For those of us who ask the help of saints in our daily lives, one of the first questions that comes along with an autism diagnosis/recognition is, “Who is the patron saint of autism?”
As far as I know, there are no official patron saints of autism. Yet, I can attest to the help and intervention of several saints in our autistic lives. Here are some of the saints that have made themselves known to us as helpers for autistic Christians.
- Holy Theotokos. Sometimes it’s easy to read past important parts of scripture, like when the educated people of the time were surprised at how much Jesus knew when he had not studied in the temple or gotten the best education of his day. But his mother had studied in the temple, and she taught her son. Of course, when you’re talking about Jesus, you’re also talking about a lot of divine revelation. But there is also the human mother whose youth before the angel appeared was dedicated to the study of scripture and prayers. The Mother of God is also mother to us all, parents and kids alike. She prays for us and can help us with our anxieties and fears and with guidance in teaching and therapeutic living.
- St. Anthony the Great. When my youngest son’s profound cognitive delay was first diagnosed, my son did not even have an idea that communication or language were possible. I remember looking at the paper work that declared my son’s abilities to be less than first percentile, and I immediately thought of St. Anthony. St. Anthony was taught to read by angels. I went to my icon wall in the kitchen near where I was standing and asked God to help my son and help us to teach him. Then I specifically asked that St. Anthony would pray for him, that my son would learn by divine intervention the same way that St. Anthony had been taught to read. Since I thought of language as reading at that time, I even asked that the saint would come and teach my son to read. One week later, my two year old son wrote the word “Hodegetria” on the magnet board with his little letters. It means, “She who shows the way,” and it’s the name of an icon of the Holy Theotokos holding Jesus and gesturing toward her son. We took a photo because we were astonished and thought we might be imagining it at first. Then, a couple of weeks later, our boy wrote Down Stairs Go on the board with his magnets. He could read and spell.
- St. John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco. This beloved modern saint has reached out to our family often. We ask him for help in forming helpful connections in our brains and in helping with speech and language processing delays. He, too, was slow of speech, and I think his great love for us helps us a lot.
- St. Nathaniel (AKA Bartholomew) the Apostle. When we first meet Nathaniel, Jesus calls him an Israelite in whom there is no guile. Guilelessness is one of the hallmarks of autism, and I am encouraged to have this Apostle’s prayers for helping us train our attention towards God’s love and for helping us navigate a world that is friendlier to lies than truth.
- St. Panteleimon the Unmercinary Physician. While all of the Holy Unmercinaries are helpful, St. Panteleimon has reached out with his mercy. He was known for healing both the body and soul by the love of Christ and the best medicine of his day. We ask him for help to know which supports to implement and for healing and forming connections across our different bodily and spiritual systems.
- St. Anastasia the Defender Against Potions, or the Healer. St. Anastasia is one of the saints who helps you with your problems and also has your back. She helps to defend us against malice and gossip or people who would attack our vulnerability. She was known for taking care of the Christians in prison who were going to be martyred. She is not afraid of anything, and she can bring comfort and lower anxiety. If you’ve noticed a theme here, yes, anxiety is a big challenge in autistic life.
- St. Nektarios of Aegina. When my twins were a few months old, I had their little cribs right next to my bed. One night I woke up to feed my older twin. While I was feeding him, I looked over in his crib and saw an icon of St. Nektarios and had a strong sense that he was praying for us. I made the sign of the cross over myself and the babies and blew a kiss toward the icon in veneration (but veneration where you’re not going to risk waking up twins in the middle of the night). The next morning, I suddenly remembered that we didn’t have an icon of St. Nektarios. But I bought one right away! Since then, we have felt his love and guidance and prayers in our lives every day. He’s the patron saint of our therapeutic homeschool. In the broader Orthodox Christian world, St. Nektarios often helps people suffering from epilepsy as well as other ailments and conditions. We ask him to guide us and to help our minds, bodies, and spirits work together to love God and to give us a sound mind. Being in your right mind is a gift of the Holy Spirit that is open to autistic Christians, too, and this saint helps us toward that fullness.
- St. Sergius of Radonezh. When I asked around from several autistic Orthodox Christians and family members of children with learning disabilities, I encountered a great love for St. Sergius. This saint, who struggled to read, has encouraged many people with communication, learning, and reading difficulties. His great love seems to reach out to many autistic people.
- St. Seraphim of Sarov. This saint’s great love and teaching on acquiring the Holy Spirit inspires many autistic Orthodox Christians. His suffering after living in the wilderness and surviving a terrible beating helps us to see his great compassion. When I surveyed Orthodox autistic adults, it seemed that almost everyone has a special relationship with this loving saint. He helps with anxiety, focus, and sensory integration, and he helps us all to know that the Holy Spirit gives each of us gifts that come to fruition in our ongoing lives with Christ.
- St. Dymphna, the patron saint of mental illnesses, also encourages lots of autistic Christians. Her intercessions help not only with the comorbid conditions that often appear alongside autism, but also help to clear the confusion that can handicap autistic life and prayers.
Do you have patron saints to add to the list? Share your stories in the comments!