Everything but the Elephant; Saint Thorlak, Patron of Autism; Guest Post by Aimee O’Connell


Image: A cute cartoon elephant blows colourful shapes out of their trunk.  Image courtesy of https://www.mission-of-saint-thorlak.com/mission-activities/missionary-thought-for-the-week-of-september-24-2018-everything-but-the-elephant#comments

When I sat down at last to write Saint Thorlak’s story, I had a tote bag bulging with research and solid sources to keep me grounded. I found enough background to shade the existing factual dot-to-dot image of the historical man with the depth and emotion that the academic works lack, and I had the entire body of blog posts to help characterize his spirituality. As I set forth corraling it all into paragraphs and pages, I saw that everything was carefully accounted for: the physical setting, the chronological timeline, the social context…

Everything but the elephant.

That is to say, the elephant in the room. The one asking if I, the head writer for the Mission of Saint Thorlak, would get through the entire story without mentioning AUTISM.

Autism is quite the elephant, indeed, wherever it shows up. To deny it is folly. To ignore it is detrimental to everyone involved. And to indulge it is to risk obstructing our ability to see anything else.

To mention “autism” in a story of a twelfth century cleric would be about the same as bringing an actual elephant to Iceland in any period of time.

What wonder, what scurry of activity, what sensational novelty it would be to bring an elephant to Iceland without preparation or prior announcement. The elephant would get all the attention, and the person tending it would be largely overlooked.

So, what, then – leave the elephant out?

As one who sees autism in Saint Thorlak, and is so deeply impressed with how it both permeates and refines his ministry as to devote my free time writing for an online apostolate in his name, I cannot fathom doing that.

Yet, nobody prior to me has referenced autism with respect to Saint Thorlak. The word appears in no source material. People have outright said they are very uncomfortable calling Saint Thorlak autistic because it feels like violating or exploiting his vulnerability. Of course I see that, and empathize greatly. I do not want people exploiting me, or my autism, or my eye color, or anything else, for their gain without consulting me first.

Then again, the Catholic saints fall into a special category of people whose lives we are explicitly encouraged to study and emulate. The vulnerability of the saints is what makes them most human, most relatable, most powerful in teaching us the ways we also can rise above life’s obstacles by reaching for the supernatural grace wrought through seeking, self-sacrifice, humility and radical acceptance.

Would Saint Thorlak have been diagnosed autistic if that term was around in his time?
Would Saint Thorlak have embraced that diagnosis if he had been given it?

We have no way to know either.

Besides being a writer, I am also a certified school psychologist. I have the qualifications to make diagnoses. It is the same process for a tangible person as it is a figure from long ago: it requires gathering data and synthesizing a person’s story. The data I use in school diagnostics consists of social histories gathered by parents and teachers, and observations of the student in the school environment. There are also interviews and checklists given in dialog with the students themselves. The psychologist takes it all into consideration and makes a decision based on the likelihood that the patterns match.

I can say with confidence that I have done this with Saint Thorlak – even more thoroughly than I have ever done with any students I have helped. Professionally, he fits the pattern. Professionally, I conclude he is a man who had autism.

But, in writing his biography, I can say with equal confidence that nobody in his lifetime knew what autism was or might be. It comes down, then, to the voice I choose to tell his story. Will it be a universal narrator, journeying with him through his twelfth century life… or will it be me, now, teaching and explaining each frame of the filmstrip?

Much as I would enjoy the latter, the result would be one more academic work… and one more missed opportunity to know Saint Thorlak simply for who he is, as a person.

The world does not need another autism case study. Nor does the world need another static image of Saint Thorlak, even if this one were to be accompanied by a brand new set of encyclopedic facts.

The world needs Saint Thorlak. The person.

And so, I wrote the story of Saint Thorlak, the person.

As for the elephant, after much prayer, I realized that it is perfectly sound to mention his autism in the book’s title and let his life’s story do the telling of his autism for itself. In a time when there was no such word, a person with autism would be… a person.

And I have striven to tell it exactly like that.

Continued next week.

Pray: Dear God: You have known my story from the very beginning. May my story as a person bless those who know me, and those who will come to know me.

Contemplate: How is knowing someone’s story different from knowing facts about them?

Relate: Take the time this week to better know someone through their story as a person.

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