I am autistic.
I am also rearing children who are autistic - along with non-autistic children who have various disabilities. Our home is swimming in acronyms that stand for all of the different diagnoses in our home. We are quite the "motley crew," my loud, flapping, spinning, scripting, disabled family and I. And though it's not always easy (which would be the case with or without disabilities), it's authentic. We love each other. We strive to respect one another's strengths, challenges, boundaries, and needs. We mess up at times. But we make it work.
In addition to being a family with various disabilities, we are also a large family, an adoptive family, a Christian family, and a family of color. We stand out when we go places first because of our size and/or demographics, and secondly because sometimes the way some of us present is a little different than the norm. At times we have had negative experiences because of this (i.e. being told to leave movies or plays). But generally the people in our lives are welcoming and supportive...from doting grandparents, aunts, and uncles to our awesome occasional babysitter GR who showers the kids with love, to loyal friends, to patient and accommodating teachers.
Our church is also a good place of support. Though not perfect, it strives to include people of different backgrounds and experiences and to embrace diversity, including disability. We enjoy attending there and are actively involved in our church. But the other day something happened that I need to address.
There was a special performance at our church one evening recently and we attended. The children typically attend classes designed for youth, but this was a family-friendly event, so I had the children with me. I was a little worried about one of my children (my youngest son) because the sanctuary uses lighting effects (dimming, etc), and there is a lot of noise (praise team, live band, bass pumping out of the speakers) and a lot of people. So I was prepared to leave if we needed to. Fortunately, this was a "sensory-seeking" day rather than a "sensory-avoiding" day for him, so not only was he able tolerate the environment that night, it seemed to energize him.
The music and the movement enraptured him, and he wriggled out of my lap and climbed to his feet. He moved to a space in the aisle near me, but more in front closer to the stage as if to "feel" the music better. He grinned widely and swayed to the beat. He bounced. He clapped. He spun. My heart burst with joy watching my baby boy become one with the music. I could relate, as there are some things that capture me just as deeply. You see, autistics don't do anything halfway. We are either all in or we are not in. I can get similarly lost in a book or in my writing or in other things that I am passionate about. When we are engaged in something, it can be like an all-consuming fire. There is nothing else around us and nothing else matters at that moment. Watching my child, I knew he was being propelled to move and to express his joy by something from deep inside of himself.
I didn't worry about people staring or pointing or whispering because our church is not like that. If anything, I think I saw a few people smiling broadly at him as they noticed his joy and how he was worshipping freely and boldly. I think the cameras might have even zoomed in on him once. :)
When we left I stopped by the restroom before heading to my car. An elderly lady was in there washing her hands at the sink. I walked past her en route to one of the restroom stalls. She caught my eye and smiled at me, and I returned her smile. The woman, who appeared to be about eighty years old or so, was short and had kind greenish-gray eyes and a sunburst of freckles across her nose. She then spoke. "Young lady, was that you with that little boy who was jumping around out there?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am," I answered with a smile. "That's my son."
"He sure is precious," she said with an even bigger smile. Then she lowered her tone, moved a little closer to me, and inquired, "Is he touched?"
"Touched?" I had no idea what she meant. "I don't understand."
"I was wondering if your son was touched. You know. Special. He seems different. Is he special?" she clarified.
"Special." I didn't understand "touched," but I understood "different." And I definitely understood what she meant by "special." My smile fell.
"Yes, ma'am," I replied softly. "My son is very special to me. He is a wonderful child. He is autistic."
"Artistic?" Her brow furrowed.
"No ma'am. Not artistic. Autistic." I struggled with how to make her understand, and decided to add, "Some people would say autistic and some would say, 'He has autism.' He thinks and acts differently."
"Oh!" she nodded in understanding. "One of my great nephews has autism too. Can't talk, but smart as a whip. Well, I'll pray for you, young lady. And your son too. I'll be praying."
"Thank you, ma'am," I replied. "We could always use more prayers."
"I will be sure to pray. Our God is a great Healer. He can heal your son. I'll pray God continues to give you strength to deal with autism. I know it must be hard. God bless you," she said.
I was at a loss for words. I didn't want to be rude, but this was going completely wrong. "Ma'am," I choked out, "I don't need prayers to deal with autism. I understand autism because I am autistic too. I don't need you to pray for my son to be healed."
"Of course not!" she exclaimed. "I am so sorry.. You're right."
Relieved that she understood the offense, I smiled again. "Thank you, ma'am," I said, and finally entered the stall.
As I was pulling the toilet seat covers out from their place on the wall of my stall, I heard the woman speak once more:
"Please accept my apology. I will not pray for God to heal your son. I didn't realize you have the same stronghold. I will instead pray for God to heal BOTH of you. By His stripes you are both healed." I then heard the bathroom door swish open as she left the restroom.
I know the lady meant well. She was trying to be caring. But her words demonstrate a widespread belief and way of thinking that I don't agree with and that I think is extremely harmful. It is something that needs to stop.
Please don't try to pray the autism away. I don't need to be "healed" of autism. And my children do not need to be either. We are not autistic because of some sin, or some defect, or some punishment from God. We are autistic because we just are. This is not an affliction. It's a way of being.
I believe in prayer. I believe in healing. Feel free to pray for us. Just not like that. God made us this way. We are not broken.
I see examples of "different" people all throughout God's kingdom, including His Word. When Moses worried that people wouldn't respect him as a leader because of his speech impediment, God answered, "Who made mouths?" Clearly God had no problem with Moses' disability. And about John the Baptist? He was clearly NOT neurotypical. Mary Magdalene? David? Paul? Jesus? All of them "marched to their own beat," as the cliché goes. These examples, and others, reassure me that people like me, and my children, have been around since the beginning of time. And we will continue to be around.
We need all types of different people in this world. We need all types of minds as well. The world would be boring if we were all neurotypical, or if we were all autistic, or if we were all gifted, or any number of things. Just like the world would be boring if we were all white, or all black, or all male, or all female...etc. There is beauty in our diversity. There is strength in it. And I believe when God looks upon it, He thinks it is good.
Please don't pray for my or anyone else's autism to go away. It is a part of who I am, how God made me. I am fearfully and wonderfully made, autism and all. By all means pray for me, but pray for my health, my family, my finances, my spiritual growth, whatever; don't pray that God takes away what makes me "me."