Online ministry seeks to recognize, engage autistic Catholics - Catholic Courier
Headshots of a man and a woman.

Aimée O’Connell and Father Mark P. Nolette cofounded Autism Consecrated in 2020. (Photos courtesy of Autism Consecrated)

Online ministry seeks to recognize, engage autistic Catholics

Autistic people sometimes don’t feel at home in church, according to Aimee O’Connell, a lay Carmelite who attends St. Pius Tenth Parish in Chili. And particularly during Lent, there is a significant lack of devotions that have been developed with the needs of autistic people in mind, noted Father Mark Nolette, a retired priest of the Diocese of Portland, Maine, who now resides in Rochester.

As autistic people themselves, Father Nolette and O’Connell find these situations concerning, so in 2020, they teamed up to found an online ministry called Autism Consecrated.

“Our primary focus is prayer, that we may reflect the light of Christ both to our fellow autistic members of the Church and to the Church itself, to better recognize the presence and value of its autistic members,” O’Connell explained in an email interview with the Catholic Courier.

This Lent, O’Connell and Father Nolette said they hope people will utilize the resources available on their ministry’s website (https://autismconsecrated.com), including a Stations of the Cross devotion created specifically for autistic people.

Autistic people process and experience faith, spirituality and worship differently

Autism Consecrated’s founders believe many church communities lack accurate information about autism, O’Connell wrote.

The terms autism or autism spectrum disorder refer to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, according to Autism Speaks Inc., a nonprofit autism awareness and research organization. Autistic people are neurodivergent, meaning they process the world, sensory input and their interactions with their environment differently than the majority of people, O’Connell said.

“(This) means we also process and experience our faith, our spirituality and our liturgical worship differently,” she wrote. “Recent publications suggest that up to 50 percent of autistic people in any given community do not attend church for reasons relating to their neurodivergence.”

Some autistic people may find the sensory environment inside a church overwhelming, O’Connell said, and some may feel pressure to mask or suppress their differences or their behaviors in church. Others may have a hard time connecting with ministries and fellowship opportunities geared toward neurotypical people, she added.

Ministry hopes to offer an ‘authentically autistic’ perspective

Catholic parishes typically do not have staff or volunteers who are able to bring an authentic autistic perspective to their ministries, O’Connell said.

“Autism Consecrated hopes to fill that role by our own example, to be a resource for anyone seeking to better meet the needs of neurodivergent people in their own respective communities,” she said. “In many ways, being authentically autistic in the Church is mission work, in that it requires us to be vulnerable, to not hide our needs, and to constantly pray.”

O’Connell said her prayer is that the church community will come to realize autistic people’s neurodivergent traits are neither character flaws nor superpowers. Rather, they are an expression of common humanity and serve a valid and functional role in the body of Christ, she wrote.

Ministry’s Lenten prayer calendar, Stations of the Cross developed with autistic people in mind

Autism Consecrated’s website provides a number of prayers and reflections written by and for autistic people, as well as a calendar of prayer petitions for each day of Lent. The petitions highlight the needs of autistic Catholics, which also are the needs of the entire church, O’Connell wrote.

“What better time than Lent to bring these needs out into the open and into the light through prayer?” she asked.

The Scriptural Stations of the Cross for Autistic People also were written with the needs of autistic people in mind, according to Father Nolette, who developed them five years ago. This series of prayers and reflections is based on the Scriptural Stations of the Cross introduced by Pope John Paul II in 1991. They highlight moments in Jesus’ Passion and death that are more closely aligned with biblical accounts of his death than those found in the traditional Stations of the Cross.

“I wrote a reflection for each station that was intended to help autistic readers connect what Christ was doing in that station with the difficulties that they often encounter in their daily lives,” Father Nolette wrote in an email interview.

People without autism also may benefit from praying this devotion, he added.

“It should be possible for anyone with an open, empathetic heart to follow these stations and grow in appreciation not only for the love of our Lord … but also for our autistic sisters and brothers who bear similar crosses daily,” he wrote.

Tags: Catholic Beliefs, Health, Monroe County West
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