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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Catholic and autistic

My knees feel tired, I think I’ll sit for a moment. But wait … everyone else around me is kneeling. Am I doing the wrong thing? No, that’s ridiculous, everyone has their own means of prayer. Let’s not worry about it. But … I guess I could be kneeling. That’ll help me focus. I can hear everyone else breathing. Oh, we’re chanting now … but shoot, I don’t know the chant. Should I still sing, or should I just let other people do it? I don’t know. The person across from me is moving in his chair, and it’s creaking. How can I focus with all these sounds? No, it’s not his fault, it’s the chair’s fault. Maybe we need different chairs. Also, how long will adoration be? I don’t know, exactly … wait, stop thinking about the end of adoration, you’re supposed to be spiritually immersing yourself. I’m trying, I’m really trying, but unpredictable schedules make me nervous … 

A few weeks ago, I found myself at a Eucharistic adoration with some friends after a dorm Mass. While I appreciated the opportunity to quiet myself, to leave aside my normal routine and orient my mind and soul towards God, something felt … off. Despite my best attempts to close my eyes, silence myself, and focus, my brain was still bombarded with distracting thoughts. At points, I even wondered if I was just being an unideal Catholic, failing to commit myself to the same level as my friends in the seats around me.

In many ways, this episode mirrors the daily anxieties I experience being on the spectrum. Given that I have to navigate social and institutional settings that are catered to neurotypical minds and not neurodivergent ones, I often get frustrated with my inability to perfectly adapt in all situations. At some points, I might even become frustrated with myself, becoming tempted to believe that something is inherently wrong with the way I talk, behave and interact. Even though I still cherish my autistic identity, I still have small moments when I feel out of place. 

As a member of the Catholic Church, these anxieties can become more potent. Whether its at a large Mass or a small prayer group, Catholicism often involves rituals that everyone participates in, from the reciting of the Our Father, to the times we kneel and to the responses of “And with your spirit” or “Thanks be to God.” This uniformity has the benefit of creating a spiritual unity among believers, a unity that brings each member of the Church closer to God. However, sometimes these uniform aspects can create stress for my autistic mind. In moments like the recent Eucharistic adoration I attended, I might become discouraged when I perceive that everyone else is praying, worshipping or listening in ways that are different than my own. I might even perceive others as “better” Catholics than me. 

But ultimately, I’ve been able to recognize that these perceptions are just that … perceptions. They don’t reflect reality. Even though it might outwardly seem that everyone participates in spiritual activities in an identical manner, everyone brings their own experiences and personalities to these moments, even if these idiosyncrasies arent always visible to other people. 

In addition, while it is true that Catholic rituals often emphasize unity of action, the Catholic faith also includes the integral notion of the Body of Christ. This notion helps remind me that our differences do not undermine our membership in one all-encompassing spiritual community. In fact, our differences reflect that we all have something unique to contribute to Catholic life. 

Thus, my autistic identity does not make me a “worse” Catholic — it just means that I participate in a different way. For example, I’ve personally found a lot of value in completing meditative prayer with music in a quiet room by myself. This is because I tend to struggle to put myself in a quiet, reflective mood when I’m around other people. But this isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy forms of prayer and worship in group settings. Far from it! I still love singing with my choir buddies and going to Mass with friends. Generally, as long as I don’t have to be especially quiet and still, I love finding spiritual outlets that bring me closer to my peers.  

Now to be clear, I’m not suggesting that all of my struggles with prayer have to do with my being neurodivergent. I’m sure that there genuinely are areas that I can and should work to improve in, and there’s also something valuable about trying a new form of prayer that forces you to do things you might consider uncomfortable. So, I still hope to try Eucharistic adoration again in the future. In general, though, I’ve realized the value of glorifying God in a way that’s mine, and I’m happy that my unique identity constitutes one part of the Body of Christ.

Jack Griffiths is a senior at Notre Dame majoring in English with a supplementary major in global affairs. His areas of interest include neurodivergence, migration and the intersections between faith and public policy. When he’s not writing, you can find him singing with the Liturgical Choir, walking around the lakes or playing Super Smash Bros with folks in his dorm. He can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.