“What do you mean, Ian goes to church?” other parents and teachers would ask me about my son, who has autism spectrum disorder. “How can he stay still for that long?” Ian would leap out of his chair in class and sway back and forth. At home, nothing could keep his attention – not movies, TV, or even baking his favorite cookies. In his day program, he needed constant one-to-one supervision in order to do his work. So what is it about the Orthodox Church that allows Ian to follow the deacon’s frequent reminders in the Liturgy “to attend”?
First of all, there is the music. Ian taps his foot and sways to music of all kinds, but the words contained in the rhythm and repetition of chanting keep his attention and stay in his memory. This is no accident, because the Orthodox Church has relied on the senses to teach its doctrine since the very beginning. Besides hearing the Word, we can see and learn about the characters and events in the Bible that are displayed everywhere in the church. Ian enjoys looking at the murals and icons in church that, along with the burning candles, calm him and help him to focus. He also tracks the colors of the priest’s garments and the processions around the altar. Smelling incense and flowers in the church is another sensory pathway to Ian’s memory. Before praying for his family, he sniffs the roses and candles.
Why are the repetition of words, and the chants and the movements so important to someone like Ian with symptoms of autism? Ian knows that he can count on the same order of liturgy every Sunday. This consistency gives a meaningful pattern and framework to the torrent of overwhelming sensations. Unchanging is not only a historical characteristic of the liturgy, it is also an important psychological strength. In these times of overnight change, we all need a place and time to come for support and consistency.
As toddlers we begin to imitate words and actions, but this skill that we take for granted is very difficult for Ian; he does not sing or chant along with the rest of the congregation. He can, however, read simple words and follow with his finger the words in the prayers. When he sees others making the sign of the cross, he crosses himself with the palm of his hand in a large gesture, rather than with his fingers, because his coordination is affected. Because Ian’s first language was sign language, the non-verbal gestures of the clergy and laity are as meaningful as words to him.
Our churches are not first buildings, but the people, and Ian, like others with disabilities, sense when people accept him. The model of acceptance is Jesus Christ, Who sends no one away and commands the little children to be brought to Him. Although we can only strive for His perfection of love, we are exhorted by such Church Fathers as Clement of Rome “to be kind one to another after the pattern of the tender mercy and benignity of our Creator.” In the past, being in large, open rooms often made Ian hit himself or try to run away. Because friends at church greeted him, smiled and shook his hands, he became used to people that he did not see everyday.
Church is the place where people with disabilities can be included in many different ways, such as taking part in the service, passing out the blessed bread, helping set up tables and chairs or cleaning up. They can participate in Church School, youth activities and prayer groups.
The agape potluck after our Sunday services is a chance for Ian to practice what he learns at his supported-living home, and work with people he trusts and who encourage him. He stands in line, takes his turn, chooses his food and utensils, sits with others at a large table, and cleans up his place. Ian has learned to trust others and see how they behave towards each other. As Iranaeus wrote, people in the Church should display “sympathy, and compassion, and steadfastness, and truth, for the aid and encouragement of mankind.” Sunday is a feast with food and friends who encourage him.
When Ian and I became Orthodox and joined St. Michael Orthodox Church in Whittier, California, Deacon Stephen and Mary Patty Holley were our sponsors. Mary Patty showed him the concrete signs of our faith: the cross, holy water, blessed bread, and icons. She let him experience them rather than lecturing him about their meanings. His chrismation name is Raphael, the angel of healing. I questioned, however, how much Ian really understood Orthodox tradition and liturgy. He did not have the verbal or reasoning skills to understand confession or the ideas behind communion. Before we were chrismated, I asked a friend if Ian understood enough to receive the elements. She laughed and said, “Who does completely comprehend such a mystery as communion?” Of course, she was right. Orthodox belief does not depend on reasoning, but grows within the individual in a community of believers.
From the time he started attending church when he was four, he seemed fascinated with communion. Even his compulsion for food and eating did not explain why Ian would stand so still and watch carefully while others received communion from the priest and deacons. What was he seeing that his wriggling brother and sister missed? What was he looking at while I was day-dreaming about what I would do later after church? Years later it struck me that he liked to see people coming one by one to be fed. Ian saw what we can all see if we attend: people being nourished and strengthened. “Oh taste and see that God is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” from Psalm 34 must be Ian’s favorite verse.
Working as a special education teacher and program specialist with parents of children on the autism spectrum, I have heard many compare their child’s diagnosis to a physical disaster like a hurricane or tornado that tears through them when they least expect it and leaves their family shaken and changed forever. Agnostics as well as believers vent their anger at God and say, “Why did God do this to us? What did I do to deserve this? Why me?” These are old, familiar questions that echo Job. Then the cycle of blame and guilt begins, and in our anger we often blame others – teachers, doctors, therapists, psychologists and even friends. Once our question changes from “Why?” to “How can we heal and learn to accept this?” the church as spiritual hospital can begin to help. The parish can be the place where we are “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Jean Vanier, religious author and founder of the international organization L’Arche, worked with the developmentally disabled all his life. He was often asked, “Why did God make people with Downs’ syndrome, autism and other mental disabilities?” That is a hard question. But Vanier’s answer is even harder. He explained that it is a challenge and an opportunity for all of us to show God’s love to others and share kindness, one of the fruits of the Spirit. “Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is well-pleased” (Hebrews 13:15).
We must accept people who are different, as Christ accept us all. As Irenaeus wrote, “He kindly welcomes and accepts them as premature fruits, and honors the mind, whatsoever it may be, which is stamped with virtue, although not yet perfect.” Besides acceptance and kindness, we can pray for the disabled and their families, especially through intercessory saints for the disabled such as St. Dymphna, St. Naum of Ochrid, St. Anastasia and St. Gerasimos of Cephalonia. The Orthodox Church has the tools to help and teach people with disabilities if it remembers the words of St. John Chrysostom, “Nothing so furthers teaching than this: loving and being loved.”
(The words of the Fathers are quoted from Fruit of the Spirit, edited by George D. ZGourides.)