A life of service is never easy. Having autism can make it even harder.
The wind bites at my hands at 6:30 a.m. as I lock up my bike outside the Poverello Center, the state’s largest homeless shelter, in Missoula, Mont. I walk through the double door, slap the front desk for luck and hole up in a staff office so that I can make my necessary prayers for the day to come. I do not always remember to center myself, but on the days that I do I am able to pay better attention to the various people who are recently out of prison or are struggling with addiction or mental health issues, all of whom I have chosen to serve as a Jesuit volunteer in the Pacific Northwest. It is a hard job that requires a lot of people skills that do not come naturally for me because I was born with autism.
In my work I have been called “cold,” “impersonal” (and far worse) about as many times as I have been told that I am doing the work of God. No matter what people say, I look each person in the eye and try with everything I can muster to create the empathic connection that seems to come so easily to other people. It is bitter work for me, more than for most of the world, but God has called me to it, so I have got to step up.
For the last 12 years, ever since I was suspended from school in the seventh grade for crossing inappropriate social boundaries, I have struggled with a diagnosis of Nonverbal Learning Disorder, a form of high-functioning autism. Put simply, I am obsessed with my own interests to the point of blind stubbornness. I do not naturally understand social cues. I have fallen victim to an assortment of nervous tics. By default, I am not a good listener. More often than not, I have found myself on the outside of groups rather than in.
After my diagnosis, I began to work on learning simple social customs, like careful listening and making eye contact, and it felt for a long time as though I were trying to atone for the sin of who I was. From the point of view of a believer (especially a young Calvinist, as I was at the time), I felt that God had created me with a deliberate malice in mind, giving me an extra challenge in life—just because. I came to an understanding of myself as being disabled. Friends I had known for years began shunning me, and I felt as though the world around me functioned on some other plane that I could not naturally understand. In the words of Fulke Greville, an Elizabethan poet, I felt like I was “Born unto one law yet to another bound/ Created sick, commanded to be sound.”
After my suspension, I resolved that I would struggle on, that I would not end up in jail or grow fat on my parents’ couch, as I was told had happened to so many others with my condition. It is no accident that one week after I made that resolution I went on my first Christian retreat. It was during this retreat that I truly felt the presence of God in my life—rather than knowing God only as a dogmatic authority figure. The desire to please this God who gave me such joy and consolation, and the desire to advance socially for my own sake (and later, for the sake of others) were from then on completely intertwined.
My social advancement, far beyond what doctors thought possible, actually took place in large part due to Ignatian spirituality. Its dual emphasis on self-reflection and serving others taught me how to listen, be attentive and stay present. Many people had tried to get me to understand this before, but St. Ignatius was ultimately the most successful at getting through to me with his writings. I saw them as part self-help, part memoir, part psychology and part spirituality. I wish that more people in my position at age 13 were aware of the potential of this spirituality and how it can teach people with autism about being with and for others in a way that modern psychology cannot quite seem to manage. Of course, exposure to this spirituality came after I came to a genuine belief in God—a story of far more significance in my life.
A Worldview Out the Window
Looking back, I find it remarkable that I believed in God to begin with. Autism is a condition that does not allow for many gray areas in one’s worldview. People like me see the world through logic more than emotion, and draw more on rationality than anything transcendent. To give an example, I talked a year ago with an old friend from high school who shares my disorder but not my belief. My friend had attempted suicide, reasoning that “I’m not contributing anything to the world, and since we’re all screwing up the environment, I might as well not use up any more of the earth’s resources.” This friend could only see the world in terms of resources and expendability—with no mention of inherent worth or dignity. I still pray for her.
Paradoxically, I found that my belief in God, despite the hyper-rational worldview imposed by my disorder, actually increased my faith. If people like me had difficulty with the concept of God, then the fact that I believed in the first place must have meant something. But I could not reconcile my belief in God with the idea of a God who hated his creations, so I did the standard millennial church-jumping and eventually became a Catholic after three years of discernment that originated at a church in North Beach.
When I read of the vision offered by the church of a world “charged with the grandeur of God,” there was no going back. The “pure” autistic worldview went out the window, and I realized the truth of what a wise man once said: “Logical validity is not a guarantee of truth.” The Eucharist, the communion of saints, the idea of a kenotic, bleeding God—these things did not make sense by the standards of the world I had known. Yet if I believed in them, there had to be a ground for their existence beyond this world, in something I could not see. This belief in “something more,” something greater than myself, is the main reason that I have come as far as I have, socially. Because I realized there was something greater than me, a higher standard to hold myself to, I could also strive to meet that “higher something”—and I have done my best to do so since.
I cannot tell you why God created me this way. I cannot say what purpose autism is meant to serve, and I cannot tell you if you are meant to conform to my behavioral standards or I am to yours. All I can say is that God pulled me out of a very dark time and gave me hope and a great gift—a sense of something beyond myself. In doing so, I was shown that the world is full of God’s people who also cry out in their own ways, and I am called to serve them. It is not an obligation but a desire that flows from a love that encourages me to grow. How will I serve? I do not know yet.
More to Give
More than a decade has passed since that first realization of what autism meant in my life, and I can honestly say that I have made social progress. I no longer walk into rooms talking loudly, ram myself into others for attention or spit food into a trashcan at a party in front of everyone just because I do not like the taste. People from Montana to the Philippines have bared their life stories to me as I sat before them, doing all I could to resist interjecting, and have told me afterwards what a great listener I am. I have come to a greater understanding of who I am.
This disorder is not simply a cross, nor is it merely something wonderful to rejoice in that makes me “a beautiful and unique snowflake,” as goes the classic sentiment. It is a part of who I am and it is given by God, and so it is both, and much more. It is a struggle to talk about, because I do not want to be known for the rest of my life as “the autistic guy who did well.” I have a lot more to give to the world than that, and I do not want to be defined solely by the limits of this disorder. To do so would be dishonest to myself and dishonest to the God I believe in. Keep in mind, this disorder has its advantages as well (ability to focus, analytical skills, passionate interests—in my case religion and public life), which is probably why you find a lot of folk like me in academia. Yet I know that even if academia is the path I eventually choose, I would want to be a professor who lived his life in the service of those whose needs are great, out of a love for God and God’s people.
Whenever I consider my possible life plans, they are always in the context of serving others. That is what a belief in God led me to: an improvement in my social skills and my desire to understand others, not just so that I could interact with them but serve alongside them. A life of service can be difficult, and having a disorder that biologically wires one to have a hard time being with others does not help. But I am hoping that the fact that I’m out here, pushing myself to both serve and understand others must mean that I care all the more. This work I am doing now, it’s harder than anything I have done, but it does me good and builds me up socially in ways I could never have envisioned.
And then there are days when it doesn’t. Just the other day, a client at the shelter walked up and asked me for a lunch. With half an hour to go in my shift, and drained from another day, I gave him the lunch. “You know,” he said, “you’re not a good person.” Struck by his words, I just looked at him as he went on. “You’re not like the other people here. You’re detached. You’ve got a cold personality. Why are you doing this?” And I could not really think of much else beyond asking myself the same question as he walked off, chuckling: “Why am I doing this?” So yes, these days happen. I stumble. Many times I come back home angry at God for making it hard for me to be with and for my clients, my community mates and my friends. Then again, Jesus fell. Can I be expected to do any differently?
This article first appeared under a different title in America magazine.