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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
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Asperger Syndrome and Career Choices: Roman Catholic Clergy

Letter from and to a Mother
Roger N. Meyer Copyright 2005 All Rights Reserved

This article is built around the exchange of Emails between the author and the mother of a 31-year-old adult son who was rebuffed in his first attempt to become a priest. He hasn't given up on the idea. I have slightly edited my first Email response to fit the purpose of this article. The mother's communications are redacted of any identifying information and are published here with her permission. I composed my lengthy response to the mother knowing no more details of her son's life than she revealed in her first inquiry of me. Over the years, I've learned to make educated guesses about mature AS adults still living under their parents' roof.

In this article, I preface the Emails with some opening observations, and follow the Emails with some closing remarks.

OPEN EXPRESSION OF SPIRITUALITY

With several notable exceptions, few Asperger Syndrome adults write about spirituality. That's not because it isn't important in their lives, but likely because they think about it differently and generally keep their thoughts to themselves.

One such exception is Edgar Schneider, whose two books (1999 and 2003) dwell heavily on his late-in-life conversion to Catholicism that occurred about the same time he was finally diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. Other writers such as Sondra Williams (Ohio) have exchanged lengthy communications regarding the role of spiritual beliefs in their lives as they affect their day-to-day decisions. Another participant on a number of Asperger Syndrome Internet discussion groups frequently discusses her life in an English Buddhist monastery. Another person, active in the Portland, Oregon arts and performance, has engaged in serious study of a number of religions, and often refers to the role of their spiritual meaning to him. His interest is more substantial than mere intellectual curiosity or mastery of doctrinal ephemera. A woman in our Portland AS support group is deeply attached to the values as well as some common social practices of Judaism while remaining a practicing Christian church member. Finally, in my own family of origin, my (undiagnosed) Asperger father maintained strong connections to Judaism as a reform Jewish Sunday school teacher and long-time leader of the men's clubs at several synagogues. Later in life, he and my mother abandoned Judaism in favor of the Unitarian Universalist faith, primarily out of their disaffection with their congregations' insensitivity to the suffering of other minorities in their community. While both of them were 'joiners" who attended services, they both were extremely active in the community-building projects of their of their church.

One deeply religious Catholic mother of two AS teenagers, married to an AS husband, told me that as she's reflected on her faith with her family, her children and her husband join in with their appreciation of the ritual and ceremony of the church. In a lengthy interview with her, she described her commitment to a spiritual life as one of faith, whereas her family members don't seem to relate their own religious involvement on that basis, but more from an interest in the rituals, and ceremonies observed at their parish, and the worldly practices of fellow parishioners. As briefly touched on above, her AS family members' take on spirituality is one response along a spectrum of responses.

While her AS family members' expressions may deal with concrete, observable, predictable aspects of religion, those same features draw not only them to religious services, but also others who aren't autistic. There is a common human attraction to ritual, and to the "pomp and circumstance" of ceremony.

Other individuals with AS may have sensory sensitivities that keep them away from public religious events, but they do engage in their own private or meditative rituals, as well as draw sustenance from religious music or the intellectual study of religious history or dogma.

SPIRITUALITY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

Many Asperger Syndrome adults have serious personal convictions about social justice, and kindness to and consideration of others. They worry about insensitivity and intolerance of individuals not on the autistic spectrum to persons with disabilities and other conditions of "difference." For the purpose of drawing attention to this phenomenon, it is unimportant whether one wishes to call this compassion or empathy. The sensitivity is clearly there, often expressed in acts and words of a well-developed social conscience.

FOCUS ON COMMONALITIES, NOT DIFFERENCES

Within congregations or orders with a high level of common social interaction joined by individuals with AS, what allows AS adults to thrive is tolerance and acceptance of their difference by their co-religionists. In some instances, personal eccentricities or acts others outside of their faith would consider extreme are common within their faith communities. In such circumstances, the phenomenon of "the pot calling the kettle black," if it exists at all, is a very low-order concern. If dissention arises within the ranks, it often turns on strong opinions regarding practice, ceremony, ritual, often driven by strongly held doctrinal views. Where matters get heated, some religious groups split, but their differing adherents rarely disappear. They form separate spiritual communities of their own.

WHY THIS ARTICLE?

This article is written to address "tip of the iceberg" psychological challenges that become apparent to AS individuals as they move towards positions of greater responsibility and authority within religious communities. From the Emails below, the reader will see that there is an adult-life connection between career choice and spiritual beliefs. Just as we know there are some careers that once chosen, turn out to be a poor fit between the AS individual's capacities and talents on the one hand, and deficiencies in understanding workplace politics and the overlay of written and unwritten social rules on the other, there may be other alternatives to making a "total career plunge" in the area of an AS individual's strong special interest(s).


The Mother's First Email

Dear Mr. Meyer:

In your studies have you come across Roman Catholic priests who have AS?

My 31-year-old son, who has AS, wants to be a priest in a religious community. This is his focus and goal in life. He joined one small, relatively new religious order and after two months was told to leave. Although he did everything he was told to do and they admired his intellect (memory), he was too much a loner and in his own world. The vocation director told me that perhaps a larger, more established religious order would accept and support him in his spiritual quest but that they could not. Presently, he is working on a Masters Degree in Theology via distance learning from [a Midwestern church-based university]. It is his hope (and mine) that this will provide him with an "in." He would be a phenomenal asset. Work outside of our small family business does not interest him.

Any help here would be greatly appreciated.


My Email to the Mother


Dear ___________,

My remarks below refer to my understanding of the Catholic Church in the United States. I am well aware that in other parts of the world, the situation is different.

I'm going to speak rather frankly here, but it may be better to hear it from someone who's seen lots of young and middle aged adults crash and burn once they realize the hopes they are chasing have been overtaken by an incomplete understanding of their own flavor of Asperger Syndrome.

There are undiagnosed Catholic priests with AS. One Catholic priest I know serves in an important position in another state. He discovered that he was AS after having been a brilliant seminarian and highly competent in his present assignment which relies heavily on his mastery of high-level ceremonial ritual details rather than his pastoral skills. He's discretely disclosed his recent diagnosis to some members of his immediate circle, but his approach to disclosure has been sparingly directed to others only on a need-to-know basis.

He wants to be a good pastor, and from my contact with him I believe he certainly can be one, but not under demanding or stressful, multi-tasking conditions, the very conditions where he might find himself were he to have full-time parish duties. Fortunately, he had a long and successful employment history in another field before he felt the spiritual calling to become a priest, and it's upon that rich prior background that he's learned to rely as he navigates his way through the functional and political minefields of his particular position within the church hierarchy.

Your son, by having been in his head a lot, may not be as well equipped or as accepted as this fellow is, mainly because I can only guess that your son has not been successful in any other work than your family business setting. Despite his age, he's likely had little experience living independently. In the religious order environment you describe, his spiritual fit with the order may have been put to the test quite early. Furthermore, he may not have known how to form the type of social bond ordinarily required for communal living in small religious orders. I presume he did not disclose his AS to them, but even if he did, they may not have understood much about AS because there's a good chance he doesn't understand much about how his AS affects all of his relationships with people, not just objects or ideas.

Rather than continue his pursuit of the priesthood using intellectual legerdemain, it's important for him to have a truly heart-to-heart talk with a pastor who may help him plumb the depths of his spiritual interests and commitment, a pastor who will not further indulge your son's intellectual interests in that one conversation. He and others must come to terms with an understanding of his spirituality that is acceptable to him and to the church. That's his first task, not one that comes later.

The one thing he may not yet have done is examine the reason he was asked to leave the new religious order he joined, and to press for frank feedback. If important people at the order did "the feel-good thing" to avoid hurting his feelings, he will have learned nothing. Sometimes not telling the truth to people who appear vulnerable to just that truth is not a wise course, although I do understand it. If this pattern of people protecting him from the truth as they see it is repeated too often with him, no one will emerge as a winner.

From what you say, it does not appear as though his desire to be a priest came either from a crisis of faith, or from the type of true sense of calling that moves mature adults to consider the priesthood relatively late in their lives. It is often because priests experience profound crises of the soul and have major spiritual commitment problems that they leave the pastorate, often after many years in the church. It is a rare priest who quits because the church is not intellectually challenging enough or because fellow priests are not the individual's intellectual equals. Of course there are other reasons why people leave the church, but there's no need to get into those reasons.

I doubt his quest for the priesthood is primarily spiritual. It is far more likely to be intellectual, as his hope of buying his way into a seminary by first getting a Master's degree in Theology seems to indicate. The more he's rebuffed because of his lack of social and communication skills, the more likely he is to ruminate and perseverate about out-thinking others in a battle of wits, or, as in his case, rote memory contests.

While there may be some larger orders that can accept individuals with specialized intellectualized interests in certain areas, the major need of the church in this country is replacement of individuals leaving pastoral settings. Unless he has special skills that the church can use in its administrative, ceremonial or seminary or school teaching functions without a great deal of contact with the parishioners, he's likely to feel woefully out of place even if he makes it through the seminary, whether the order he chooses to join is large or small.

The seminary is like basic training. It's a place the church uses to shake out individuals who eventually may not succeed in the jobs selected for them by those in political power. One does not intellectually muscle one's way into desired assignments or place within the church priesthood hierarchy. Eventually, he may be asked to exercise some pastoral duties or show sensitivities that he may lack due to his Asperger Syndrome. It's best that he faces those issues now.

There may be another understandable reason he's seeking the priesthood. Your having written that you spoke to the vocation director of the order he joined and was asked to leave is revealing. To put it to you directly, that conversation should only have taken place between your son and that director. I'm sure the individual you spoke with was diplomatic, and even helpful. But given your son's age, in middle adulthood, it is inappropriate for you to be doing such "search work" for him. That's his job, as an adult, to find his way.

Developmentally and socially, he may be way younger than 31, but it's important for both of you to realize that having a parent either intervene or consult with a career or vocational professional on behalf of an adult child raises all kinds of orange, if not red flags. I can understand your concern...it's one you've probably had for a long time, but parting the waves on your adult child's behalf, or seeking information and counsel that only he should be doing at this point in his life does send a mixed message to others.

Your son may hope that the church will provide the same comforts of family and home, of routine and others taking care of his affairs that he's learned to expect from you. He may be experiencing profound doubts about how well he can take care of himself without others looking after him. If he hasn't been able to have satisfactory long-term personal relationships with others, or live independently on his own by this time, or consider any other kind of employment than working in the family business -- where I suspect there are some functions he cannot accomplish on his own -- there's a very good chance he's looking for someone to very literally take care of him.

At one time, the church could accept such persons, hoping (and often finding) that the person would gain good pastoral skills that would make the extension of care-giving services to them a worthwhile trade. That's when the church in this country had a surfeit of priests and nuns. Now it has neither. Historically, the church's pastoral and other ranks have swelled when families could not provide for their younger male children who couldn't inherit property (primogeniture), or couldn't support unmarried female children due to low family income and the cost of dowries. With the disappearance of these medieval practices in "old world" countries, third world and new world countries still contribute an abundance of ordained members to its ranks, many of them now in the United States.

Even with this influx of foreign-born and foreign trained individuals, very few US parishes have the same kind of adult family living comforts they once had, with a collection of priests, a housekeeper, and poorly paid laypersons around willing to wait hand and foot on them. Even in parishes where there are several priests, there is a strong inducement for some of them work in agencies and community services within the lay community, bringing their earnings back to the parish house to support the parish household's overhead. Overall, there is still a shortage of parish priests, and for any inclination he may have to avoid serving in that capacity, even as a back-up or assistant parish priest, that may end his whole career right then and there.

The church doesn't have the time, staff, or senior pastoral mentors to train him in the basics of pastoral skills to be a good parish priest, especially if he lacks other essential social skills. The powers that be may decide -- perhaps as the senior priests in charge of the new order he joined and then was asked to leave did -- that they can't take the time working with him just with the hope he'll work out. They have to know much for sure before he's allowed to get too far along in the seminary, and it may be just at that point where he's likely to meet his next Waterloo, just as he did in the smaller, newer order that he did join and was asked to leave.

Once having said all of the above, the one thing you've mentioned is that he can't see much beyond working in your own small family business. If there's any way you could work with others in your family business to consider having him continue the work on, even if supported by others, especially if he does have much to offer -- as you say -- this might be one way through his current dilemma. Self-employment as a successor owner of a family business, or employment in a family owned business with sufficient support and resources might be worthwhile considering. There are agencies and career professionals who could advise you and him about how that could take place, given a sufficient understanding of how the business runs, and what its potential is. I notice that you have a New York state return address. The state of NY has a particularly unenlightened state vocational rehabilitation division, and if he happens to get mixed up with a bad counselor or a bad branch, he's likely not to want to have anything further to do with vocational rehabilitation now or at any time in the future. However, NY does have a good disabilities study center at Syracuse University. Perhaps Syracuse would be a good place to start. Here's one way into their program, which does have a considerable practicum and internship base of students and professionals who might be able to help him: http://thechp.syr.edu/disstud.htm.

I hope I haven't been too harsh in what I've said above. But it's time for your son to wake up and smell the coffee. He'll likely outlive you for 35 years, and the one thing he's probably the most fearful of is making mistakes. We all make mistakes. It's how we learn. Perhaps in interacting with folks willing to work with him around career direction issues, he'll have found one way out of his dilemma of being stuck and having only a limited, single-minded vision of his future.


The Mother's Response and Attached History


Roger,

Thank you.

[Attachment to the Email]

Roger:

Thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate your having responded. You are right on target. Intuitively, I have known this, but reading it was, at first, sad. I'm over it.

I did not speak to the Vocation Director, I wrote to him for the reasons why he let him go (and had it translated into Spanish, his first language-his English was poor) six months after _____ was let go in October 2003. I am also to blame for the intellectual legerdemain. It was my idea to go after the MA in Theology. Yes, he does live with us and he pretty much does his own thing.

After he left the seminary, I decided, and he agreed, it was time to have him see a psychiatrist and psychologist. In one sense, this incident prompted me to have him re-evaluated [at a NY disability center]. He had never been on medication and after intensive research, attending conferences, and reading everything I could get on the internet, I thought it was time for a re-evaluation. He is now on ________. It helps the anxiety.

The last time he saw anyone was when he was seven. Between 1980-1982, my husband and I took him to [a developmental center at a state university]. I have all the reports. No one ever mentioned autism or AS. I suspected autism, I knew that he was different, he was my second child (we have three), but I couldn't get the medical community to tell me anything, other than he was anxious, bright, a little clumsy, etc. At that time, I didn't say anything about my suspicions. Perhaps, I was hoping that I was wrong, or maybe I didn't want to hear it and after all they were the experts. Ha Ha.

When he was in the third grade we moved to another area in [town]. His public school teacher went out on a limb and told me he thought our son was autistic and that to keep him focused had kept our son's desk next to his. I left the school in tears but was grateful that someone had validated my thinking. Transferring to a small K-8 Catholic School and a new third grade teacher was challenging. Since his desk wasn't next to the teachers, since he could not run back and forth in the class room when he felt like it, he often sat with his back to the teacher. Conferences became the norm between me, the teacher and the principal.

Finally, a dear friend, the county health examiner, told me to pick from a list of three recommended doctors. I chose the psychiatrist. Fortunately, he was fantastic. After two sessions, one with our son and one with us, he told us we had a very high functioning Autistic child and to treat him as normal, to get him to empathize, and when he was echoproxiating (if there is such a word--in repetitive movement) to tell him to stop. The doctor also indicated that there wasn't anything that he could do for him.

Now I was ready to do whatever had to be done to make sure my son was understood by the school. He and the school adjusted. Henceforth, he was protected by the administration and the teachers. High school was a different matter. Freshman year I will never understand. For whatever reasons, the seniors on the football team befriended him and no one dared to bully him. Grades 10 - 12 proved difficult. It was a large catholic school and although I met every year with the teachers and principals, bullying and teasing existed. I realized how extensive it was when I looked at his senior year book---passive as he was, rage existed. The faces of every male student that taunted him were inked out. Today, although he doesn't like to talk about it, admits it was foolish, but he felt good doing it. (He told this to parents of AS children at a seminar he gave at [a center for the disabled] entitled "Celebrating Our Strengths."

I didn't mean to extend my thank you. Just to end this let me say that he went to college (University at ______, B.A. History, Magnum Cum Laude), even though the HS principal told me it would be impossibility. As his parents, we knew it wouldn't be, so he went to the local University. Why history?--well both my husband and I have PhDs in Early Western European History, not to mention that he enjoys it. In my e-mail I indicated that employment, outside of my husband's importing wholesale gift business, will be difficult for him. You are so right about VR. He has gone to VR, they were impressed with him, he completed certificates but he would not go to job interviews. I believe he's afraid. I'm going to buy your employment guide and hope he'll use it because the skills he has developed should serve him well. I don't see the business extending beyond my husband's death (we are your contemporaries-65 years of age) and our son cannot carry out certain aspects of it. My oldest son and daughter don't participate in the business but both would provide whatever care he will need into old age. (We are a close knit and loving family.)

I promise, one last thing…….! At some point in HS he became engrossed in religion. He became friends with an adult group of conservative Roman Catholics-this group includes families with children, single adults, etc. I don't know where he met them---some church probably. Today, they are still his friends and under the direction of a retired diocesan priest. They are anti-abortion and twice a week they march with placards and pray across the street from Planned Parenthood organizations in the city. He has been called names and been spat on but he continues to go every Thursday and Saturday AM. My husband and I are anti-abortion but we are not devout, practicing Catholics, neither are my NT son and daughter. He goes to daily mass, prays the rosary daily, carries the rosary tied around a pant loop, attends a Sunday Latin Mass and the community luncheon after the mass, goes to a monthly "Lords Supper" held at the home of one of these friends. These friends appreciate his love of their children, his kindness, singing voice, and his company. They know about his AS and they accept him. I know he recognizes the (religious) difference in his parents and siblings and accepts us as we are- even though he may not like it, I think it has helped to broader his perspective. Right now, he is with my husband at wholesale gift shows. This August, he has been to Boston, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, [and is] now is in Columbus and next week in Louisville. He usually does most of the driving, knows where the churches are, and has been doing this for the last five years.

I have read AS Grows Up. It is excellent, readable and a gift to the AS community. I personally accept it as a gift. Thank you. Our son is in so much of the text. In "telling the truth" I must tell you this story. I promise this is the end. A couple years ago, we went to a friend's Sunday afternoon birthday party. He does not drink alcohol, never has, never will. My NT son and daughter had a couple of beers and five hours later after coffee they left, perfectly sober. He sat in the back seat of the car. Police were stopping cars and asking drivers, if they had had anything to drink. My older son said no-after all it was hours ago. My younger son was livid…clenching his teeth together and under his breath he said, "You just lied." The policeman didn't hear him. My NT son did and was verbally livid with him and I'm sure he learned a lesson.


Postscript


In my lengthy response, above, I was unaware of many of the details later provided in the mother's family history about her son.

The parents were fortunate in getting an early diagnosis of high functioning autism, and it was wise for the mother to have followed her "notions" all along, even before much of what we now know about AS/HFA was widely known to the public. With their knowledge of his social skills challenges, the parents' support of their son's attendance at a local university while living at home made perfect sense. His choice of major -- his parents' graduate studies choice -- is no surprise, nor was his pursuit of an undergraduate honors degree as a means of proving that his intellect was as advanced as that of his parents. Living in a home setting with highly educated parents prompts some AS individuals to become perpetual students, so his agreement to his mother's suggestion that he seek later academic leverage of a masters degree in theology as leverage towards gaining admission to another seminary makes logical, but not real-world sense.

Note that his advanced degree is being sought through distance learning. Such education allows individuals to avoid face-to-face exchanges with their fellow students or professors. His ability to advance into the outside world on his own is still seriously limited.

Since high school, this adult has entombed his special interest in pre-Vatican II causes with older adults, led by a charismatic retired priest, in what amounts to an open cult-like setting. His attraction to the articles of faith (in this case, in a literal sense) is consistent with AS objectification of complex concepts and adherence to a rigorous personal routine buttressed by out-of-the-mainstream (in the US) religious doctrine. In and of themselves, there is nothing unusual with such devotional practices. In his own way, he operates within a community of other adult souls. He can do so with the acceptance of like-minded, like-practicing individuals. Leaving that social community aside two years ago even briefly to enter seminary may have led to his unhinging. His response to the changes involved in a life away from all familiar things at home prompted his reversion to extreme self-isolation.

Another thing consistent with Asperger Syndrome was this man's choice of seminary. From the mother's lengthy history, he may have chosen a religious order whose leaders are from another culture. Seeking out the intimate company of others from a different culture is consistent with a marked number of AS adults, often in response to their consistent rejection by members of their own culture, and their experience that persons from other cultures are more tolerant of their differences.

As for his interest in spiritual matters, other options, even within the church, may be open to him." Were he to adjust his sights, he could become a deacon in an existing congregation, perhaps even his own. Deacons are unpaid. He could continue to live at home.

If refuge from the world is what he seeks, becoming a monk, especially in an academic or a "technical order" might be the answer, assuming his particular doctrinal choice finds company in a monastery, if not in this country, than in one more welcoming of his views. In the US, there are monastic orders, fewer in number now than even a few years ago, where an element of indulgence of eccentric but highly developed interests, accompanied initially by self-isolating behavior, isn't seen as that unusual. But it is this author's guess that continued anti-social conduct with no accommodation for even the minimal social needs of others might place this adult at the outermost edge of even the most welcoming order.

As suggested above, monastic order living, just like seminary living, isn't a guaranteed road to non-involvement in the community at large. Many monastic orders run for-profit businesses out in the community. Their members also staff diocesan Catholic schools or work in community social service agencies. Many members work in the community dressed in non-religious clothes. From his mother's report on his involvement in the family business, her son has no special commercial acumen that would make him valuable at a cloistered business headquarters. Were he to join an order, he would most likely find himself asked to join his brothers in the world of public commerce, public service, or education. For financial reasons alone, the US church most likely cannot afford to take in individuals with few social skills and a high level of dependency on others.

This author does not deprecate the particular means this AS adult has found to live out his spiritual values. However, what can't be overlooked is the marginal status in the US presently accorded extreme followers of his doctrinal beliefs. Even with a continuance of conservative doctrine at the Vatican, the US Catholic Church is unlikely to follow a path guaranteed to alienate even more of its wealthier doctrinally middle-of-the-road adherents. Even though its parishes have had their ranks enlarged by immigrants from new world and third world cultures more open to conservative doctrine and practice, these new members do not yet have sufficient sway over entrenched American church leadership, nor have they attained a level of political and business leadership to be accepted as equals in mainstream American culture.

As long as this man's family can offer him support, he need not have major concerns about meeting much of the outside world -- which includes the world of the organized church -- on its own demanding terms.

 

Copyright Issues

 

This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.


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