The Challenges of Taking Communion while Neurodivergent

Dec 17, 2019 9:11:00 AM / by Joy Caires

If you were to chunk up the worship service into bits, you might describe it fairly simply—we pray, we hear stories from the Bible, we pray some more, we take communion, we go home. 

Simple, right? 

But, for some members of our community, such as those with autism, anxiety, or sensory processing disorder, any one of those "bits" can pose an insurmountable obstacle. So, in order to give a sense of how insurmountable a "simple bit" can be, I've taken the liberty of breaking down the act of taking communion in my church—numbering each obstacle as it appears. 

The invitation to take communion has been given; you are seated in your pew and waiting your turn. Your sister is sitting next to you and, when you get up for communion, she ends up in line behind you and keeps touching you. This is the first problem (1). 

So, as you come down the aisle you keep having to look behind you—just in case your sister is up to something. You keep looking behind you, which means you aren't looking ahead of you. You're worried she'll touch you and you're worried you'll bump into the person in front of you. This is the second problem (2). 

By the time you get to the steps that lead to the altar rail, you are mad and frustrated. But then you're distracted from your irritation by the confusion at the base of the steps. There are two communion stations and now you have to figure out which one is the right one. This is (3)—because other people seem confused and the line is messed up and you're just trying to go up the stairs. You trip on the first step because your sister was crowding you (4). 

You recover and, holding the railing, you walk through the opening of the rood screen. The rood screen is sort of like a fence with a big opening in the middle which divides the chancel from the rest of the church. This is (5). 

This is (5) because the only time you might get to come up past the rood screen is communion and it seems different, somehow, then the rest of the space. But everyone else seems to be doing okay, so you follow, but then you get stuck in the line standing somewhere between the sopranos and the tenors. The person you bumped into when you try to avoid your sister glares at you (6) and everyone is standing too close (7) and you can smell something funny (8).

Then, because you are too close to your neighbor, you try to move away. But you can't. You are now stuck between the choir stalls on both sides of you; the people returning from communion are coming down the middle and your sister is behind you and a very large man is in front of you (9). The choir stalls are imposing and you're just a little kid and your peripheral vision is obscured (10) by choir stalls and you are being funneled towards the altar rail and there is no clear escape route (11). 

So there you are in line. The choir stalls are filled with choir members, who you may not know and are, perhaps, strangers to you (12). The choir members are singing. They are singing loudly (13). 

The hymn is one you don't like because there are too many minor chords and it makes you feel sad (14). You can hear the one choir member who is sharp (15). You plug your ears with your fingers. 

So, you get past the choir and to the railing. At the railing, you need to decide. Bread or wafer (16). You take the bread because it tastes better. The bread was frozen and then thawed; it's a little gummy in your hand and it feels a little weird (17). You don't really want to eat it, but you know you have to, so you put it in your mouth. It feels weird there too (18). 

And, the bite of bread was too big, and you gag a bit (19). You could really use a sip of something to wash it down. But the idea of a common cup grosses you out because all you can think about is how you saw the kid down the row picking his nose and you're pretty sure the person who sipped before you sneezed. This is (20). 

Now you're thinking about the flu and how your mom mentioned it's going around. You still need your flu shots and they hurt (21). 

Now you are still trying to swallow and you're thinking about influenza. 

You're feeling panicked. But you still have to turn around and walk back through the singing choir members (22). And a soprano is singing a descant and it's too loud because you are so close (23). You walk fast towards the steps, you may even start to run. But you're not supposed to run in church. So, a kind person puts a hand on your shoulder, saying, "Slow down." This is (24) because now the music is too loud, and you think you're in trouble. 

And, even though the person was kind, you don't remember their name—this means that a stranger is touching you (25). You shrug off the hand and glare, and now they think you've been rude, and your mom takes your hand and glares at you (26). 

Now you are crying and trying to get your mom to let go of your hand; everyone seems to be looking at you (27). Your mom is embarrassed, and you are hurried back to your seat a bit too quickly for comfort (28). You look just like any other kid, so no one really knows that your beautiful and complicated brain works differently and the thing that brings them joy is the very thing that's bringing you pain. No one knows, and all they see is the meltdown that makes them wonder what kind of parents you must have that you would cry and kick and scream so in public. 

All of this because you wanted what everyone else had—the bread and the wine, the body and the blood, given for you. But it was too hard and now you are melting down and everyone is looking when your mom picks you up to carry you outside. Your parents start to think it's not worth it, this weekly struggle. So you come to church less often, and the less you go the harder it is when you are there. And, eventually, less becomes "not at all." 

And no one knows why your family stopped coming. 

Topics: neurodiversity

Joy Caires

Written by Joy Caires

Joy is the Rector of St. Clement's Episcopal Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Born and raised in Hawaii, Joy and her wife have made their home in Minnesota and are delighted to be raising their two kids in the "snowy north"!


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