This article is the second in a three-part series that will explore the needs of Catholics with autism in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and address current efforts to create resource-sharing networks to better support this community.
In researching the experiences of other Catholics who have autism, Christopher Chan observed that there seems to be an unfortunate correlation between the experience of autism and the loss of religious faith.
“I know that’s not universal,” he said, but admitted that he “wondered if bad experiences with church when young could cause issues (later in life).”
Chan, a teacher and writer who attends St. Monica in Whitefish Bay, is spearheading a project that he hopes will serve to connect Catholics who experience autism in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee with resources and fellowship — a support network and clearinghouse of services and useful contacts.
At the very least, said Chan, he wants to make the needs of the autistic Catholic community more visible to their brothers and sisters in faith.
Gary Pokorny, director of the Office of Catechesis for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said efforts to connect Catholics with autism to supportive resources are “worthy and needed” in the Church today.
“It’s not just about individuals with autism being welcomed, but that they and their families may be part of that welcome, by their mutual support, and helping other parishioners understand, together helping parishes become more inclusive,” Pokorny said.
Charleen Katra, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD), told the Catholic Herald that the witness of “self-advocates” like Chan are essential to furthering inclusion of all Catholics in the life of the Church.
“It’s not just working to open the doors of the Church for an individual with a disability,” she said. “It’s the other half of that coin: what are we doing to educate everybody else about different disabilities and diagnoses, to help us be a more compassionate, Christ-like faith community?”
Based in Washington, D.C., and founded in 1982, the NCPD works collaboratively with dioceses all over the country to further education and training, and to provide resources that support ministry to Catholics with disabilities — essentially “to put flesh on the beautiful document,” said Katra of the 1978 Pastoral Statement of US Catholic Bishops on Persons with Disabilities. The pastoral statement was a groundbreaking document, which called for a radical and wide-ranging acceptance of all Catholics in the life of the Church regardless of physical, mental, emotional and intellectual abilities.
A cornerstone of that work, said Katra, must be helping the rest of the Church understand their brothers and sisters in Christ who have different abilities and needs.
“Sometimes even harder than removing a physical barrier is removing attitudinal barriers — working to help open the hearts of the people in the churches,” she said.
As an occupational therapist who works routinely with children who experience autism, and a faithful Catholic with a history in child ministry, Carol Wingenter said she has seen far too many families struggle to find the understanding and acceptance they need for their children who are not neuro-typical.
“What often happens is that people stop going to church — and that’s very sad,” said Wingenter.
Autism diagnoses have grown “exponentially” in recent years, said Katra, posing a unique challenge for parish and diocesan leaders, who are working as fast as they can to bring themselves up to speed regarding what type of ministry Catholics with autism need. The majority of dioceses throughout the country do not have a full-time staff member to oversee this type of ministry, and the task often falls to catechetical offices, she said.
“As much as we can, as fast as we can, we try to get out resources, ideas, tools. We really can’t teach people fast enough,” she said.
But as much as it is a challenge, said Katra, it is also an opportunity.
“Diversity isn’t a negative at all. It’s really a sign of God’s artistry. We should allow God to surprise us and learn from it,” Katra said. “God puts people in front of us intentionally. There’s never a mistake or accident about who’s in front of me. But the more we know, the more we can better serve them.”
Chan reported that his experience of coming into the faith was positive. The associate pastor at St. Monica at the time of his baptism and Confirmation, Fr. Jacob Strand, “was great with helping me through the process,” said Chan.
For Chan, attending Mass can be an emotional and physical struggle. Because of how his brain is wired, he becomes overwhelmed by stimuli — sights, sounds, smells and even thoughts — that often leads to panic, which can linger for days afterward.
These are difficult experiences for individuals without autism to understand, Chan acknowledged — but he said Fr. Strand was determined to try.
“He was able to speak with me one-on-one, and he asked questions, making it clear that he was trying to understand how my mind works, which is an admittedly difficult thing to explain,” said Chan. “I really appreciated how he worked with me, addressed my concerns and tried to make me feel welcome even if, due to my issues, I couldn’t feel comfortable. I think having someone work with me finding ways to address the issues caused by my autism problems, rather than insisting that I try to power through any issues, was critical.”
That approach of openness and understanding is crucial for pastoral staff to take in these situations, said Wingenter.
“What works for one person might not work for another family. There’s not a recipe for this,” said Wingenter. “The only recipe would be: don’t judge. That’s the only thing that will cross all needs.”
Anyone interested in connecting with Chan and learning more about this project can email firstname.lastname@example.org to be put in touch with him.