November 1st is All Saints’ Day. It’s also Autistics Speaking Day, when blogs and social media will be full of posts about Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
I like acronyms, and this holy trinity of ASDs seems too good to pass by.
The trouble is, there isn’t an official Patron Saint of Autism or Autistic people (sadly the Church has been a little slow in canonising The Twelfth Doctor). Various Saints have been suggested, but they’re usually either Saints connected with mental illness, like S. Dymphna, or Saints who deal with generic healing, like S. Raphael or S. Philomena. If you’re interested in celebrating Autism, rather than trying to pray the Autism out of people, these are probably poor choices.
There aren’t even any Saints who definitely were Autistic, because of course Autism has only been recognised and defined relatively recently. But there have been plenty of Saints who weren’t exactly “normal,” and some whose life stories feature events and character traits that might just ring a bell with some of us. I’m not a fan of armchair diagnosis of historical figures, but sometimes you have to take your kicks where you can find them. So, especially for ASDx3, here’s my personal, partial and totally unofficial shortlist of Patron Saints of Autism:
Saint Francis of Assisi
Yeah, yeah, we all know about S. Francis. Friend of animals, wearer of sandals, hippy eco-warrior and peace campaigner eight hundred years before his time. But honestly, he’s much more interesting than that.
Francis didn’t just like animals, he totally identified with them. He regarded them as his brothers and sisters, and often spoke to them (and even preached the Gospel to them) as equals. They often seemed to sense a connection with him too, and I guess you could say he was an early wolf, sheep, rabbit, bird and cricket whisperer.
Human beings, on the other hand, seemed to cause him more trouble. He spent most of his life trying to escape them, and when he did speak to them, especially to the rich and powerful, he was always truthful, and often blunt to the point of rudeness. Sound familiar?
There are intriguing hints towards atypical sensory processing too. Francis seems to have had a very high pain threshold (he once had his eyes cauterised with red hot firebrands, and claimed not to feel any pain), and he frequently rolled or lay half-naked in the snow. In fact, he took many of his clothes off so often that you have to wonder how much was religious fervour and how much was not being able to cope with the rich brocades of his youth and the scratchy habit of his later life.
Francis had two special interests in his life, God and poverty, and he was pretty obsessional about both. The sound and feel of money made him feel physically ill, and he insisted on radical poverty for both himself and his brothers, not letting them own so much as a prayer book. But, paradoxically, he was also a bit of a hoarder. He collected every scrap of paper he could find, and wouldn’t let anyone throw them away before he’d examined every inch, just in case the Name of Jesus was written somewhere. As Francis was partially sighted and could barely see to read, that must have resulted in some very over-stuffed pockets and some very frustrated friends.
Saint Christina the Astonishing
Ah, there she is, up a tree. And that’s by far not the strangest place she ever ended up.
Christina was born in twelfth century Belgium into a peasant family. She was orphaned at some point in her childhood or teens, and brought up by her older sisters. As a young woman, she suffered some sort of seizure or catatonic episode which convinced everyone that she was dead. But, in the middle of her funeral Mass, she suddenly woke up and apparently flew out of her coffin (and yes, I do mean literally flew, as in to the rafters). She announced that she had seen heaven, hell and purgatory, and that she would spend the rest of her life doing God’s work.
What Christina actually spent the rest of her life doing was being a bit… er… neurodiverse. She didn’t like to be around other people, as she said she couldn’t stand their smell, and she often crawled into small spaces like cupboards and ovens. She seems to have had a fascination with running water, and spent large periods of time in the river or staring at the waterwheel. She would even ride the waterwheel, apparently enjoying the sensation long before Ferris wheels were invented for our vestibular pleasure. She spent hours balanced precariously on hurdles, rolled up into a little ball or spinning on one foot. Like S. Francis, she was apparently hyposensitive to pain and cold. She seems to have had an interesting relationship with her own body; on one occasion she was observed kissing and talking to her own feet, as if she had just discovered where they were for the first time.
Even in her own day, Christina divided opinion. Some people thought she was a Saint, some people called her a lunatic, and some even thought she was possessed. Occasionally somebody took it upon themselves to tie her up or restrain her ‘for her own safety,’ once even breaking her leg, but she always managed to escape, and often fled up trees.
Surprisingly for someone who lived as a homeless beggar in Mediaeval Europe and put her body through some fairly extreme situations, Christina lived well into her sixties or seventies. She spent her final years living in a convent, where – despite her wild reputation and unusual behaviour – she was always perfectly obedient to whatever the prioress asked of her.
Christina was never formally canonised as a Saint by the Church, but she has always been venerated in her local area, and now across the world. Nick Cave even wrote a song about her, which (like most of his songs) is pretty darn awesome:
Saint Joseph of Cupertino
Yes, more flying. I know. Just go with it.
S. Joseph of Cupertino is best known today as the Patron of pilots and astronauts, thanks to his unusual habit of levitating during prayer. But all the holy medals and this rather sickly painting with cherubim don’t really do justice to Joseph’s troubled and troubling life.
As a boy, Joseph was considered a failure. He never learnt to read and write, as he couldn’t concentrate or sit still long enough to finish a sentence. When he wasn’t fidgeting or running around in a frenzy, he would often stop dead and stare into space not speaking for hours at a time, which earned him the cruel nickname of ‘the Gaper.’ His periods of apparent stupor were intermingled with violent rages and apparently unprovoked ‘fits of temper,’ which his mother couldn’t stop, no matter how much she shouted and beat him (hmm, wonder why that was….).
His mother tried to apprentice him to a shoemaker and sent him to two different Franciscan friaries, but he was sent back from all three in disgrace, labelled incompetent. Eventually, she frogmarched him to a third friary and abandoned him there, washing her hands of him completely. The Friars didn’t want him in their community, so they sent him to live in the stable with the mule.
And, lo and behold, the boy who had always failed to fit in with human society somehow fitted in with the mule. As he spent more and more time with the animal, Joseph’s concentration improved, his fits of rage disappeared, and he even taught himself the basics of reading and writing, although with great difficulty. At the age of 22, he seemed to be coping so much better that the Friars even sent him to the Bishop in the hope of getting him ordained as a Priest.
It was always going to be a long shot, as even in the 17th Century, clergy were expected to be able to read and expound quite a bit of the Bible, and Joseph was only really interested in one verse from S. Luke’s Gospel. But as luck (or the Holy Spirit) would have it, that was the very verse the Bishop asked him about, and Joseph talked at him for hours, barely stopping for breath. Infodump, anyone?
Joseph went on to become a priest, and lived out the rest of his life within that same community. But although his ‘fits of temper’ (meltdowns?) stopped, they were replaced by ‘fits of ecstasy’ (shutdowns?). Almost nothing could bring him out of these ‘trances,’ and eventually he was forbidden to walk in procession, sing in choir or go to Mass with the rest of the community, and became a virtual prisoner in his own cell and private chapel. I wonder whether he would have preferred to be back in the stable with his beloved mule.
OK, so Saint Guinefort was a dog. A greyhound, to be precise. And no, he isn’t really an official Saint, and in fact probably never existed at all, and almost certainly wasn’t Autistic. But if I had to choose an overall winner, Guinefort would be my front runner for Patron Saint of Autism. And here’s why.
Guinefort’s life story is almost certainly entirely fictitious. In fact, it’s a folk tale which appears across many European cultures, and maybe further afield too. Family has baby and dog; family leaves baby in care of dog; snake or other wild beast tries to attack baby. Dog kills snake; father returns, sees blood and signs of struggle, presumes dog has killed baby. Father kills dog, then finds baby safe and sound. Father is wracked with remorse, dog becomes posthumous hero. It’s all very sad.
But what’s different about Guinefort is that at some point, the inhabitants of a French village decided that he was a Saint and had a special patronage of babies. This was handy, because several families had been burdened with changelings – when fairies make off with your good, lovely and healthy baby and leave a difficult, fussy or sickly child in its stead. Of course, the changeling myth was really a nifty psychological way for women to admit that motherhood isn’t all flowers and rainbows, because it’s ok to find it difficult to parent your child if your child isn’t really yours. Some historians think that the myth of the ‘stolen child’ developed particularly to explain autism, and some people might say that the myth is sadly still alive and well today.
The French villagers developed a natty way of dealing with changelings, though. They would take the infant deep into the woods and leave it for three days under the protection of Saint Guinefort, hoping that his prayers would convince the fairies to take back the unwanted child and give back the original. After three days, the mother would go back into the wood, and presuming the child hadn’t died of starvation or been eaten by wolves, she would welcome it back into the family with open arms, and no doubt with genuine love rekindled.
This practice might seem barbaric and abusive – and so it was – but here’s the thing. If this really was a way of dealing with autistic children, then those children went into the woods autistic and they came back into their families autistic. There was no question any more that this child was anything other than the family’s natural, rightful human child. Whatever child Saint Guinefort gave you back, that was the child you were meant to have, and you would never abandon it again. Basically, Guinefort presided over a three-day crash course in autism acceptance.
And that’s why Guinefort gets my vote for Patron Saint of Autism. Because, after all, doesn’t everyone deserve a holy canine protector in their lives?
Happy ASD, everyone!