This article is the first 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.
At the high school where Christopher Chan is a substitute teacher, there is a poster on the wall that reads: “Be the person you needed when you were younger.”
That’s exactly what Chan, an educator and writer, is trying to be. All his life, he knew that his “mind and reactions worked differently from almost everybody else I knew” — making him feel, at times, isolated and confused.
“Without a name for it, I thought it was just me,” said Chan, who attends St. Monica in Whitefish Bay. “No one else felt like it, so I thought I must have some freakish, unique problem wrong with me.”
His autism diagnosis, which came in his late 20s, was a watershed moment for Chan. “You have no idea what a relief it was to know that this is a neurological condition,” he said.
Chan has gone on to experience professional success — he has published two books, 18 short stories and is an editor and contributor to several magazines. In addition, he holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in U.S. History from Marquette University, and a MLIS from UW-Milwaukee. He also teaches graduate history courses online for Southern New Hampshire University, and substitute teaches for middle and high schools.
But, having answers about his autism did not mean life became simple, even when Chan was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church in 2015. For Chan, and for many others with autism, worshipping at a typical Mass results in extremely distressing sensory overload. Partaking of the Sacraments — something most Catholics take for granted — can be an emotionally and physically painful ordeal. And, when Chan looked around to find support for Catholics with autism, he was discouraged to find data indicating that many had ended up leaving the faith.
All of this led to Chan’s current project: creating a resource network by which Catholics — adults as well as children and families — with autism in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee can share experiences, resources, support and encouragement.
“Frankly, it’s embarrassing to discuss these issues, but I feel like somebody ought to, because I’ve heard how other people with autism have these issues, but for various reasons, they don’t want to talk about it openly,” said Chan. “Having someone out there willing to explain reactions in all their undignified, unsettling and sometimes humiliating details might be a lifeline for someone who feels that he or she is totally alone.”
Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, refers to a broad variety of conditions that affect communication and behavior. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association merged four distinct autism diagnoses into one diagnosis of ASD; these included autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, ASD is referred to as a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life, although diagnosis can happen at any age. The National Autism Association refers to autism as “a bio-neurological developmental disability … (which) impacts the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction, communication skills, and cognitive function.”
According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control, about 1 in 54 American children have been diagnosed with ASD.
In describing his struggles with worshipping at Mass, Chan said many of the same issues are likely to arise at any crowded place filled with unfamiliar noises, smells and other sensory stimulants — “but personally, I find them to be more intense at Mass than anywhere else,” he said.
He explained that, at Mass, he is often overwhelmed by his own thoughts and can experience panic attacks or what he calls “Asperger’s moments” — “when dozens of different sensations – memories – visual, audial, scent, taste and tactile — overwhelm me at once and I can’t focus,” he said. “Sometimes, I’ve had to rush out of the church and I get violently ill. The effects can last for hours afterwards, leaving me unable to focus or function well afterwards. I get the shakes and break out into intense sweats, and I often feel dizzy and nauseous.”
In talking with an acquaintance whose child has autism and experiences similar issues at Mass, Chan said he “started wondering how many other people were out there.”
He reached out to staff members at archdiocesan offices, who offered to help him get the word out about his initiative via email and bulletin inserts.
“Autism isn’t something that’s ‘cured.’ Indeed, I want to stress that autism should never be seen as a disease, but it’s a way that some people are differently wired mentally. It really helps to know that there are other people who are similarly wired, and I don’t have an exact plan for what to do, but I think that the first step is to reach out and see just how widespread the issue is,” said Chan. “I think that reaching out to people is the beginning.”
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.