Recently, a co-worker made a comment that continues to reverberate in my brain.
We were talking about a passage from the Acts of the Apostles that described some of the miraculous healings that St. Paul performed during his ministry. As you might expect, our conversation included on the age-old question of why we don’t see so many of these healings today. Mind you, we have seen real healings in our lifetimes, but they just don’t seem as prevalent as what is described in the Book of Acts. It was in this context that this fellow said: “Just think: if St. Paul were here today, so many people would be healed. Who knows? Maybe even your kids would be normal.”
I had an internal hiccup, but instead of addressing it I gently shifted the conversation.
Normal—It’s such a loaded word. It implies that my kids are abnormal, that they’re defective or not good enough. Now I doubt that’s what this fellow really thinks about my children. He has a history of choosing the wrong word at the wrong time. But still, the comment made me think.
Healing? No, Thanks.
First, there’s the question of healing. I said in an earlier post that I don’t pray for their healing half as much as I pray for their success in the world. Frankly, I don’t know what healing would mean for them. Autism, Aspergers, PDD-NOS—they’re all so pervasive in their effects on a person that it’s hard to disentangle the ASD from the person. Some would even say it’s impossible. It’s who they are, to the core of their personalities.
I have a very hard time imagining any of my kids without autism. I can’t fathom what they would look like. It’s not the same as if a deaf person were suddenly able to hear, or if someone were suddenly cured of cancer or diabetes. I suspect that if my kids were somehow “healed,” they would end up being different people.
Different, Not Less.
That’s the thing about ASD. It carries with it some heart-rending social challenges. It frequently causes cognitive and learning glitches as well. The brain of an ASD individual is wired differently, and that’s going to cause some deviations from a neurotypical brain. But along with the challenges and deviations come strengths and bonuses: Amazing attention to detail; very strong memory; hyper-focus; even the occasional savant expertise in an area. Not for nothing are figures like Thomas Jefferson, Wolfgang Mozart, and even Bill Gates identified as being on the autism spectrum. Heck, even Dan Aykroyd has said that he has Asperger syndrome!
Mind you, I wouldn’t complain if my six-year-old suddenly lost his tendency to melt down at the first sign of a change in plans. And it would give me great joy to see my eleven-year-old freed from her perseverations. But autism isn’t melt downs and perseveration. It isn’t anxiety and narrow focus of interest. Those are all symptoms of a broader condition: a brain that processes sensory input in atypical ways. The melt downs, anxieties, and perseverations are all the results of the core otherness of an ASD brain.
They are the results, too, of feeling the pressure to conform to other people’s expectations. It’s bad enough that so much in the world seems stacked against them. Just imagine how stressful it is to be made acutely aware of how different you are by people who misjudge you. Now add that to the already strong social anxiety that is typical for someone with ASD. And add all that to the virtual assault on the senses that many ASD folks feel when they are in an environment that they can’t control.
What Do I Want?
Asking for my kids to be “healed” of their autism would be like asking God to unmake their entire brain structure and forge a new personality. Is that really what I want for my children? Isn’t that a way of rejecting who they are and wishing they were someone else?
No, a far better approach would be to teach my kids how to make their way in a neurotypical world. I don’t want to change who they are. I want what every other parent wants: for my kids to learn how to deal with their challenges so that their natural strengths and gifts can shine.
Do you know what else I want? I want a world in which my kids, and everyone on the autism spectrum, are welcomed, respected, and appreciated for who they are and for the gifts that they bring. I want a world that understands these folks and treats them with the dignity they deserve. I want a world where they get a fair chance to show what they’re made of and to make a difference for other people.
They’re not broken. So don’t try to fix them.