“I realize the need to evangelize this segment of the population,” he said in the video. “We’re about 1.5–2% 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 that community, to inculturate the Gospel to the autistic mind.”
Schneider spoke with CNA about his life at the intersection of autism and the Catholic priesthood, and his hope of bringing the Catholic faith to more people who share the diagnosis.
Like many people in the autistic community, Schneider has a sharp memory and a good mind for facts. He tends to be a concrete thinker, writer, and preacher. He describes himself as “intellectually driven” and he has always been a good student. He prefers to be called an “autistic person” or simply “an autistic” rather than a “person with autism.”
Unlike many of his autistic peers, however, faith plays a prominent role in Schneider’s life. Studies suggest that people with autism are less likely to believe in God and attend weekly religious services than those without autism.
Schneider said his faith is not just one aspect of his life, but is central to the way he views himself.
“Our Catholic faith affects all of what we are, and really we are called to incorporate our Catholic faith in every aspect [of life]. I’m somebody who struggles in this area or that area. But I can, through my relationship with Jesus, overcome those struggles, [and] reach a deeper level of understanding. We can have Jesus and have the faith enter in and help us…to live with those difficulties that come from autism in our lives, to have a greater degree of peace.”
Although Schneider exhibited signs of autism as a child, the diagnostic criteria were different in the 1980s than they are today. It was not until January 2016 – a little more than two years after being ordained a priest of the Legion of Christ – that he received an autism diagnosis.
“Autism is primarily a distinction in a way of thinking, a neurological difference,” he said. Autism presents challenges, including difficulty with picking up on subtle, non-verbal cues. For the priest, this means putting in extra effort when going into social situations.
“Realizing that I’m going to have these difficulties, I will try to put in as much effort as I can, even if that tires me,” Schneider said. “And sometimes I will second-guess: Ok, I might not have picked up the best on that.”
Ultimately, he said, he tries to keep in mind, “Ok, I’m not necessarily going to pick up every social cue, so I’m going to do the best I can and ask for clarification when I’m not sure.”
“There’s [no] magic bullet, and there’s not a time that I’m not autistic, that I can just understand perfectly those social cues. I can put effort into understanding them better, but it’s not going to be the exact same as non-autistic people would probably understand them.”
But there are also blessings to life with autism, Schneider said.
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“I have what’s kind of a stereotypical autistic memory, which is a very good memory of details and facts, which has been helpful in different ways as a priest.”
He has also found that he can overcome some of the challenges associated with autism by using a method called Theory of Mind, in which he guesses what another person is thinking as he talks to them. It also helps him prepare homilies and write articles, by anticipating how his audience may react as they read or hear his work.
“That’s a conscious thing I do, whereas most people just do that subconsciously,” he explained.
Even with those tools, however, there are some assignments that would be especially challenging for an autistic priest, Schneider said. A typical parish assignment or role as a school chaplain would present struggles for Schneider, given the difficulty that autistic people tend to have in picking up on nonverbal cues, particularly during face-to-face conversations.
Right now, Schneider is working on a doctoral thesis in theology, while also helping out at the Maryland retreat center where he lives. His said his goal is to become a seminary professor or a writer, since these “are fields that as an autistic I think I’m going to succeed in more than in a lot of other more stereotypical priestly ministries, like parishes or chaplaincies.”
The priest said his superiors in the Legion of Christ have been very supportive of him.