As Orthodox Christians, we know (even when autistic) that we don’t believe on our own. The concept of being a believer but wanting nothing to do with any church or community of believers is alien to us.
With good reason, I might add. When accepting no authority but our own (thinly veiled as ‘the Holy Spirit shows me’) and having no interaction with other believers to keep us on the right path, it is just a matter of time for heresy to crop up.
However, we do have trouble interacting with others, and we do experience difficulties. Being part of the Church in concept is all fine, but the practical application of this – and no concept within the Orthodox Church is without a practical application – is that we live in a parish with actual people. Some of us don’t manage that; that’s the way it is. The communication and social difficulties we experience can be completely overwhelming, and aside from our ineptitude in these matters, there is also the ignorance or unwillingness on the part of our fellow parishioners that may lead to a situation where participating in services and parish life is not an option.
It is, however, very much the way things are, but not the way things should be. Like so many times in the history of the Church and in the practices of local parishes, sometimes we go with what works, or deal with the situation as it is, when circumstances are not as we’d like them to be.
Still, I gather most of us do want to contribute if it were in any way possible.
When talking to my therapist the other day about employment and what kind of jobs suit people with autism best, she said, “Three things. You need a job where A) it is very clearly defined what your responsibilities are, B) there is little or no time pressure, and C) your work does not depend upon the work of other people and you need not work together with others too much.”
This goes for parish life as well, I have found.
From experience, I can tell you that trying to work with people in a parish or para-parish (is that even a word?) group is doomed to failure. Working with volunteers is even more difficult than working with co-workers, because generally speaking, volunteers are even less reliable. Alright, it usually fits the ‘no time pressure or deadline’ qualification, but unfortunately in many cases that means ‘we’re not going to make ANY sort of agreement on time-frames at all and even if we do, we’re not going to keep it.’ That is not something we can comfortably do.
There are other things, however, that we may be able to do. I’ve mentioned the choir, in an earlier blog, as a way of making services easier. Since I am wretchedly unmusical, that is not an option for me, but I have found something I enjoy doing.
Our parish likes to put the sermons on their website for people to read, later. My job is to transcribe the recorded English and Dutch sermons into text, and, if necessary, translate them from one language to the other.
It requires a little bit of interaction with others – with the reader to get the sermons that I have not recorded myself, which he generally sends within days of me sending a note which ones I still need. With the priests for their preferences – two like to get their sermons sent to them so they can add notes, one likes to read the translations, and the fourth is the only one whose sermons I send along without any comments at all. But these are all fixed agreements that needed to be made only once.
Serving in the altar (for boys) may be possible and provide a structure for services.
Depending on what other activities your parish employs, there may be things to do that fit the three qualifications my therapist mentioned. We don’t need to avoid people altogether, but find things to do where our dependency on them to complete a job is limited.
One of the other things I am doing is writing this blog, hoping that together we can help ourselves live more fulfilling spiritual lives, preferably within the context of a supportive parish.
For that to happen, however, we need to speak out, explain what is going on, why things are difficult for us, why we react the way we do, and what we need to function. Unfortunately, that requires a LOT of the skills in which our autism limits us, so it can be tricky. Start with one person at a time. Write a blog. Get someone you know and trust and who knows about autism to explain it for you. It is important to get key people aware of our autism. We hardly need to announce it to the entire parish, but it may help if some people within the parish are aware of it, understand what it is, and are aware of what this means for us in terms of our strengths and our limitations.
Please, do comment below on what you do/did/plan to do in your parish, how that is working out for you, and what you learned that might be of benefit to others.