“There has to be a better way.” 38-year-old school psychologist Aimee O’Connell, having spent much of her career studying autism and related disorders of high sensitivity, already had a good grasp of these conditions from multiple, simultaneous angles. Growing up herself with Aspergers Disorder had been a contrast of high academic honors and clawing loneliness. Learning her own daughter had autism taught her to nurture first and keep professional expertise a distant second. Aimee was consistently frustrated that no intervention ever quite reached the core of her daughter’s need – and autistic inability – to feel valued by others.
A largely bypassed but widely recognized side effect of autism is this pervasive sense of loneliness that nothing seems to touch, which Aimee calls “spiritual starvation.” Countless destructive and self-destructive consequences of spiritual starvation can be seen among people with autism, Aimee noted, but so, too, in the culture at large. Social skills training teaches people with autism how to make friends, but it can’t convince them they are valuable to God and others if they can’t feel it. It is a problem becoming more rampant among all young people of our time, but most especially among those with autism.
As a Catholic, Aimee turned to prayer, Scripture and the wisdom of the saints to find a solution to spiritual starvation. Where, she wondered, was a Patron Saint of Autism? There were patrons of love and suffering, mental disorders, contemplatives and academics… but none specific to autism. Besides, autism isn’t so much a mental disorder as it is a combination of heightened sensitivity, processing overload and an inability to communicate between one’s true self and others. A surprise twist brought everything together for her in 2015 when her daughter, then ten, developed a typically autistic fascination with the country of Iceland. Now homeschooling, Aimee capitalized on her daughter’s interest and delved deeply into studying all things Icelandic – including their patron saint.
Meet Thorlak Thorhallsson, Patron Saint of Iceland.St. Thorlak lived in Iceland from1133-1193. He was a quiet, studious person who rose from a broken, destitute family to high offices within the Catholic Church, ultimately becoming Bishop in 1174. Like practically everyone else in the world, Aimee had no idea who St. Thorlak was or what he did. Out of curiosity, Aimee began reading the Saga of Bishop Thorlak, originally written in the 13th century but republished in recent years in English. She made some interesting observations. Thorlak was hyperlexic, for one. He rarely played as a child and scorned games as an adult. He thrived on academics and sought out people to learn from them, but shrank away from crowds and speaking. He was silent, almost to a fault, but not simply because he followed monastic rule. St. Thorlak easily fit the profile of someone with Aspergers, though that concept was far ahead of his medieval lifetime.
What fascinated Aimee most was the way St. Thorlak was said to have affected so many people’s hearts. He was rule bound and unyielding in his upholding of God’s law, which rubbed many officials the wrong way, including fellow clergy – yet he was beloved and renowned, even by his opponents, for his gentle, compassionate ways. The list of documented miracles at the end of the Saga is prolific, but it seems that documentation ended at the Reformation, when Catholic artifacts were pillaged or destroyed throughout Scandinavia.
Aimee asked: Where is St. Thorlak today?
Good question. There are a small number of statues and images of Iceland’s patron saint scattered across the handful of Catholic churches and chapels in that country (which, as of 2015, had about 12,000 Catholics served by 15 priests, most of whom were ordained in other countries). Iceland marks “St. Thorlak’s Day” on December 23 by serving up putrefied fish and drinking schnapps. But as far as being aware of who he was and what he did, most of that knowledge resides with historians and academics, who characterize him as a holy reformer and leave it at that. St. Thorlak seems to have settled quietly into the back of the history books, appearing even as an afterthought on the Church calendar of saints (St. John of Kanty has December 23’s official spot on the liturgical calendar).
Aimee, with her own Aspergers, studied the puzzle until she found the solution. How did a painfully shy, rule-driven pastor win over such hardy, self-determined people, who readily adopted him as their spiritual patron? Because his sincere desire to learn from people endeared him to their hearts. Regardless of how anxious or rigid he was in his thinking, he engaged people with one key theoretical approach: “Can you be my friend?” – and changed the whole equation. It wasn’t that someone stepped in and taught him, the person with a social disability, who didn’t know how to mingle and glean from casual conversation, about friendship. It was he, the person with autism, who taught the ordinary person about the spiritual nutrition of friendship from his sincerity and vulnerability. Once this clicked, Aimee found her mission: The Mission of Saint Thorlak.
“The Mission of Saint Thorlak aims to understand, recognize, address and prevent spiritual starvation, letting people with autism lead us on our way.”
Aimee is committed to seeing this message reach the entire world as her contribution to combating spiritual starvation – and, since it absolutely requires people with autism, it ensures they will be fed in the process. Furthermore, Aimee will not rest until she sees St. Thorlak known, appreciated, and officially named the Patron Saint of Autism (although she acknowledges it is up to ecclesial authorities to give his cause proper examination and determination). In the meantime, she encourages all to visit The Mission of Saint Thorlak webpage for meditations, prayers and activities for youth and young adults, including a series of upcoming retreats. Content is always being updated, so check back often. Most of all, Aimee hopes people will join her mission in prayer and spread the word.
St. Thorlak, Pray for Us!
Copyright 2017 Aimee O’Connell
About the author: Among many things, Aimee O’Connell is a Catholic homeschooling mom, a certified school psychologist and a person with autism. She is currently helping to develop the Mission of Saint Thorlak as a spiritual outreach for people with autism and those who support them: “To understand, recognize, address and prevent spiritual starvation, letting people with autism lead us on our way.” Visit the Mission of St. Thorlak website and Facebook page for more information.