Autism and Contemplative Worship

Last night at church we held our first Summer Evening Worship.  As many of you know, First Christian shares space with a UCC congregation and a Lutheran congregation.  I shared an idea with the pastor of the Lutheran church about having a contemplative worship service during the summer and she took to the idea.  We decided to do service based on Prayers Around the Cross, a contemplative worship service designed by Lutheran musicians at Holden Village in Washington State.

The service includes times of silence, songs, prayers and visual imagery….perfect for someone with autism.

It was today that I realized that I love these kind of services.  Most contemplative worship is filled with repetition- repeating phrases, words and songs over and over.  There’s also the visual- in our case, it was a four square boxes filled with sand and placed in the shape of a cross.  During the time of prayer, one can come forward to light candles which make for a wonderful image that appeals to me.

What I noticed last night was how calm I was, how still I was.  If you really notice me, you will find that I really don’t sit still.  I am constantly moving and fidgeting.  During a Sunday worship service, I’m not still.  But last night, I was calm and focused on what was going on.

I happened to stumble across this blog post when I googled “autism and taize.”  She writes about how her two sons, who are autistic love Taize-style worship:

Before my husband and family burst into my life Taize was always a place of retreat and silence for me. Many young people come enjoying the international community as much as the life of prayer, but after by first visit to Taize I always came and spent the week in silence….

Returning with my family was therefore a challenge and the first time I came, 7 years ago, with just the two boys I found the week almost unbearable. The contrast between my memories of Taize and the reality of being here with two autistic boys aged 4 and 5 was too harsh. I also had, foolishly, come on the week when there was no family welcome so I was managing the boys on my own.

But even in the midst of that difficult transition I remember being moved by the way the boys responded to the beauty and the peace of the prayers. They were children who never stayed still yet I sat with them through the silences as they lay, hidden under a large scarf I had brought, peacefully calm.

My boys, like most autistic children, struggle with language based teaching. For many, many years we would always back up anything we were telling them with visual aids, with images and pictures. Reformed worship with it’s language based liturgy is probably the worst style of worship for them and traditional ‘Sunday school’ is no better. Here at Taize the children’s work, and particularly the afternoon ‘show’ that follows the story of the theme, has to be visual and not language based because you have children from so many countries – it is perfect for my children. The regular monastic life with the rhythm of the bells gives them a sense of structure and security and the worship is experiential not verbal.

I think I’m going to like these services.  And I’m hoping that maybe it can be a place for other aspies to have a place where they can really worship God.


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