By Aileen Maroney
In light of Autism awareness, Father Matthew P. Schneider’s “God Loves the Autistic Mind” published by Pauline Press (Boston) is a timely and insightful guide to prayer for those on the autism spectrum and their loved ones.
“The goal of this book is to help my fellow autistic Christians and their families pray better,” Schneider wrote in his introduction.
As an autistic priest with the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi and as a theology instructor at Belmont Abbey College, Schneider provides a first-hand account in prayer as an autistic.
“Prayer is always an adventure,” he wrote. “Autistic prayer is no different: it’s just a different type of adventure. It’s as if everyone else is watching “Star Wars,” while we’re watching “Star Trek.” Both are space adventures with interstellar travel, warp speed, and laser weapons, but the rules for how things work are a little different. Each person must go on his or her own adventure seeking out God in prayer. This book provides something of a road map or interstellar guide for the autistic seeking Jesus, but it cannot replace your own effort.”
Seven years ago, after serving his first year of ministry as a school chaplain and failing to read emotions on students’ faces, Schneider was diagnosed with autism. In his book, Schneider reflected on his childhood in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and characteristics he possessed that fell within the realm of Autism Spectrum Disorder. He detested certain textures such as the plasticky texture of kale. He was sensitive to sound, seeking moderation and sensitive to light, seeking well-lit rooms. He possessed keen abilities akin to autistics — long-term memory of facts, pattern recognition and concentration.
“My long-term memory is so good that my nickname in seminary is Schneider-pedia, or they would joke that Wikipedia checks with me first,” he reflects. “I can honestly say that even though I finished formal study of philosophy 15 years ago, I could still probably pass the exams — it took me a while to even realize that was unusual. I just thought people remembered.”
In 2015, Schneider completed more than 12 hours of extensive testing that resulted in a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, a diagnosis that would have been Asperger’s Syndrome in prior diagnostic manuals.
“When occasionally I would hear brief descriptions of Asperger’s in the media, I thought it a slight personality trait, not a radically different way to see the world,” Schneider wrote. “A few times I’d thought ‘Oh maybe, I’m like that.’”
Schneider’s “God Loves the Autistic Mind” is divided into two parts: prayer and meditation. In the prayer section, Schneider discusses types of prayer: vocal prayer, stimming and prayer, location or objects in prayer and mental prayer.
“I want to present a way for those of us on the spectrum to learn to pray, and to pray about the things we deal with. I don’t think the method needs to be radically different for that of traditional prayer guides, but it needs some adaptation to be applicable to our neurology,” he wrote.
Schneider defines stimming as behavior consisting of repetitive movements, actions, words, sounds, etc. that autistics often use for various ends like sensory or emotional regulation. Examples of stimming include rocking in a chair, pacing, flapping or spinning a fidget spinner.
“I think we can integrate stimming and praying. God gave us our neurology with the need to stim, but He also allows that same stimming to help us come to Him,” he wrote.
Schneider noted that many autistics find repetition and continuity satisfying and advises utilizing repetitive prayers. Schneider added that his own five-minute morning prayer has remained for the most part the same for over 20 years.
“If repeating a certain prayer helps unite me with God in mind and heart, it is a good prayer,” he wrote. “The fact that simultaneously the repetition and familiarity calm my neurology is a bonus.”
He explained that repetitive prayers can be short such as repeating “My Jesus, mercy” or simply reciting the names of Jesus or Mary.
“Such quick prayers can be said repeatedly and keep uniting us to Our Lord and Savior,” he wrote. This kind of verbal stim praying will not work for all autistics, but I think it works for enough to be mentioned here.”
Schneider emphasized the importance of objects and location in prayer such as a prayer corner, a pilgrimage, a Rosary or image.
“I think that being autistic makes us more sensitive to places we pray in,” he wrote. “We may not be able to go on an international pilgrimage due to sensory issues, but often I think local sights like a grotto to Mary in the woods help autistic prayer immensely. When the place is more localized, we can often get attached to it.”
Schneider concluded his prayer section with the concept of mental prayer providing a six-step process to deeper prayer. He defines the deepest level of prayer as a personal encounter with God in the depths of the soul and comments on finding God through prayer in many different ways from nature to wordless prayer.
“I don’t know if telepathic communication exists between humans, but I know it exists between God and man,” he wrote. “As God can read my mind, my prayer can stay in wordless concepts and images without ever having to worry about speaking and listening, as we communicate both ways in pure thought. The thoughts I have in prayer and the thoughts God transfers to me are often difficult to put in words.”
Schneider added that mental prayer can involve immersing oneself in a Bible scene or imagining a moment like the earth’s creation.
“Many autistics have great imaginations and very keen senses, so we can bring these to life beyond words,” he wrote. “I have extreme visualizations of many different Bible passages and Christian truths that are far beyond words.”
The second section of Schneider’s book is titled “52 meditations for autistics and those who love us.” Each meditation is composed of a story, a Bible passage, a reflection and a short prayer. Many of the stories derive from Schneider’s personal life. There are also stories from others including autistic Christians and historical Christians who may have been autistic. The meditations touch on many topics. In the “God’s Peace Overpowers” meditation, Schneider wrote on how autistics can often feel stressed by issues everyone else considers normal and through Jesus’ presence, spiritual lives can lessen anxiety. In “Mary, my mother” he wrote of seeing the humanity of Jesus through Mary. “Thanking God for Autism” contains gratitude for a neurology that gives many blessings.
“I don’t think this book will answer every question or deal with every diversity on the spectrum, but I hope it can help us to pray and help others to pray for us,” writes Schneider.
For more information on “God Loves the Autistic Mind: a prayer guide for those on the spectrum and those who love us,” please visit https://paulinestore.com/god-loves-the-autistic-mind-qs1007924-200223.html