The body of Christ has many autistic members and Fr Matthew Schneider LC is keen to raise awareness of that fact and minister to them, hears Jason Osborne
Fr Matthew Schneider LC, was already ordained a priest just over two years when he was diagnosed with autism at the age of 34. Initially shaken by the development, Fr Schneider says researching the condition helped him to appreciate his strengths and what he has to offer the Church and the people he ministers to.
Doing very well in academics growing up, he was saddled with the nickname ‘Schneider-paedia, like Wikipedia or encyclopaedia’ during his years studying theology”
Speaking to The Irish Catholic newspaper, Canada-born but US-based priest Fr Schneider says that although he always recognised that he was “a little different” it wasn’t until he was assigned as chaplain to a K-12 school that he was posed concrete questions.
“My first assignment was chaplain to a K-12 school as a Catholic priest, and, especially with the littler kids, I really wasn’t picking up on their social cues at all, and I didn’t do a good job as chaplain. That’s what actually led to my autism diagnosis a few years later,” Fr Schneider says.
“When I was diagnosed, at first, I really felt down. I thought, ‘Oh, my life is a disaster’. I just felt, ‘Oh my goodness, I have this huge condition and that’s something I have to worry about now’. I was all worried driving home from the psychologist’s in the car.
“But then, over the next few weeks, I took up reading a lot on autism…and that helped me realise both the strengths and weaknesses of it. It helped me realise, ‘Ok, like I’m not going to pick up always on the social cues as good as other people, but in other things, I can be very good’,” Fr Schneider explains.
Doing very well in academics growing up, he was saddled with the nickname “Schneider-paedia, like Wikipedia or encyclopaedia” during his years studying theology. Being particularly strong in that regard, Fr Schneider realised that could translate well into certain ministries and hence his posting as a theology professor made good sense.
Another way in which Fr Schneider’s autism affects him is light sensitivity he says, while admitting that it’s not too bad for him”
“I know my theology backwards, forwards and upside down. I’m able to teach it and explain it well to others. I’m able to grasp the social cues enough for being a professor. I might not be great if I was chaplain to a school or pastor to a parish, in that sense. It would be more of a challenge there,” he says.
Asked about what his experience of autism is like, Fr Schneider says that “a lot of it is just realising that so many other people do so much subconsciously that I was doing consciously”.
“That’s not to say one’s right or one’s wrong, it’s just how our brains work, and the fact that it’s conscious, it’s going to be not nearly as good because we’re generally better at our subconscious processes than our conscious processes,” he says.
He offers as an example the fact that for his entire life, his brain has been sending a message beneath the level of his conscious awareness instructing his heart to beat, “and it hasn’t missed it once”.
“We can consciously control our breath too but most of the time we aren’t, we’re just breathing, we aren’t thinking, ‘Breathe in, breathe out’, right? Whereas at the same time, for a lot of social cues for most people, it’s like going through subconsciously, and then you can consciously work it out, whereas for me a lot of times, I’m consciously working it out in normal interactions, and so it can be more difficult and it can be more exhausting. Working as a professor, it works fine. I think I’m fine with that, and that’s where I am right now,” Fr Schneider says.
Another way in which Fr Schneider’s autism affects him is light sensitivity he says, while admitting that it’s not too bad for him.
“I have a few other things like I’m somewhat sensitive to light. Autistics tend to have some kind of variation in sense experience. I’m somewhat sensitive to light, I’m not super sensitive. I’m fine with normal lights in my office, but I go outside, I’m always the first one to put on sunglasses. I’ll be outside and I’ll be in sunglasses and 95% of the other people won’t be yet, because it’s not that bright, but to me it’s already bright enough. But that’s again, not way out there, but it is a little bit different in that regard.”
Foremost among them is the importance of consistency and repetitiveness for autistics when it comes to religion”
He’s quick to compliment his parents on how they raised him, with both of them being “just very much ok with those differences”. With Fr Schneider coming from a computer engineering background, the psychologist that diagnosed him said that had he continued on in that world, it’s likely he wouldn’t even have been diagnosed.
“Even the psychologist when I was diagnosed said had I stayed at computer engineering and gone into a tech-type job, I probably never would have been diagnosed and would have been able to more or less function without the diagnosis.
“Because in a lot of tech jobs, the quirkiness, the lack of social skills, there’s a certain stereotype to the computer programmer or the engineering guy who designs it, and because of that stereotype, which is a little bit more quirky and a little bit less good at reading social cues, which is a lot of where my experience of autism comes out, it’s more accepted in a field like that than it is in a lot of other fields.”
Sensory issues are also a big topic when it comes to the autistic experience of Catholicism, and religious services in particular”
The easy way in which some forms of autism can slip below the radar is perhaps to be expected, as Fr Schneider says that he often thinks of it as “like a different brain structure,” in that a lot of it is that there isn’t the same degree of subconscious filtering that other people have.
When it comes to the experience of Catholicism as an autistic, Fr Schneider says that of course it’s similar in many ways, but that there are some key differences. Foremost among them is the importance consistency and repetitiveness for autistics when it comes to religion.
“I think for example in Mass, one of our struggles can be executive functioning, which is kind of like scheduling out and ordering things, and so because we like that consistency and that repetitiveness, we know what’s going to happen. Like, for example, myself, when I was in college, I went to an event at a Protestant evangelical-type Church because I had a friend who was a part of it, and it just felt like you didn’t know what was coming next which made it a more difficult experience to have, whereas I go to Catholic Mass and I know, ‘Ok, here’s this part, this part, this part’.
“I wrote something for a broader Christian audience and it said even if you just want to maintain Protestant theology, if you’re autistic, you’re probably going to work better in a liturgical one, like an Anglican service versus an evangelical service where you don’t know, are we going to have a song next or are we going to have preaching? Are we going to have an altar call? Whereas, as much as there are issues with Anglicanism theologically, for an autistic, that kind of experience of a very consistent liturgy is a huge help for us in the Mass and things like that,” he says.
Sensory issues are also a big topic when it comes to the autistic experience of Catholicism, and religious services in particular. Fr Schneider says that there’s a “huge issue” with aspects of Church-life being too loud or too bright for autistics in attendance. Fortunately, though, there are parishes in the US putting measures in place to make Mass and other services more accessible for those with autism.
“A decent number of parishes in the US have started a sensory-friendly Mass or reverse-cry room. The idea for the reverse-cry room is – I don’t know how common it is in Ireland, but in the US, most churches, at least the newer ones, were built with a back room that was originally designed as a cry room, like, the baby’s crying in Mass, you take the baby into the back so that it doesn’t disturb everybody else.
“But what they can do is at one Mass, you take that and reverse it, because that back room is separate from the rest of the Church as far as sound and things for that reason, you can take that, turn down the volume on the speaker, turn down the lights in there, and make it a sensory-friendly experience for a few autistics in the parish, so they can come to Mass without feeling overwhelmed in that sense. It doesn’t really cause much of an issue to the rest of the parish in that regard, either.”
Keen to make the autistic experience of Catholicism more visible and to provide resources for those with autism, their families and friends, Fr Schneider wrote a book called God Loves the Autistic Mind: Prayer Guide for Those on the Spectrum and Those Who Love Us. In it, he explains some aspects of the austistic experience of prayer, which I was eager to ask him about.
“There’s a number of things in prayer just in how we experience it because, for example, for us a lot of times, we will stim [repetitive or unusual movement or noise], we’ll do some kind of motion to actually calm ourselves,” Fr Schneider explains.
“So like, the idea of – they have the verse…..”Be still and know that I am God”, and a lot of us think of prayer, you have to have a very still posture, but if for you, rocking back and forth in a chair or moving your hands actually stills your mind, you’re actually being stiller in a way and following through on that prayer, more than were you forcing yourself to sit perfectly still.
He does this because, after his diagnosis, he realised just how little was out there for Catholic or Christian autistics”
“Because your mind is not calmed down from that [effort to still yourself], your mind is disturbed by that. Or, for example, a lot of times we have that difficulty understanding social cues, and that can be a challenge as we first start going into deeper prayer beyond just vocal prayer, like saying the Our Father or the rosary, to an intimate dialogue with God. But once you get to a certain stage, we can actually go faster because we don’t have that filter that the others have. We struggled at first, but now that’s actually like, it allows us to be closer to God in a way,” he says.
In terms of the autistic dialogue with God that Fr Schneider alludes to, he says that Jesus communicates with him and other autistics in “an autistic way”.
“I think in that sense, all of us see Christ in different ways. I think myself being a member of the Legionaries of Christ, I’m going to see it in a way related to my community and to me, there are aspects that are autistic in just how Jesus communicates to me in an autistic way.
“Like, as an autistic, normal conversational English is almost like a second language with non-autistics, because the social cues, the non-verbal communication is so different – with autistics and non-autistics. But speaking with Jesus, because Jesus comes to us as we are and he communicates to us in a way that corresponds to who we are, like he communicates to someone else in Chinese or Spanish, he’s going to communicate to me in a way that matches my autistic English, and not necessarily a way that kind of, forces me out of my normal state into that,” he says.
As mentioned, Fr Schneider is using his gift for writing and catechesis to educate the Church and the world on the interaction of faith and autism, and he does so through social media, Youtube and his writings. He does this because, after his diagnosis, he realised just how little was out there for Catholic or Christian autistics. That helped him to realise that he ought to use his platform to be public about it and contribute to the body of writing.
“I also think it’s good to destigmatise different psychological conditions. There’s a bishop who talked about how he’s taking a break because he’s so depressed and he needed to get into therapy more, and those kinds of things are good I think because it helps people out.
“And then I think in my own ministry, it also led me to realise, ‘Ok, I’m probably better at being a professor than being a pastor or a school chaplain or something like that’. I can do other things as well like writing a book, talking about autism, helping out those on the spectrum at the same time and those kinds of things with my ministry, so I think in that sense there’s two aspects of the ministry,” Fr Schneider says.