“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 Martin, my strawberry-blonde, two-and-a-half year-old bundle of energy, continued lining up little cars the length of the carpet, I watched intently, hoping that the kind lady who interviewed us would return to tell me that we had nothing to worry about: Martin would be just fine. I knew, though, that this interview would not likely end so well. Still, I could not have been less prepared for the news: “Your son is developmentally 12 to 18 months old.” I couldn’t breathe. I think I nodded, and I know someone gave me some tissues, but I do not remember anything that was said to me after that.
In that moment, 17 years ago, everything we thought our lives would be, changed. Today, Martin is a happy young man. At age 19 and a half, he is developmentally 10 to 12 years old. Yet he attends a job training school, from which he works as a janitor two hours a day at a police station. He has friends he sees at school, and he loves going to church. Sunday morning Liturgy is his favorite. Since he knows the service intimately, he chants along and gives himself over to the work of worship with joy. He is quite a blessing to us, and it is now difficult for me to think of my beautiful son apart from his autism. He is exactly as our Lord God intended him to be.
Martin is not unique, however. In our parishes, in our communities, in our dioceses, in our archdiocese, in our patriarchate, and in the world at large, children like Martin and their families suffer from the effects of their disabilities with few resources to help them. This year the Antiochian Women, with the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Phillip, have launched a new project, “Children with Special Needs.” Our son’s story may give you some idea of how such a project can help these special children.