Outcast by Association

Jesus and the Leper

This kind of thing happens a lot, but I don’t often share it in this forum: a passage from Scripture or an insight from prayer will speak directly to my life as an autism dad. This time, it’s an insight that came from the Scripture readings at Mass today (Sunday, February 11). So, having explained the spiritual nature of this post—at least the beginning of the post—let me move ahead.

First, the Story.

Today’s Gospel reading was the story of Jesus healing a leper. It’s in Mark 1:40-45. The man, somewhat timidly, says to Jesus, “If you will it, you can make me clean.” Jesus, in reply, touches the man and says, “I do will it; be made clean.” And the man was healed.

But then Jesus tells the man to keep this miracle quiet—only to tell the priests, who had the power to release him from his exile and allow him to return to his home, his family, and the synagogue. So what does the man do? He goes around telling everyone what Jesus did.

Mark tells us that because of the man’s excitement and loose lips, “it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places.” By touching the infected flesh of a leper, Jesus became ritually unclean, just as the leper had been. And because this fellow spread the news, everyone knew what Jesus had done. He was now barred from entering any town or village. He couldn’t even go visit his mother back in Nazareth.

A Simple Choice.

Okay, so that’s the story. Here’s what hit me: Willingly (I do will it), Jesus took upon himself the isolation that had been this unfortunate man’s lot. The ritual uncleanness had passed from the leprous man to Jesus, so Jesus could no longer be around other people any more. He might infect them as well. And without a peep, he accepted the consequences of this action. Knowingly, by his own actions, he placed himself under the judgment of the law.

What I found interesting is the simple, unassuming way that Jesus did this. There were no recriminations against the upholders of religious purity. No sense of superiority over those who enforced the law with no regard for the people they were condemning. No protest against the unfairness or extreme nature of the judgment. He quietly accepted the verdict, even though it was unjust. He willingly became an outcast so that this fellow could be reunited with his family and friends.

Outcast by Association.

There’s a parallel here for my life as an autism dad. Over the years, I have had countless meetings with teachers, administrators, school psychologists and school counselors. Along with Katie, I have pushed and pulled, schmoozed and confronted, plotted and pleaded to get my kids the help they need. I have even gotten one teacher fired and another demoted because of the way they worked (or failed to work) with my kids.

As you might expect, I have become persona non grata in a few schools over the years. I have been identified as that dad on more than one occasion. One assistant principal became very adept at not returning my calls or e-mails. A teacher once told me, “You know, not everyone is cut out for school” as an attempt to keep me from pushing for help for my son. Another administrator grew so weary of my advocating that all sense of comity shriveled up, and every communication became unnaturally stiff and formal. It’s as if I had become an outcast myself.

I’ve done all of this so that my children could be more welcomed into the community of their classmates and into the community of learners that is their right. Of course, I’m willing to do it. I’d do anything to make sure my kids get every chance to succeed.

But before you get the idea that I’m a hero—or that I think I’m a hero—let me give some perspective.

Parting Ways with Jesus.

As I said above, Jesus became an outcast willingly. There was no bitterness in his heart against those who judged him. He felt no recrimination against the people who barred him from entering their towns. He held no judgment against his judges. There was only concern for the ones who had been excluded and demonized. He even forgave the people who crucified him.

I, on the other hand, can give in to the very same us-versus-them mentality that I have railed against when it is aimed at my children. I can issue harsh judgments about their teachers’ ignorance, blame the school administrators for their callousness, and even issue a blanket condemnation of all the neurotypicals around us—everyone, that is, except my close friends who, of course, get it.

So this is where Jesus and I part ways. Jesus feels just as badly for the people who do the judging as he does for their victims. In his eyes, everyone is a victim. They may be victims of the structures of sin in the world that convince people that they get ahead by pushing other people down. Or they may be victims of the structures of sin in their own hearts that make them demonize the “others” around them—the attitudes of rivalry and animosity that lurk inside everyone’s heart. Or, most likely, they are victims of a mixture of both.

It Starts with Me.

Of course, I will never be as pure or humble as Jesus. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. I don’t want my kids to grow up with a victim complex. I don’t want them to grow up bitter at the world. I don’t want them to develop some perverse sense of superiority to the “haters” and “judgers” out there.

It starts with me. Children learn what they live, so I need to create an environment of openness and generosity in our home. I need to model forgiveness and understanding. And because my kids can have a hard time grasping social cues and relationships, I need to be as clear and patient as possible.

This, I think, is one of the most important lessons I can instill in them. Because no matter where they go or what they do, they’ll always stand out. Maybe not all the time, and maybe not a lot, but they will. It’s inevitable; they’re too different not to. And no matter how much progress we make as a society, there will always be people who don’t understand. People who treat different people as lesser people. People who write them off. Even people who turn them into scapegoats.

If I can teach my kids to forgive and not judge, they will develop into men and women people will want to be around. They’ll find their communities, their homes, their tribes—places where they can thrive and make a difference.

It starts with me. But then again, it really doesn’t. It started with Jesus. He set the tone. He showed the way. And by his grace, I can too.

Random Thoughts during a Meltdown

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• It’s only a video game. Why can’t he see that? He has a lot of others; he doesn’t need to play this one.

• Why would his older brother forbid him to play this game? “It’s mine. I bought it with my own money, and I don’t want anyone else using it.” This is such a hard policy to enforce when you are one of six children. But he seems oblivious to how much anguish he’s putting his brother through. That part of the equation doesn’t enter into his calculations.

• Ah, the two-edged sword of autism! Perseveration and emotional dysregulation on the one hand (the younger brother), and a cold, hard adherence to fact and logic on the other (the older brother).

• The poor kid! He can’t stop crying. I know I shouldn’t talk yet. Just keep rubbing his head and let him get it all out. Still, there are so many things I want to tell him. Even once he does calm down, there are still a few things I’ll have to keep to myself. Like my fear that he may never find a way to take control of his own emotions. Like my reluctance to think about the kind of future he may have if he doesn’t work through this stuff.

• Okay, so we’ve been up here in my room for, what? Nearly thirty minutes. Dinner is getting cold, and I’m hungry. But this boy needs help. He was yelling at everyone, throwing things, and shouting me down every time I tried to calm him down. Now he’s just crying quietly, bemoaning his fate and asking why his brother has to be so mean to him. Give him a few more minutes, and he might shift a little more.

• You know, meltdowns are curious things. You can’t just say, “Oh, he’s just having a meltdown; he’ll be back to normal in a few minutes.” I used to say that, but I don’t think it’s fair—to him or to me.

—It’s not fair to me because it keeps me trapped in the mode of thinking that this isn’t his “normal,” that these are just aberrations to be endured when they crop up. Kind of like when you get the flu once every few years. So every time this happens, it takes me by surprise. “Where did this come from?” As if I didn’t know. And that makes it all the more draining emotionally.

— It’s not fair to him because I’m not helping him learn how to deal with these things. He’s getting older now—he’s into his adolescence—and he’s going to have to start figuring himself out. I can’t be there to hold him every time something goes wrong. He needs to learn how to stand on his own two feet. But it doesn’t occur to me until we’re in the middle of a meltdown. Then, it’s too late to make any progress.

— It’s also not fair to hold him to expectations that he cannot fulfill. That will only make him feel guilty and inadequate.

—At the same time, his oldest brother has been through a lot of these behaviors and has come out the other end. Granted, he is not as severely affected by ASD, but still he is leveling off. I wish I knew what the future holds for this child of mine!

• This is who he is. At least for right now. Meltdowns are part of his make-up, not just random things that descend upon him. He is autistic, and that means he will get overwhelmed. He will take things too literally. He will get overwrought over issues we consider minor. He may never get over it. Maybe he will, but it’s not a sure thing. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. How can I help him right here, right now? And tomorrow and the next day, how can I teach him?

• Okay, now he’s moving into quiet, occasional sobs. He may be ready to talk. Maybe I can walk him through what happened so that he can get just a little bit smarter, just a little more self-aware. “What do you think, son? Can we talk about this?”

• Dammit! That made him begin crying again. I wish I knew how to read him better. I hate being the one to push him over the edge. Not because dinner is still waiting—stone cold by now—but because this is only going to make him feel worse about himself.

• Back to his older brother. What should I do about him? I know if I talk to him about sharing and being generous, he’ll use his [flawed] logic and his [unnecessarily] strict sense of right and wrong to push back. And when he pushes back, he really pushes back. If I don’t address this, he’ll lose another opportunity to learn how to understand other people and their emotions.And I’m getting tired. And really hungry. How far do I push him? How can I reach him and help him think with his heart as well as with his brain?

• Oh wait, the boy is coming around. He was hunched over himself on the bed; now he has unwrapped himself and is lying down with his head on my chest. Progress! I don’t have to keep rubbing his head now. I can just grasp his hand and give it a reassuring squeeze.

• “It’s going to be okay, son. Don’t worry; I’m not mad at you. Are you ready to go down and have dinner? Yeah? Okay, let’s get something to eat.”

• Well, the fries are cold now, but at least the BLT is still okay—it’s a sandwich, after all. There he is, quietly eating. His brothers and sisters have already left the table. Now it’s just him and Katie and me. She calls him over and gives him a big hug. He smiles, somewhat sheepishly. She speaks words of consolation and encouragement to him. God, I love her! She is so good at mopping things up.

• Now he comes over to me, wraps his arms around me, and doesn’t let go. God, I love this kid! Whatever happens—meltdowns or no meltdowns, the future be damned. Right here, right now, I love my son. Just like I loved him when he was crying. Just like I loved him when he was throwing his fidget spinner across the room. Just like I’ll always love him. No matter what.

A Perplexing Plethora of Plushes


With great pride, she posts this picture on Facebook, reveling in her massive collection of Pokémon plushes.

I see the post, and all I can think about is the anxiety, conflict, tension, and melt-downiness related to these infernal creatures.  

• The extra backpack stuffed with as many as possible to help her make it through a school day. 
• The destruction she has wrought to other kids’ plushes in order to fashion her own copycat creations.

• The often tear-filled way she has obsessed over the next plush that she absolutely, positively has to obtain within the next few days.

• The huge mess she has created in her bedroom because she needs all these creatures around her when she sleeps–and she needs them to be in a heap, not in some orderly grouping.

However . . .

• She sees the post as a way of celebrating her best friends and most constant companions.

• She has found countless hours of consolation with these plushes. Especially in times of stress and fear.

• These creatures have helped her maintain a good portion of her innocence and childlike nature well into her teenage years.

• They have sparked many a creative story-telling session. Granted, the stories exist in her mind and are rarely shared with other people. Still, the creativity abounds.

• She knows that she’s different from most of her peers, and she suspects that these creatures will always keep her company, no matter how many or how few her human friends are.

• For better or for worse, each of these plushes plays an important role in her life.

So here we are. I love this child like mad. She has pried open my brain in ways I could never have imagined. And the wedges she has used are often these soft, cuddly, beguiling, bedeviling . . . things.

Pray for Us Sinners . . .

My little girl (10) was having a rough time at Mass this morning. Anxiety about other family members’ struggles became too much, and she couldn’t get seem to stop the negative thoughts. Misperceptions and anxieties then led to her acting out in an angry/sad combination that had begun to wear me down as well. She feels everything so deeply that it’s like she takes on everyone else’s burdens.

But then halfway through the Mass, she asked if she could go to the back of the church, where a little alcove dedicated to the Virgin Mary is (pictured above). “I can’t stand being here,” she snapped.

“Only if you promise to come back,” I said. I didn’t want her just wandering around back there. She grunted in assent, and stomped off. She loves drama.

While she was gone, I took the opportunity to try to reset myself in prayer. Heart rate came down. Breathing became more regular. Lumpy throat diminished. A good start.

Five minutes later, as the homily was wrapping up, she came back. Stepping lightly. Smiling. She gave me a big hug and said she was sorry. The rest of the Mass passed uneventfully. Peacefully, even. I felt another lump in my throat, but this one was okay.

After Mass, I asked her what she did in the back of the church. “I just sat there for a few minutes and looked at the statue of Mary.” Innocent. Matter-of-fact. No drama.

“Do you know what happened?” I asked.

“What?”

“You went to Mary, and she prayed for you. She prayed with you. And Jesus answered her prayers and yours. How else can you explain the dramatic change?”

“I guess you’re right,” she shrugged. Then she went off to grab a donut—as if nothing had happened.

Everything Happened.

Now, it would be easy to attribute my girl’s change to her taking a break. It would make sense if you wanted to say that getting away from her siblings and changing her environment was all she needed to do her own reset. But the change in her demeanor was so dramatic that this can’t be the only answer. Not to mention how little time it took for her to turn around.

Besides, as a Catholic I believe in the Communion of Saints and the special role that Mary plays as our spiritual Mother. In fact, many are the Rosaries I have prayed asking for her maternal intervention in my kids’ lives. And on more than one occasion I have experienced blessings from her myself.

That’s the thing about faith. It doesn’t need to “disprove” the other explanations that may be out there. It’s not as if it’s a zero sum game, where you have to ascribe everything to either psychology or spirituality. Faith is capacious, generous, encompassing. It’s also humble. It doesn’t feel threatened when other possible answers are put forward. The Bible may describe God as a “jealous” deity, but this is not the kind of jealousy it’s talking about.

Every special-needs parent has to find the best way to help his or her children and to deal with the unique challenges that he or she faces. As for me, I can’t imagine walking this road if I didn’t have recourse to prayer. I can’t imagine being left with only medical, psychiatric, and pharmacological answers. If my kids have taught me anything, it’s that there’s more to them than the sum of their various material parts. There’s a longing to belong. There’s a drive toward unity and community. There’s a capacity to love and to receive love that goes beyond simple reciprocity. There’s a “fittedness” for heaven that I can see in their eyes.

So it makes perfect sense that when my girl went to spend time with Mary, Mary spent time with her. And prayed for her. And blessed her.

My girl may not think that much happened during those five minutes. But I know that everything happened.

Both to her and to me.

 

Good Golly, Miss Molly

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See that little ball of cuteness on the left? No, no, not the cat. The little puppy in my daughter’s lap. That’s Molly, the latest addition to our household. (For those of you who are keeping count, that makes 6 kids, 5 cats, 2 dogs, and 1 fish. That’s right; our four-legged children now outnumber our two-legged children.)

Why another dog? Because we like chaos, that’s why. At least, that’s what more than a few people must be thinking right now. But there’s a method to our madness. Molly is going to be our family’s therapy dog. We had been toying with this idea for a number of years, but recent events have convinced us that having a therapy dog is more than just a neat idea. It’s a necessity. Too many of our kids are dealing with anxiety and depression in addition to their ASD. Too many of them find emotional regulation a challenge. Too many of them lead too isolated a life and need help in getting out of themselves.

Molly is a mix between a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and a Cocker Spaniel. That means that she is pretty smart (Cocker), but also a love bug (Cavalier). It means that she will be perfectly content to sit in your lap for hours on end (Cavalier), but she will also love a good romp around the back yard (Cocker). Our hope is that we will be able to train her to recognize when one of our kids is getting too agitated, and feel free to go over to him or her and offer comfort and friendship. We also want her to sense when one of our kids needs a warm, affirming cuddle. And, of course, we want her to not pee in the house.

This is much more than sit, heel, and roll over. Our goal is to get Molly to the point where she can wear a vest and be recognized as an “emotional support” animal. We want to be able to take her out in public, bring her into stores, and even get approval for her to accompany one of our kids to school. So there’s a good deal of work to be done.

Of course, none of us is an expert in training puppies. Which means we’re going to need some serious help. Fortunately, Katie found a married couple who have experience working with kids on the autism spectrum and their dogs—and they’re willing to come into our home to train both the dog and us. This is so important. Training out on a farm or in the middle of a PetSmart can only go so far. Molly will have to become very comfortable performing her job in our home, and it will help our kids immensely if they learn about Molly in their own environment.

Oh, and these trainers are going to work with our older dog, Roxie, too. (That’s her below.) According to them, Roxie is going to train Molly as well, even as she gets some training herself. After all, she speaks dog! So by the end of the training—months and months from now—we’ll have two support dogs.

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So stay tuned. I’ll be giving you updates every now and then. Besides, she’s so cute!

A Down-Under Politician Looks Down on “Those People”

Pauline Hanson Australia

A troubling report from Down Under. Have a look at this article about Pauline Hanson, a senator from Queensland, Australia. In it, she argues, quite inelegantly, for students with autism to be separated from their peers and placed into self-contained classrooms. Why? Because these students are “holding back” the other students who want to learn.

Below are three quotes from her address on the matter, followed by three comments—all of which should be painfully obvious, but apparently are not. At least not yet.

  1. “Most of the time the teacher spends so much time on them they forget about the child who wants to go ahead in leaps and bounds in their education, but are held back by those.”

As if children with autism don’t want to get ahead or are incapable of making leaps and bounds of their own. They deserve more than to be “looked after.” Please don’t assume they are incapable of anything more than this. They’re not burdens needing routine maintenance or looking after.

  1. “It’s no good saying we have to allow these kids to feel good about themselves and we don’t want to upset them and make them feel hurt.”

What a cruel mischaracterization! This comment reveals an ignorance that is both embarrassing and unacceptable in a public official. I have no doubt that parents of autistic children want more for their kids than that they feel good about themselves. Like all parents, they want their children to receive an education, to develop their skills and gifts, and to know they can make a real contribution.

  1. “We need to get rid of those people because you want everyone to feel good about themselves.”

Well, at least her office later clarified that “those people” referred to “do-gooders” demanding autistic children remain in mainstream classrooms. But my sigh of relief was cut short when I realized that she was still talking about “getting rid of” some nuisances and who may be threatening the status quo. Again, the condescending language of exclusion, elitism, and overweening power. As if you can get rid of any parent.