Father Matthew Schneider, LC was ordained a priest in 2013 and diagnosed in 2015 with Autism Spectrum Disorder. As “Autistic Priest” on social media, he’s become a friendly face of the Church toward the autism community, and a friendly face of autism, with priestly dignity, to Catholics.
He has written a new book addressing the prayer life of autistics, entitled God Loves the Autistic Mind: A Prayer Guide for Those on the Spectrum and People Who Love Us. I myself am autistic and Catholic. I have followed Fr. Schneider on Twitter (@AutisticPriest and @FrMatthewLC), YouTube, and via his blog.
While the oft-disabling human traits involved are not a new phenomenon, autism as a named disorder and its specific clinical definition are historically recent and probably still evolving. Not everyone with the condition is a marginal person in the usual sense: Elon Musk has said he has Asperger’s Syndrome—which is today folded into the Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis. The spiritual life of the autistic person is an emerging question—and not least because it’s become evident that autistics are disproportionately more likely than “neurotypical” people to be atheists or agnostics. Why?
Autistic children are substantially more likely than those with other types of conditions to never attend church, a pattern that naturally would continue in adulthood. Autistic minds are wired differently than those of typical people; this can result in difficulty intuiting what others are thinking, and Father Schneider posits that this “theory of mind” deficit can also initially hinder us in thinking of the mind of God. Moreover, most autistics think in a rationally linear way which the book suggests could make it easier to think of God as a principle than to relate to Him as a Person.
One of Father Schneider’s key insights in God Loves the Autistic Mind is that there is therefore a “ridge” to get over as an autistic person is learning to pray. He says there is nothing awry with a style of prayer that is more intellectual than emotional; however, it is necessary to get over the “ridge” to contemplate God as not merely (for instance) the first cause of existence or as the moral principle, but as the One whom we know loves us.
“We need to help autistic young people with rational explanations of the faith or seek these out if we are autistics learning the faith,” he writes. God Loves the Autistic Mind does not itself undertake that; it is an accessibly written prayer book, not a catechism or theological tome. But I was deeply glad that he stressed that need.
I’ve long believed that the absence of adequate Catholic information made my adolescent loss of faith inevitable. Fr Schneider describes how he pored over Kreeft and Tacelli’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics (there’s a subsequent specifically Catholic version) as a teen, and kept his faith. I returned to the Church as a young adult in 2006 after beginning to pray and to read seriously—beginning with Saint John of the Cross and Saint Augustine. They taught me how to think about faith. My intense interest in classic theological literature and tendency to go on about it in detail received striking mixed reactions in Catholic settings: sometimes valued, other times morally judged. I dearly wanted to meaningfully connect with others! It is consoling to read that Fr Schneider had similar experiences such as being called the “not entirely positive” name “Schneiderpedia.” He says that as autistics, all that info has a positive role in our faith life and indeed our prayer life.
There aren’t a lot of Christian resources for autistic adults, so it’s fortunate God Loves the Autistic Mind is well tailored to an ecumenical readership and includes many stories and voices in its pages from both Catholic and non-Catholic autistics.
God Loves the Autistic Mind includes two chapters on specific topics about prayer in harmony with our autistic nature (for instance, “stimming” or fidget activity is treated positively), followed by one chapter on some serious errors some religious people make about autism.
Fifty-two reflections constitute the core of God Loves the Autistic Mind, each with a story pertinent to autistic experiences, a short Bible reading, a reflection, and a brief prayer. This Lent I really appreciated a deep and moving little book of reflections by another autistic Catholic priest, Fr. Mark Nolette: Scriptural Stations of the Cross for Autistic People (Fr. Nolette too is a blogger, and associated with a ministry called Autism Consecrated). Our autistic experience involves sufferings particular to it and I found it healing to pray with that in light of Jesus’ Passion. Every day shouldn’t be Lent though, and Fr. Schneider’s reflections have a range that is not centered on suffering. They are based on a positive view of autism, and weave in the insights and experiences of many individual autistic people.
Several appendices round out God Loves the Autistic Mind. The first is “What is Autism?”—relegated to the end of the volume since autistic adults will be the primary readership. Further appendices provide basic Catholic prayers, a suggested method for mental prayer, and a guide for autistic penitents and confessors.
Similar to the approach the book takes to most things, this confession aid doesn’t try to replace standard examination of conscience materials but offers notes specifically related to autism. For instance, Fr. Schneider points out autistic behaviors which others might react negatively to, but which are not sins. Even though I know this, I also needed to hear it, and even though it’s true, I sometimes feel so troubled and badly, or have been directly accused by others that it’s a sin, or it seems ambiguous, or frankly I have no one else to whom I can say these things I suffer from, therefore I confess them—while also explaining to the confessor that they are autism symptoms. Indeed that’s an important piece of Fr. Schneider’s advice, to mention to the priest that you are autistic. Good confessors know how to ease our scrupulosity.
At multiple points in the book I would have liked for it to continue on a topic at greater length. But I thought the choices for conciseness seemed intentional, both for readability and because God Loves The Autistic Mind was written concurrently with the author’s doctoral thesis and will probably not be the last of his books for autistic Christians.
Faith is an infused virtue, a gift from God that grows by contact with God in prayer. Autistic people who don’t pray are (similar to anyone else who doesn’t pray) more likely to be atheists. As Saint Teresa of Avila says in the first chapter of The Interior Castle, souls without prayer are like paralyzed and ill bodies. Autism does not disable anyone for union with God. Lack of prayer does.
God Loves the Autistic Mind: A Prayer Guide for Those on the Spectrum and People Who Love Us by Father Matthew Schneider retails for $16.95 and is available for pre-order from Pauline Books or Amazon for a June 1, 2022 release date.