Fr. Matthew P. Schneider, LC, is a Legionary of Christ who was diagnosed with autism in 2016. He has decided to share his story publicly in hopes to reach the hearts of, and serve, those with autism.
Fr. Matthew said that as a child he always felt a little different. He didn’t feel like he fit in and was often teased. However, he finished school, university, and formation as a priest without too many struggles. He noted that the clinical definition of autism has changed a lot since he was a kid: he didn’t meet the criteria back in the 1980s, but does meet it now.
Soon after he was ordained to the priesthood he was assigned to a position as a school chaplain. He explained to us that he didn’t do very well in the position and a few people, at that time, had suggested that he get tested for Asperger’s syndrome. Ultimately, this lead him to a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder in 2016, 2 years after he was ordained a priest.
In his online video, he thanked the Legionaries of Christ for their support stating: “In the Legion, my superiors have been helpful throughout this whole process, and when I brought up the possibility of talking about this publicly, they were supportive.”
He explained several reasons for being public about having autism He indicated that people with autism are still an underserved population in the Church and often on the peripheries. He feels that by sharing his story, and the work still to come, it’s a small step in the right direction. He dreams of helping those with autism, and their families, be more connected to their Catholic faith, and come back to the Church if they’ve fallen away. He wants to help the Church to better include those with autism. Right now, this segment of our population tend to be less religious than others are, in both belief and practice.
Fr. Matthew also spoke to Catholic News Agency. He explained how he lives with the challenges of autism. He explained, “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.” He continued, “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.” He also mentioned that he needs to consciously do several things most people do unconsciously in social situations.
He also told Catholic News Agency of his nickname, Schneider-pedia, and why he was given it: “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 explained that he hopes that being transparent and public about autism will pave the way for writing books on prayer or catechetical materials to help this underserved population. He stated that autism might make someone experience God differently, but God comes to each person as they are. Fr Matthew, explained, “We have the opportunity to experience God’s love in an autistic way.”
Speaking with Crux, Fr. Matthew explained how inculturatingthe Gospel to others with autism would work: “[As] someone who has the same kind of thinking patterns, which aren’t the same as the rest of society, I’m able to present the faith in a way that corresponds. It’s still the Catholic faith, just worded or phrased or explained slightly differently.”
Fr. Matthew also explained how he felt when diagnosed with autism. He stated, “I can tell you that on the drive home that day I was feeling really down about it. But, as I looked into it and read up over the following weeks and months, I realized that, oh, this is probably why I’ve had some of these struggles.” He said that overall being diagnosed was freeing and helped him better understand himself and what God was further asking him for.
Autism and Regnum Christi
We asked Fr. Matthew to explain how he sees his vision of serving those with a neurology like him fit with the charism of Regnum Christi. He mentioned four ways.
First, he noted that “we are called to go out to the peripheries and smell like the sheep.” He explained, “Autism is part of the peripheries. We often think of peripheries geographically, but so often the dividing line of the periphery is due to a trait the person has such as being on the spectrum. He says that autism is a periphery because the Church, generally speaking, has not been investing resources there.” Regarding smelling like the sheep, Fr. Matthew spoke about how having autism enables him to think like others on the spectrum, which he believes that this will allow him to reach this periphery better.
Second, he talked about forming apostles. He noted that although we don’t often think about those with autism as great leaders or apostles, he think they can become so in several ways. He believes that those on the spectrum can evangelize others like them more effectively. Also, people with autism are often very helpful in key positions in society where their unique skill-sets excel, and from there, we can lead others to Jesus.”
Third, he discussed our woundedness and vulnerability in Regnum Christi. He noted, “Given our history, we seem to have a special call as wounded Christians. In admitting my own condition, I offer a kind of transparency to my challenges that I think expresses this woundedness.”
Finally, he explained, “I think part of the Regnum Christi spirit is that each of us should use our talents to the best of our ability to transform culture, serve the Church and build the kingdom of Christ. I’m currently doing a doctorate to move into the intellectual field that better matches my skills and talents than running an ECYD section or being a school chaplain, as I found out early on. Being diagnosed with autism was part of what moved me in that direction.”