistic brains. Everything that enters the brain is perceived and saved as equally important, while at the same time, the internal interaction within the brain is limited. Gaining an understanding of the bigger picture takes much longer and sometimes cannot be achieved at all.

Most likely all of these theories are to some degree correct, and a combination of them comes closest to the truth.

With severe autism, the problems are usually apparent to just about everyone, even if it may not be clear to everyone what the underlying cause is. With mild autism, the problems may not immediately be obvious even to the initiated. Adults with mild autism and average to higher intelligence likely have found any number of coping methods for at least some of their symptoms. The role in which they are encountered may also make a difference – several of us report being able to do things while functioning as caretakers that we are otherwise unable to do. The fragmentation of our brain does not necessarily allow for automatic transfer of skills from one area to another.

The spectrum is broad and varied, as are the people on it. We experience similar difficulties, but never exactly the same.

So, on this blog I intend to post a series of articles with our experiences and the difficulties we encounter, mostly written for ourselves – those on the autism spectrum. Not just about the practical problems we encounter, but also about how we live in this Orthodox faith, and the way we travel towards God.