Autism Interview #152: Fr. Matthew Schneider on Autism and Religion

Fr. Matthew Schneider is a priest with the Legionaries of Christ ordained in 2013. He has over 50,000 followers between Twitter and Instagram. He is studying a doctorate in theology and lives in the Philadelphia area. Originally from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Fr. Matthew has worked throughout North America. This week Fr. Matthew discusses the intersection of autism and spirituality.

Describe the role religion played in your life before you entered the priesthood.

I grew up in a decent Catholic family. We’d go to Mass every Sunday and occasionally we’d pray together otherwise. We were not some super-Catholic family who prayed together every night or was at church multiple times a week. In Alberta, Canada, where I grew up, Catholic schools are free, so I went to them. In high school, I had a few experiences that made me take my faith more seriously. I immediately became very involved in the Catholic group on campus when I got to the local state university. After two years studying engineering, I left for the seminary. Studying and working for over a decade preparing for the priesthood, my faith was obviously my top priority.

How did you first become aware you were Autistic?

Throughout the years, I’d hear various descriptions of “Asperger’s” and wondered if maybe that applied to me. But I just brushed them off, thinking that it was a minor difference. Then my first year after ordination, I got a three-year assignment as a school chaplain. However, after the first year, they wanted me gone and suggested Asperger’s. (Note: the DSM-5 had just come out which combined Asperger’s and autism into Autism Spectrum Disorder, and I don’t blame school administrators for being only a year behind on knowing psychological diagnoses.)

Right after that, I checked with one psychologist who did a few tests then said no. In hindsight, none of his tests were really about autism as he just did the MMPI and similar tests. A year later, someone suggested I get checked again. This psychologist did much more extensive testing, including tests more specific to autism. Then in early 2015, I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in my 30s. At first, I was devastated, and not sure where to go, but as I read more and more, I realized this was me, and it was not just a slight personality variant, but a whole different brain structure of seeing the world. I remember reading that most people do theory of mind subconsciously: I’d always done it consciously and had assumed others did too, but when I asked and found out they did it subconsciously, I was certain of my diagnosis.

Who were the most important positive influences in your life? Explain why.

I’d say a few different influences: Jesus, my grandpa, my parents, Fulton J. Sheen, and Fr. Julio Marti, LC. Obviously, Jesus is the one I communicate with daily and the one I’m close to all the time as a priest who spends hours a day in prayer. As a kid I always kind of looked to my maternal grandfather as a role model of how to live: my dad is a good man, but we have very different interests, personalities, etc. Thus, I saw myself being more like my grandad than my dad. Grandpa was a chemical researcher who was top of the antifreeze and de-icing fluids department at Dow, he had a complete 30-year collection of National Geographic magazines in his house, he had his own special chair that he always sat in and nobody else ever sat in, etc. My parents were always supportive. While I hear about a lot of autistics talk about their parents repressing their autistic traits, I experienced the opposite. If I came home from school and went to my room to rock back and forth and read about dinosaurs for an hour rather than go play with the other kids outside, mom was fine with that. As I got older, dad was clear that he saw me going into research or engineering like mom’s family and never saw me taking over his small business based on my personality. They both supported me whatever career / vocational path I choose. Fulton J. Sheen was a Catholic bishop who died just before I was born. He was a model for being a good priest in both teaching and media which are the fields I’m working in or heading towards. Fr. Julio Marti, LC, was the priest who helped me out the most in formation to be a Legionary.

What are the benefits (and challenges) to developing a religious routine for ND families that you’ve seen?

I think routines are helpful in religion for ND children, just like in other activities. Religion helps present a wider perspective that helps give meaning to other things in life, so is important for everyone, ND or NT. For religious practice at home, like a nightly prayer routine, the challenges are like any other routine at home. For religious practices in a larger community, like weekly attendance at Mass, service, synagogue, etc., I think we have a few extra challenges, and two stand out. First, I think we need more acceptance such that if an autistic wants to stim discretely at a religious service or bring a weighted blanket, we should help others see this as part of who they are as a child of God. Second, many religious services cause sensory issues, so we need to create ways to have less-overwhelming services. I’ve seen this done several ways. One of the easiest to adopt is that many houses of worship have a designated space separated by glass from the main worship space for when babies are fussy. Maybe, during one service a week that can be reversed and be a low sensory room where the lights are off, the speakers are turned down, etc. so those who might otherwise be overwhelmed by the sensory experience can be included. It’s a reverse cry room

If not already discussed above, what were the benefits and challenges for your family, specifically?

Well, being a Catholic priest, I’m celibate. One of the consequences of my diagnosis was to follow a more academic career within the priesthood as that involves a much clearer set of social interactions and social reading than most priestly ministries. Thus, I’m currently writing a doctoral thesis in moral theology and not in a parish where I could describe things like that among the parishioners.

What suggestions do you have for families trying to maintain a religious routine in the middle of the pandemic (who may not feel safe attending church services or whose religious education programs might be on hiatus or not virtual)?

Watching Mass or service streamed onto a TV or computer is not the same. Especially for us Catholics where the reception of the Body of Christ in the Eucharist is a key part of the liturgy. The Eucharist requires a bodily presence which often can’t happen during this time. On the other hand, streaming Mass does make the issues of sensory / social overload and stimming during it a lot easier to handle. On the other hand, the situation in some places where there is a rotation between people in the church, where now a family can only attend every three or four weeks to maintain social distancing, etc. can be an extra challenge as then the schedule for that day of the week keeps going back and forth which can create issues for scheduling for some autistics. I think the same strategies for similar situations in non-religious context can be applied here too.

Oftentimes one-on-one learning is better for autistics in religious education to begin with as we process things differently. If religious education is suspended, that can be an opportunity for the parent or a trusted friend to continue it one-on-one with an autistic child. I would recommend parents attempt to continue religious education but more one-on-one rather than in a group at a parish: some may even find their child responds better to this and want to continue this way after which I think parishes should permit.

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