Blog From My Perspective: Understanding ASD by Sarah LeClair We’ve all noticed teens losing eye contact because of social media influencers and technology. For the past few years, I have been looking at what’s happening around me in the pews at Mass, and at Edge and Life Nights with new eyes. I see with eyes of a someone passionate about Special Needs, eyes of a Special Education Teacher, eyes of a Behavior Therapist, and eyes with a growing love for the Catholic Church. I want to touch on something that is dear to my heart, something bigger going on, and that we cannot just blame on Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook. I want to invite you to go on an imaginative journey with me, one that will give you a different perspective on yourself, as a youth minister or Core Member, and as a teenager in middle or high school who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Open yourself to see things from another vantage point and emotional state and we will lead more teens to Christ! Let us begin. Churchgoer Perspective Imagine it is a Sunday at your local parish sitting in the pews: the smell of the frankincense, the whispers of the community, the light breaking through the beautiful stained glass windows. As you wait for the priest to process into the church, you see a young boy. He looks like a teenager, dressed typically, nothing too unusual. But then you see him holding a small character. What is that in his hand? Is that Mario from Super Mario? Why would a boy his age be playing with a doll? Weird, definitely not natural in my view (not that anyone judges others at church). That Mom should not allow him to be seen with that. How are girls going to like him? You go on to the older lady sitting in front of you, looks like she just had her perm done yesterday, cute. They are the traditional Catholic family: four kids and a Mom pregnant with number five. The priest is coming up the aisle, SHHHH, it’s time to be quiet, Mass is about to start! You see a young girl with her family, a little older than the boy, but you’re not sure what age she could be. She is rocking back and forth, flapping her hands in a repetitive motion; she can’t seem to sit still! She is also making small noises like she is going over some song in her head when it is supposed to be quiet. How annoying. Youth Minister and Core Team Perspective It is your first night of youth group with several new teens and Core Members! As a youth minister, your excitement is growing, but you are also very nervous. Although you are nervous you visualize how the students are feeling; anxious, excited, scared, not wanting to be at youth group. Building rapport with the kids is the best foundation you can have to reach their hearts, gain trust with you, and help them to know and love the Lord! You begin mingling with the teens but even before that you watch the interaction between them. You see the guys throwing the football around and a group of girls sitting in the corner giggling at something on their phones. You notice one kid in the corner pacing left and right as if he were in a room completely by himself with not a care in the world. He seems to be going through an entire TV show script, and he is all of the characters! He looks no different from the other kids; he just has some odd behaviors. You go and greet this fellow who is pacing around, “Hello, my name is Dave! What is your name?” You go in for the bro handshake, and it gets uncomfortable. Middle schoolers are already awkward, but there was something a bit different. He could not hold eye contact with you for more than one second, he did not want to touch even your hand, it was like he was touching something SO painful. He totally turns his back on you and starts repeating his script, flapping his arms in excitement. Youth with Autism Perspective I am walking into a new environment, knowing nothing about it. Where is my mom? She is the only one I am comfortable around. I have no idea what the plan is, no one gave me a schedule, I always have a program written up, especially when I am at school! The lights in the youth center are SO BRIGHT that I’m just going to look down; it hurts my eyes! What will we be doing, how long will I be here? All the sounds jumble together, but I can hear everything. The air vent, the girls in the corner laughing, a variety of laughs, every conversation, the music playing, a pen tapping on the table, every second of the clock ticking, the water dripping from the drinking fountain, fan blowing, doors closing, a fire truck outside, the wind, a car alarm outside, and a cell phone vibrating. I am confused, and I want to hide; so many new faces, oh wait, I know him from school, but look another new face. I feel a meltdown coming; I don’t want that to happen. When does this end? I need a schedule! My head hurts a lot and feels like it is going to explode! Someone is coming up to me. “Hello, my name is Dave! What your name?” Why is he yelling so loud? Is he talking or is it all the other conversations in the room, everything blends, it’s hard to filter out voices. There is so much going on right now, I see his face, but I hear the throwing of the football, the clock ticking, fan blowing, and lights buzzing. This man grabs my hand; it feels as though he is crushing it. I need to block all the noise out and close my eyes, rocking and flapping my arms help, thinking of my favorite TV show sometimes helps calm me down. I have to walk away before I explode! The biggest question I get asked when working with students who have Autism is: What IS Autism?? ASD (Autism spectrum disorder) and autism are general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. (Autism Speaks) These complex disorders can cause significant social, communication and behavior challenges. Some of the following are characteristics of a child that has ASD and vary from more impactful to less impactful. Michigan Alliance for Families explains that a child with ASD might: Have communication problems (speech, nonverbal communication) Experience difficulty relating to people, things, and events Play with toys and objects in unusual ways Find it difficult adjusting to changes in routine or unfamiliar surroundings Perform repetitive body movement or behaviors As an individual who works in Special Education, we ALWAYS put the child first before their need. For example, we would say Jennifer has autism or Jonathan has ASD, not the autistic Jennifer. Let me explain it from a different point of view. I suffer from anxiety; we wouldn’t want to say, “Hey there is anxiety Sarah.” Right away we put a label on someone without viewing them as a person first! We also use the term ASD, Autism spectrum disorder, not just autism. Think of the term spectrum, as a full range of differences. Every child on the spectrum is different; no one is the same. This imaginative journey was to give you a “small” idea on what it MIGHT be like with a teen who has autism. Again, everyone is different, the things you read don’t apply to every teen with autism. By educating each other, we can be a welcoming church to everyone, providing teens on the spectrum a chance to be involved and learn more about our loving God in the ways they can learn without being nervous to get our hands a little dirty. AMEN! This blog is part one in a series we will be offering during the month of April for Autism Awareness month. Be sure to check out future blogs on how to minister to teens on the Autism Spectrum.