It took me a couple of days to find it, but here it is: the Vatican’s message to families touched by autism. On every April 2, World Autism Awareness Day, the Pontifical Council for Healthcare Workers publishes something like this. On one hand, we can read these official statements as little more than that—official, almost boilerplate language that can be applied to any other disability. All you have to do is swap out “autism” with “cerebral palsy” or “depression” or some other brain disorder. Or we can read these messages as words from the heart, intended to offer something personal to the ones affected by this disorder.
I choose the second option. And not just because I happen to be a Catholic. When I read Archbishop Zimowski’s words, I saw that he really does get some of the challenges of ASD and of having a child on the spectrum.
More Than Just Loss.
For one thing, he spoke of the feeling of “loss,” but also of “amazement,” that parents of ASD children can experience. And that strikes me as right. Hearing the diagnoses for my kids—one after another after another—was like a stab in the heart each time. Especially when we got the news the first time, I was stunned. “Loss” was definitely the first thing I felt. The sense that this beautiful son of ours had lost his future. The sense that my wife and I had lost any hope for having a full relationship with him. The fear that he would lose any opportunity for an independent life. And, yes, the fear that we had lost our future as a happily retired couple with no worries about our grown children.
But at the same time, there was a sense of amazement. It didn’t happen all at once. But over the next few days, as I got used to the word “autism,” I was amazed at how beautiful, loving, and genuinely happy my boy was. (Mind you, he was only three years old at the time, and every kid at that age is really cute. But still. . .) I was amazed at how much more my heart went out to him. I was amazed at how deeply he could respond to me, even though he had yet to speak a word and at times appeared lost in his own world. I was amazed that, even in the midst of my loss, I never thought it was completely hopeless. Somehow I knew that God had our boy in his hands and that a path would open up before him over time. And slowly, through therapy, our own understanding and advocacy, and a growing awareness about ASD in the broader world, I am beginning to see this path—for him as well as for his other ASD siblings. Finally, and most important, I am amazed at how much these kids show us the face of Christ.
The other thing that Archbishop Zimowski speaks about is the sense of solidarity that the Church feels with people on the autism spectrum and their families. It’s a pledge to walk with us, alongside of us as brothers and sisters. Not in a patronizing, pitying way but as our peers who see the value, the beauty, and the vital role of those struggling with this disorder. This, I think, is one of the greatest gifts that the Church can give to families like ours. In a world that tends to assess people’s worth based on their material contribution to society, the Church is telling us that our kids offer something just as important, if not more so. I wrote about this just a few days ago, and it has been sticking in my mind ever since.
The good archbishop knows he cannot offer expert help. He knows he doesn’t understand our challenges half as clearly as we parents do. But he also knows that we don’t expect that from him, or from the Church as a whole. We’ll find the experts elsewhere. We’ll find the clinical help we need from, well, clinicians, not priests or bishops. As Peter told the lame man, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give to you: In the name of Jesus, stand and walk.”
We may not find therapy in the Church, but we will find acceptance. We know we will find people who can see our kids in the same way they see every other child: as a gift and a mystery. Of course, this doesn’t always happen. No parish is perfect, after all. But that’s what makes these words so much sweeter. We know we belong. We have the words to prove it. And we have the Spirit behind the words to remind us whenever we feel otherwise.
So on behalf of Katie and my kids, I’d like to say “Thank you” to Archbishop Zimowski for his message. I’d also like to say “Thank you” as well to Pope Francis, who in just the few weeks since his election has done so much to show the world what solidarity really looks like. And I’d like to say “Thank you” to every priest and parishioner who has ever welcomed us and shown us the love of Christ.