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!
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.