Aug 22, 2013 0 Share

Autism and Faith


The author's brother facing the camera on tree-lined road.
Photo by Caroline McGraw

This week, I've been wondering: How has having a younger brother with autism influenced my perspective on faith and spirituality? What has Willie taught me about worship, just by being himself? The list below is based in my specific experience, yet the overall lessons apply to a wide range of traditions and belief systems. Feel free to share your thoughts and reflections in the comments! (For more, be sure to check out “Autism in Communities of Worship.”) 

There's beauty in order, structure, and liturgy … 

My brother's prayers always follow a consistent structure, one that Willie himself developed. As years pass and I hear my brother's prayers again and again, I find new meaning and significance in Willie's words. Hearing loved ones on the spectrum repeat the same prayers or songs over and over can be monotonous at times; there is a tedium factor. Yet there's also an opportunity, a window into people's minds and hearts. When we listen to the words or sounds our loved ones choose to emphasize, we learn more about who they are and what they value. Often, if we take the time to tune in, we will be surprised and moved by what we hear. 

… and order, structure, and liturgy can be flexible, too. 

The familiarity of repetition and consistency can give individuals on the spectrum a sense of safety. Yet there's also a time and place to set aside a tradition in order to make room for a new expression. For example, when I lived in Washington, DC and served as a live-in direct caregiver for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, I appreciated the flexibility of their event planning, religious and otherwise. There was always a plan and an outline in place, but there was also a willingness to get off-track. There was an implicit acknowledgement that we might need to deviate from the plan. Be it dashing off to the restroom with one member or waiting patiently for another, flexibility was fundamental. 

Silence is golden … 

During my time as a caregiver, I craved silence. On most days, I was surrounded by sound and the hustle and bustle of living in a 13-person household. As an introvert, I desperately needed quiet, time to relax into solitude. I visited several different churches, but I didn't feel a deep sense of belonging … that is, until I found a tiny Taizé prayer group that met on Monday nights. 

Taizé prayer services are a blend of song and silence; our group, followed a liturgy of simple songs, with periods of quiet reflection between them. For me, this service was a much-needed time of sanctuary and peace. After a very structured religious upbringing in a fundamentalist church, I was insecure about my need for silence. I wondered about my desire for such a small “church” group—was it acceptable? But then I thought of my brother—for whom quiet time and smaller groups can be sanity-savers, lifelines—and knew that I was right where I needed to be. 

… and so is laughter. 

As I wrote in "Run Away Laughing," playing silly games with my brother taught me, “... [to] take connection with Willie in whatever form I find it. To celebrate what works, rather than focusing on what doesn’t. To see our similarities and honor our differences. And most of all: To do whatever it takes to end up in a pile, laughing.” 

Each person brings their own unique gift, and every gift is of value. 

When Willie plays the piano for a special music segment in church, he offers his love for music, his talent, and his hours of practice. When he sings hymns, he offers full-throttle enthusiasm. Even on days when Willie finds himself overwhelmed (or angry at himself for skipping a verse in a song), he still has something to offer. If he needs to exit the church auditorium and take deep breaths in the hallway, he does, without judgment or guilt. In doing so, he teaches me that it really is all right—that it really is, in fact, an act of great faith—to show up and do the best I can.