“I have what’s kind of a stereotypical autistic memory for details and facts, which has been helpful in different ways as a priest.” Matthew Schneider
By Ron Sandison
Father Matthew P. Schneider has over 65,000 followers between Twitter and Instagram and is completing a doctorate in moral theology and is in the final edit for a book on autistic prayer.
Shortly after his ordination in his early thirties Matthew was diagnosed with autism. This diagnosis gave him insight for his vocation in the priesthood.
Matthew was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and was the only boy out of four children.
“My childhood was generally uneventful. I had a very happy home life, my parents were loving and accepting of all my quirks. I did well at school. I was top five in academics and didn’t focus as much on friends as most kids did but I didn’t think of that as an issue at the time.
“I remember a few times when I would have been diagnosed were I a child today. There was a specialist who came to examine why I had such bad handwriting (dysgraphia), and she couldn’t figure out why. Had the DSM-5 criteria been around then, she likely would have sent me for further tests, and I would have been diagnosed with Asperger’s or autism spectrum disorder.”
As a child proprioceptive, a difficulty understanding one’s body in relation to other objects and people caused Matthew to appear clumsy and awkward. Due to awkwardness he experienced some bullying as a child but his size protected him from physical abuse. Middle school years were an especially awkward period.
“I was a bit of an outcast in middle school. I struggled with making friends and such. A new kid came in my last year of middle school, and we clicked so we were best friends and enjoyed programming computers. We were happy being nerds, knowing we’d never be the popular kids.
“After my friend moved back to his former city, I attended high school across town at a study at your own pace high school (curriculum was normal and you were expected to finish in the same number of years but you mainly studied on your own rather than went to class). It was kind of unique, but I did pretty well; I was able to zoom through classes where I excelled and not get bored. The social relationships were quite different from what I understand in most high schools which was advantageous for me as I could hang out with the computer nerds and Magic club.”
Matthew learned to socialize in high school through observation and analysis of proper behavior. He consciously examined social interactions and then imitated it. Matthew enjoyed math, reading, and philosophy and he used his mental capacity in these fields to compensate for the struggles he experienced with soft intelligence.
“I was consciously doing what others did subconsciously. Our conscious brain with autism works slower so I’m still not the best but I am passable in most social situations and I’ve learned to ask for clarification when I’m not sure.”
Sensory issues cause Matthew to have a narrower range of comfortable light and a sensitivity to certain sounds. He loves to have bright lighting in his office but wears sunglasses outside to block sunlight. When downtown he brings his hi fidelity earbuds to prevent a sensory overload from unexpected noise. Matthew finds comfort in deep pressure and rocking.
Matthew’s family attended Mass every Sunday and occasionally prayed together.
In his teenage years, he begin searching for answers to perennial questions like: “Why we are here?” “What is the meaning of life?” As he studied religion and philosophy, he discovered answers to his questions in Catholicism. “My final year of high school, I was one of the super-religious teens and took my faith seriously. During this time I thought about becoming a priest.”
After high school, Matthew decided to pursue a computer engineering degree and stay active in the Catholic group on campus. After two years studying engineering, he left for the seminary after hearing an inspiring message by Pope St. John Paul II. “I just knew God called me to be a priest and serve Him. My mom was supportive relatively quick after I said I’d join. Dad was a little more hesitant, but he always kept the attitude of he’d rather me be successful as a priest than be unsuccessful in a secular career.”
During his first year of ministry as a priest, Matthew was assigned a school chaplain and youth ministry leader position for three years. He had difficulty relating to his students and the staff. At the end of the first year, things weren’t working out for Matthew and the school administrators shared their concerns that he might have Asperger’s and asked him to leave the school.
Matthew reflects back on the school experience as a blessing, because it led to his diagnose of autism and an understanding of himself and the ministries best suited for him.
After failing as a school chaplain, he went to a psychologist for a diagnosis but the psychologist failed to perform autism specific tests. A year later in 2016, Matthew sought a second opinion and after tests received a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.
“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.”
In a video released April 2, 2019, World Autism Awareness Day, Schneider decided to go public with his autism diagnosis.
“I realize the need to evangelize this segment of the population, we’re about 1.5% to 2% of the population. We have a much higher chance of being atheists, a much lower chance of attending religious services on a weekly basis… We need someone to reach out to our community, to enculturate the Gospel to the autistic mind.”
Four reasons Matthew decided to go public with his autism diagnosis: First, he desired to help others on the spectrum with spiritual disciplines and wrote his first book on autistic prayer which Pauline Press is publishing.
“In prayer, many times we struggle to understand how other people are thinking as we are talking with God. Once the expectations for prayer have been adapted for an autistic mindset, it can be freeing to realize we can communicate directly with God and not limited by our human language. In group prayers, autistics may struggle to bring theological concepts or ideas into human language. But with God, I can directly share my ideas to God in prayer, without bringing it into human language.”
Second, Matthew wanted to create awareness in the Catholic community to autism. “Fr. Mark Nolette went public before me, but that was about the only one with a name you can find online. Having a few priests who are public about their diagnosis helps others see autism in a proper light.”
Third, for transparency to resolve any personal issues in the future by letting people know he is autistic.
If I meet someone and I come across as awkward or don’t read their social cues right, knowing I’m autistic helps them out to realize I’m not being rude. It also helps me in that I don’t need to mask as much.
Finally, to present the gospel better adapted to the autistic mind. “We can present the faith in an emotional way that is good for a lot of people, but we autistics tend to think much more logically. So just simply a more logical explanation is more helpful so we understand why. We tend to be less easily satisfied with why answers. We don’t have the social cue that a lot of people have, where after you’ve asked why three or four times, you kind of stop. We’ll keep asking until we understand it, because that’s kind of the more logical way our brain works in that regard.”
Matthew had a few fears with disclosing his diagnosis. “I was worried about two things. First, I was worried that people would discount my other opinions thinking that an autistic person is not intelligent despite proof to the contrary. Second, I was worried about being pigeon-holed or cut off from speaking about any other topic than autism in Catholic circles and I want to be able to present on many different subjects including the topic of my doctorate moral theology.”
Autism has provided Matthew with some gifts as a priest. “I have a very strong memory and am able to connect many concepts together. I had good enough grades to go further in my studies but before I was diagnosed, it looked like I’d just have the normal education for a priest equivalent a Master of Divinity. After my diagnosis and talking to my superiors, we discerned that going a more academic route would probably be best for me, and this lead to me currently writing a doctoral thesis where I think autistic focus, memory, and data processing/pattern recognition have been helpful.”
As an autistic priest Matthew has his literal thinking, humorous moments. “One time, I was cleaning the gutters at the house of my religious community and forgot to tell people to move their cars so I got a bunch of leaves on one of the vehicles. The community member whose car was caked with leaves informed me that I needed to clean his car completely and wax it before he would let me off the hook. I thought he was serious and got really worried about making a later appointment until his car was washed and waxed. That afternoon, we went to lunch and I asked him about waxing his car and he said that he was only joking and it was fine with a two minute hosing. This short task did not destroy my schedules for the day.”
Matthew shares how the Catholic Church can encourage people with autism for the priesthood.
We need to offer spiritual direction for autistic individuals. I think we need to have visible autistic priests like Fr. Mark Nolette and me, and to offer accommodations for people who might excel in some ministry (hospital chaplain or professor) but not be equipped for other ministries requiring more social skills like a pastor which is the most common priestly ministry… We don’t just want to teach autistics the faith but live the faith fully by participation in apostolate (religious leadership) and ministry.
Schneider’s doctorate is the right to privacy in Catholic moral theology. “Genetic privacy examines how companies might use genetics in hiring process which would likely be discriminatory for a number of neurodiverse conditions. This may be the case for autism, but even more for other conditions. If someone had bipolar but had it managed on meds and didn’t want their boss to know, such tests could show him bipolar since this condition is about 70% genetic. Ultimately, I found a topic where the Church should speak but has not spoken much so far, thus my thesis can play a vital role in this important ethical discussion.”
Matthew shares faith challenges people with autism experience, “I think a lot of times we explain things in a way that is not good for an autistic brain, especially when we look at how ministry is done in many places where it is hyper-emotion focused. I found that rational books teaching Catholicism were much more helpful than practical ministry books. We tend to look for rational explanations and are not satisfied with “because that’s the way it is” as much as others when we ask questions.”
Matthew’s goals include: finishing his doctoral degree, attainting a professor position in a seminary, and writing on the topics of moral theology and inclusion in the Church. He hopes to help parishes and diocese establish ministries for autistics. Schneider’s message is simple,
Jesus loves us and wants the best for us. As autistics, we have the opportunity to experience God’s love in an autistic way. We don’t have to conform our own experience of God, in prayer and in the liturgy, to how others think, but we can experience it our own way, which is 100% valid.
Father Matthew P. Schneider is a priest with the Legionaries of Christ ordained in 2013. He lives in the Archdiocese of Washington where he helps at Our Lady of Bethesda Retreat Center and produces material for Regnum Christi.
Instagram and Twitter acounts: @FrMatthewLC
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House and Thought, Choice, Action. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes. Ron’s third book Views from the Spectrum was released in May.
He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.