Saturday, November 14, 2015

Don't Pray My Autism Away


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."


Image result for don't pray
Image of a pair of clasped praying hands with a red circle and a slash on top of them, as if to indicate "Don't pray." Photo credit: W. Worthy.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

#JeremyMardis was killed by cops; does anyone care?

Last night I was in bed cuddling with my five year old son as he drifted off to sleep. He had a Mickey Mouse toy tightly clenched in one fist and a green marker top clenched in the other. As he grew more drowsy he arched his back and pressed the bottoms of his feet against me. His tongue moved to the left side of the inside of his cheek to rest as it often does when he is falling asleep - one of his favorite bedtime stims. I looked down at my beautiful, beloved, ausomely autistic child. And he reminded me so much of another ausomely autistic child. They looked nothing alike, but I couldn't help but think of him. 

Jeremy Mardis. He was a small boy with a radiant smile and glowing eyes to match. The autistic first grader had only attended his new school for a short while but seemed to be settling in. Now Jeremy, once full of life and full of breath like you and I, lives on only as a hashtag. He joins the ever-growing club that nobody wants to be part of: a victim of police violence. Jeremy, who was killed by some of the ~18 rounds of bullets Louisiana police officers fired into his father's car, did not live to tell the tale of what transpired; we only have body camera footage, Jeremy's father's witness statement, conflicting accounts from the officers present, and the pending autopsy results to rely upon. But one indisputable fact is clear: at age 6 years, Jeremy is the 17th US child under the age of 18 years old that has been killed by police officers this year. He is the 834th person to be killed in the US by police this year. And the year isn't over yet. He will not likely be the last.

Image of Jeremy Mardis, age 6. Photo credit: independent.co.uk


Jeremy's death was completely avoidable. Though there is no technical policy for the police department in the jurisdiction where Jeremy died regarding shooting into a moving vehicle in pursuit of a fleeing target, it is illegal in a number of states and it is considered by several reputable law enforcement agencies to be an excessive use of force. The police screwed up.

Though seemingly he is not a candidate for a "Father of the Year" award, Jeremy's father, who was driving the vehicle that the officers were chasing (presumably in a high-speed traffic chase, though it is unclear exactly why)was unarmed in the vehicle, as was Jeremy. It also appears that Jeremy's father allegedly had both hands up in an attempt to surrender before the officers opened fire. :( Rather than shoot out the tires of the car to stop Jeremy's father from continuing to flee, the officers instead opted to shoot into the car itself - causing Jeremy's tragic and unnecessary death. 

When a sweet, innocent, beautiful child loses their life in such a violent, senseless manner, it's often hard to know what to feel, think, or say. There are few words that can adequately describe an awful situation such as this. However, there are a few words that convey the situation perfectly. I'll share them below. 

Murder. 

The first word is murder. Jeremy was murdered. Had the officers acted responsibly in this case, Jeremy would not have been pummeled with bullets. There is a protocol for dealing with a suspect who evades arrest. None of that protocol justifies shooting into a moving vehicle, endangering the lives of not only known passengers of that vehicle, but also the lives on any unknown passengers and also the lives of passersby as well. Their poor judgment cost Jeremy his life. His blood is on their hands.

Accountability.

Second degree murder charges have been filed against two of the four officers present that day. It is unclear why charges were not filed against all of the officers. Similarly, in my opinion (from what I can glean at this time), Jeremy's father's actions were deplorable and cannot be excused. I'm a parent. My kids ride places with me all the time. I will put myself out there in the interest of transparency and admit to having had a warrant before. (Having pretty severe inattentive ADHD on top of being autistic, my executive functioning is not the greatest. If you forget to attend a scheduled court date, a warrant for your arrest is issued until you reschedule, pay the fine, or take care of the matter in some way.) The last thing I would do - or have done - when stopped by the police is embark upon a chase. Because even if no one was hurt in the chase, that would frighten my kids. It's better to stop and take the arrest. Better for your kids to have to wait at the police station for a relative/friend/trusted adult to retrieve them, or even for them to be picked ip temporarily by Children's Protective Services for a few hours due to your arrest than for your kids to be traumatized by being with you while you trying to run. Chances are you won't succeed at the attempt to flee and after you are eventually apprehended after running the kids will have to watch you get handcuffed and arrested anyway; why not minimize the damage if you can?

However, from the latest articles, there doesn't seem to be evidence that there was an active warrant out for Jeremy's father in the first place. So it is even more confusing what happened between him and the police to result in a chase. So many things went wrong, and it's unclear why. But one thing IS clear, and that is, as previously stated, the cops screwed up. And IMO Jeremy's father also screwed up. Majorly. Royally. Inexcusably. 

Hypocrisy. 

A beautiful six year old is dead. Yet it already seems like yesterday's news. WTH is up with that? As a mother, my heart breaks at the murder of someone's precious son. A young boy who was little more than a baby. Jeremy was only a year older than my youngest son. And like my son (and like me) he was autistic. We have lost one of our own. His autism diagnosis might have nothing to do with his death, but it had something to do with his life. It was part of who he was, part of how he perceived and responded to the world. We don't know who or what little Jeremy could have grown up to become had he had a chance to actually live out his life. One of our people has fallen. My skin might be the color of coffee and his skin might be the color of cream, but Jeremy was - is - my brother. Where is the outrage? Why doesn't Jeremy deserve nationwide vigils in his honor and to be remembered with love? I marched for the murders of Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice, Jordan Baker, and so many others. Police violence hurts no matter what age. Aiyana Jones shouldn't have died; Kayleb Moon-Robinson shouldn't have been assaulted and handcuffed; the teen in McKinney, Texas shouldn't have been sat on; the teen in Spring Valley shouldn't have been assaulted; Jeremy Mardis shouldn't have been shot. Our children's lives cannot afford poor judgment and deadly "accidents." When is someone going to give Jeremy's life - and death - the attention it deserves? You don't have to be an adult, or a black person, or whatever stereotype people might conceive of, for police violence to hurt you. Murder doesn't discriminate. Ask the grieving family of (white) autistic David "Levi" Denham, or the grieving (white) family of James Dudley Barker, or the grieving (white) family of Ethan Saylor. Their families aren't comforted by the fact that their murdered loves ones had white skin. They want - and deserve - justice. 

I need to know that somebody in the disability community...somebody in the autistic community...more people from the anti-police violence activism community...somebody who is a freaking human being cares about the death of this child from our communities. Charges have been filed, and that's a good start. But it's not enough. Not even remotely enough. 

If Jeremy Mardis doesn't matter, then I sure as heck don't matter. And neither does autistic son nor my autistic daughter. I need to know Jeremy mattered, and matters. I need to believe that people still feel outrage when a child is unjustly killed, especially a child from my community. I need to know that even if it is not trendy or popular to care that people will care anyway. 

Will you join me in making contact with the Louisiana State Police (who is investigating the Marksville Police Department)? They need to know we are outraged. They need to know we are advocating for Jeremy to receive justice. They need to know that it is time for them to adopt an official policy banning excessive use of force and shooting into vehicles.

Please direct your concerns to Lieutenant JB Slaton (Public Information Officer, Louisiana State Police)

Phone: 225-925-6202

Thank you,
Morénike