I haven’t written directly about my son before, out of respect for his privacy. This Autism Acceptance Month, I want to share something that has weighed heavily on my heart. For the sake of readability, I’ll be calling my 3-year-old “Johnny”.
When my son was first diagnosed with autism last year, every step of the process focused on his weaknesses. Not only his raw nerves that make the world too loud and too bright. But every sparkling facet of his deep personality was pathologized.
No less poisonous was the advice given to me. That you will love your child in spite of his in-born traits. That your every moment will be spent battling his brain. Your child is a burden to be overcome, not a person to delight in.
Thankfully I have two experienced friends in my mothering group. Their sons are elementary school aged. I asked them:
“The report says everything that makes him unique is part of a disease. Am I not allowed to be happy or praise him for X, Y, and Z behavior?”
“No, no, no,” they assured me. “He is the same child today as yesterday. Love him the same.”
I have taken those as my marching orders. Wouldn’t you know, it’s opened a new treasure before me. Far from ignoring and squashing those non-harmful behaviors, I’ve observed them more closely. And out of my observations and participation in his world, I’ve grown spiritually.
Children with autism, we are told, are slaves to their own routines. Locked into their iron-clad rigidity. If a behavior or heaven forfend a series of steps is repeated, it needs to be interrupted.
Just because it’s repetitious, doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful. On the contrary. We repeat these steps over and over again, because they are important. Together they form a liturgy of love. Equally beneficial the first time as they are the hundredth time.
Sometimes I do get tired and ask for a break. But sharing in his liturgies allows me to see the beauty of patterns. They form well-worn paths of love through our days. They lend a structure to our time, and a unity of purpose to our interactions.
Before motherhood, I had no concept of contemplative prayer. I’ve always been too busy and on-the-go. Even a workshop on Lectio Divina couldn’t help me be still and meditate. My mind was ever onward to the next task on the list. Johnny threw all to-do lists out the window.
He moves at two speeds. We’re either running in constant motion, or we’re sitting motionless long enough for the ducklings to forget their fear and flop around at his feet.
Slowing my life to his speed has developed my own ability for quiet, which is the beginning of contemplation. As I bask in his talent for purposed stillness, I calm my own restless nature. He’s given me the gift of patience, of peace, and of prayer.
Love is an action, not a feeling. Pope St. John Paul II spoke countless times of a special kind of love. A love that doesn’t give chocolates and flowers. A love that allows us to share Christ’s love. A love of self-giving.
I watch Johnny practice self-giving for the sake of love every single day. Sometimes it’s in overcoming his instinctive reactions. When he wants to hit the child for looking at him, but turns the slap into a wave of welcome.
Sometimes he gives of himself in love by doing the impossible. He supposedly doesn’t have the theory of mind to engage in humor. Yet he daily makes little jokes and surprises for the joy of others.
The very meaning of the word “autism” is a morbid self-absorption. Johnny is as passionate and headstrong as any other preschooler. But self-absorbed? Hardly.
He loves me with the singular, humbling, wild love a boy has for his mother. This irresistible, inescapable love fills me and changes me. It is only a shadow, a foretaste of the awesome love of God. But it’s the best love we can give to each other this side of heaven.
Love is the mission of motherhood. This doesn’t end with a diagnosis. No child, no human person is meant to be overcome. He was not sent as a cross to bear. God knit him together this way in the womb. Johnny’s inmost being is wired differently from others’, and he’s oh-so-wonderfully made because of it. All God’s works are wonderful!