Walking with people with autism

This past Saturday (November 22) Pope Francis spoke at a conference in the Vatican entitled, “The Person with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Animating Hope.” Through his words and gestures, the Holy Father worked to animate hope in those with these disorders, as well as their family members and health care workers who serve them.

The pope noted that “These conditions constitute a fragility that affects numerous children and, consequently, their families. They represent an area that appeals to the direct responsibility of governments and institutions, without of course forgetting the responsibility of Christian communities.” In saying that, the Holy Father reminded the audience that government does have a role to play, since these people are citizens as much as any other person, but also reminded Christians of their duty to serve people with autism, since they are also created in the image and likeness of God.

“Everyone should be committed to promoting acceptance, encounter and solidarity through concrete support and by encouraging renewed hope. In this way we can contribute to breaking down the isolation and, in many cases, the stigma burdening people with autism spectrum disorders, and just as often their families,” said the pope. We might wish to make an examination of conscience to see if we have added to the burden of these folks by not embracing them, but rather pulling away from them.

Pope Francis then returned to one of his common themes, that of our need to “walk with” each other, just as Christ does. He said, “This must not be an anonymous or impersonal accompaniment, but one of listening to the profound needs that arise from the depths of a pathology which, all too often, struggles to be properly diagnosed and accepted without shame or withdrawing into solitude, especially for families. It is a cross.” The Holy Father did not downplay the difficulties these people face.

He then offered a specific suggestion of what could be done: “Assistance to people affected by autism spectrum disorders would benefit greatly from the creation of a network of support and services on the ground that are comprehensive and accessible. These should involve, in addition to parents, grandparents, friends, therapists, educators and pastoral workers. These figures can help families overcome the feelings that can sometimes arise of inadequacy, uselessness and frustration.”

Back to the theme of hope at the conference, Pope Francis spoke of the future: “I want to encourage the hard work of academics and researchers, so that they may discover therapies and support tools, to help and heal and, above all, prevent the onset of these conditions as soon as possible; All of this while paying due attention to the rights of the patients, their needs and their potential, always safeguarding the dignity of every person.”

The National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) notes on its website, “The prevalence of autism is an increasing reality in the parishes and schools of the Catholic Church in the United States. Autism, also often called autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is ‘a set of complex neurodevelopment disorders that include autistic disorder, Asperger disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified. Children who have ASD display mild to severe impairments in social interaction and communication
along with restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behaviors, interests, and activities’ (quoting from a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2013 report). The rates of autism have risen steadily, and as of the latest report are at one in 50. Regardless of the reason for the increase, all parishes and schools will have members who live with the range of conditions that are within the autism spectrum.”

Bob and Suzanne Wright, founders of the Autism Speaks foundation, were among the speakers at the conference. Bob told Vatican Radio, “I am so proud to be here at the Vatican, where the [Pastoral Health Care dicastery] is taking three days away from its other activities to have all kinds of scientists come in and talk about autism, about family, about getting together and making things happen — when we have other people using religion for money, for corruption, for terrorism, for horrible things, this example of the Vatican [shows] the right way to be Spiritual and [religious].” 

His wife echoed that sentiment, saying, “The religion aspect and the spiritual aspect to me is very helpful,” she said, adding, “we need to show compassion and understanding in taking care of [those with autism].There is no cure for autism, no known causes and no approved medical treatments of its core symptoms. Our families struggle daily for acceptance and basic services, and parents can barely afford the cost of essential treatments and therapy for their children. We are incredibly grateful that the Vatican has recognized this need.”

Michele Arbogast, a mother whose child has autism, told Religion News Service (RNS) that she had to go to the conference: “In my darkest moments it was my faith that I turned to. Pope Francis has changed the dynamics. He reaches out to those in need.”

The pope’s words and the facts from the NCPD remind us of our duty to be attentive to the needs of those with autism and their families. As we enter into Advent, we are reminded (as we can also read in Father Rodney’s homily on page eight and Deacon Lucca’s column on page 17) that we need to welcome Christ not on Christmas Day as a Baby, but welcome Him each and every day of our lives in the various forms of people in which He comes to us, awaiting our loving response. 

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