Remember my story about my girl having a couple of seizures last summer? Remember my story about how hard it was for her to go to Mass during the summer? Well, the saga continues to unfold. Continue reading
Here they are: our six kids. All sitting quietly at the grotto on the campus of Mount St. Mary’s University, in Emmitsburg, Maryland. “The Grotto” (a replica of the Lourdes grotto in France) has been a place of quiet, prayer, and reflection for students and pilgrims for decades. Many were the afternoons and evenings I spent here during my college years, and I feel blessed to be able to bring my kids up here every now and then.
It’s a lovely sight, isn’t it? Anyone passing by would look at them and think nothing but warm and comforting thoughts. “What a wonderful family! They must be the most prayerful, holy, and well-behaved kids. Their parents must be awesome saints!”
Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Of course my kids are wonderful. They’re loving and kind and generous and good-natured. I’m crazy-proud of all of them. But angels? Don’t fall for it. They’re everyday kids with all of the challenges and temptations that their peers experience. They all have a checkered history of both fighting these temptations and giving in to them–sometimes very eagerly. They’re kids; what do you expect?
But they’re not just everyday kids facing everyday temptations. They’re also autistic. Every one of them. And that adds layers of complexity. This past Sunday morning was a prime example of these layers—and the reason why we ended up here.
A Familiar Drill.
Two of our kids had a tough Sunday morning. It began early for them. And by early, I mean six-o’clock early. I don’t want to go into the details, but suffice it to say that when one kid’s specific autistic traits trigger another kid’s specific autistic traits, it never ends well. And it rarely remains contained between the two kids. The disturbance spills over to at least one more, and that’s when the fun really begins.
So by the time we should have been leaving for Mass, four out of the six kids had been triggered in one way or another (another one would have been triggered too, but he just hadn’t gotten out of bed yet). With the melt downs and resulting emotional chaos, it became clear that Mass wouldn’t work. They were too keyed up, their emotions too raw. So we activated Plan B. We loaded everyone into the van, and headed for the Grotto. It wasn’t hard, either. By this time, they know the drill. They know that a quiet time in the mountains is much easier than sitting in a crowded church wondering if Dad was going to spring a pop quiz on them based on the Scripture readings for the day.
Once we got to the Grotto we did a few things. First, there was quiet time in the Grotto itself. Then, walking the path out toward the main entrance, we prayed a bit of the Rosary—but just three Hail Marys each instead of the traditional ten. Then, just off the main entrance, we stepped into the Chapel on the Hill, where we read the first reading from Mass, and I said a few words about it. That was it: forty-five minutes of God stuff. And not once did I have to deal with any major objections, melt downs or triggers. They were good as gold. Just as I had suspected.
Visions of Heaven.
I think it was significant that the passage we read (Isaiah 11:1-10) spoke about God’s desire to restore creation to its original harmony. The reading is filled with images like the wolf and the lamb living together in peace and a baby playing by a cobra’s den. It talks about there being “no harm or ruin” and about the earth being filled “with the knowledge of the Lord.”
We normally read this passage as a depiction of heaven. But during Advent, the Church plucks this vision out of the distant future and tells us that Christmas is a partial fulfillment of the promises. It tells us that we don’t have to wait until we die to find the kingdom of God. Right here, right now, we can take one or two steps closer to the kind of peace Isaiah talks about.
This is what I told the kids in the chapel. I told them that I’m not giving up on this vision, and neither should they. God has promised, and I’m going to hold him to his word. I will keep teaching and supporting and encouraging them to become the best version of themselves possible. Even if the forces arrayed against us are large and intimidating, I am still going to lean on God and his faithfulness. I am still going to do everything I can and trust that God’s plan for my family mirrors the plan described in this passage.
This may sound unrealistic or heroic, but what other choice do I have? Ours is far from a typical family. We have so many challenges distributed across so many different personalities that we would never survive without faith in a generous, loving God.
I don’t mean a generic faith. I don’t mean a naïve faith that is really an abdication of responsibility. I mean the kind of faith that lets you yell and cuss at God when things get out of hand. I mean the kind of faith that believes in God’s direct intervention in our lives—according to his inscrutable wisdom and on his unpredictable schedule. I mean stubborn, grit-your-teeth-and-believe-despite-all-evidence-to-the-contrary faith.
I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it many times in the future: I am convinced that this whole messy, beautiful, frustrating, agonizing, energizing, liberating thing is God’s doing. And so every time the challenges get too hard, or the weight feels unbearable, I know I have recourse. I can tell God, “This is the family you have given me, so I’m counting on you to give us what we need to make it through. You didn’t send your Son into the world just to tell us to pray more and try harder. So here I am. I’m waiting. Take your time if you want, but I’m not going to let you off the hook.”
I don’t know. Maybe I’m being too cheeky. Too arrogant. But this kind of prayer has gotten me through some very rough patches in the past. What’s more, it’s the kind of attitude I want my kids to have: trusting in God, but also expectant; humble before their Maker, but with the familiarity of a child to his father; accepting who they are, but never settling for a “lesser” life because of it.
In other words, I want to teach them the same kind of stubborn faith I’m learning.
I think it’s working.
Well, here we are again, on the verge of another holiday season. Warm feelings abound this time of year, and everyone feels the urge to form unusually large gatherings and consume massive portions of food and drink. There’s something about the earlier sunset and the growing chill in the air that puts people in a nostalgic, romantic mood. Either that, or thinking about the cold and darkness of death makes them want to huddle together for protection. Whatever the reason, there will be family gatherings galore over the next month or so.
And then there are the ASD families. If you know anything about autism, you know that people on the spectrum can have a hard time with sensory overload. Noises and crowds can make them shut down or act out. Or both. Changes in routine are unsettling. The different smells, tastes, and textures of a holiday meal can be overwhelming. Even when they’re surrounded by people they know and love, they’re still surrounded. And that doesn’t feel good.
All of this got me thinking about how different our family can be—and how different we may appear to people who come to visit. Mind you, most of our relatives and friends are familiar with our dynamic, but there are a few outliers. Not to mention, new friends may end up dropping by. So, with no malice or prejudgment intended, I decided to revisit and revise the guidelines I had written a couple of years ago for holiday visitors to our home.
A Field Guide to the Zanchettin Holiday Home.
Remember my post a few weeks ago about my daughter’s difficulty with getting out of the house because of her fear and anxiety? Well, something cool happened today.
Sunday mornings can be rough for my girl. She hates going to Mass now, because she’s petrified that she’ll have a seizure—and in such a formal, public place. So I’ve been letting her stay home, along with one of her brothers to keep an eye on her (no argument from the boys, of course). To make up for it, I’ve been bringing Communion to her and her brother every Sunday after Mass. I carry the consecrated Hosts back in a little pyx like the one in the picture, and we sit go sit on the back deck together. We read one of the Scripture passages from Mass, talk about it for a few minutes, pray the Lord’s prayer, and then I give them Communion. Short, sweet, to the point.
“I Don’t Want It.”
Today was different, though. She woke up deeply rattled by two separate nightmares. She had promised me that she would come to Mass today, but the nightmares did her in. There was no way she would leave the house, and there was no way I was going to push her.
So off I went to Mass with everyone else, carrying my trusty pyx in my pocket. In the Communion line, I presented my pyx to Fr. Keith and asked for Hosts for my two errant kids. I’m all too familiar with the drill, and so is he. So far, so good.
But when we got home, I discovered that my girl was too upset even to receive Communion. She was in our bedroom, curled up on the bed, her brow furrowed in fear. Her voice quavered as she begged me not to force her not to come downstairs for our weekly Communion service. “I’m just not stable now,” she said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me; my nightmares are getting worse, and I don’t want to leave your room.”
“There’s nothing wrong with praying and asking God for his help,” I said. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll feel better afterward.”
“I don’t know why, but I just can’t!”
She was nearly in tears, so I put my arm around her, and offered up a silent prayer. This was worse than I had seen in a long time, and I was at a complete loss. All I could do was hug my girl, with a “loaded” pyx in my pocket.
Ninety Short Seconds.
Then it dawned on me. Maybe the Sunday morning ritual we had established was just too intense for her today. The mere act of going downstairs, getting the Bible, and sitting on the deck was just too much for her to handle. It seemed so easy to me, but not to her. If she just stayed inert in our bedroom, she thought, nothing would change. She wouldn’t have to face her fears. She would stay safe in the little sanctuary she had built for herself.
So rather than coax her out into my world, I tried to enter hers. “I have an idea,” I said. “How about we sit right here on the bed, and I just give you Communion? We don’t have to read the Gospel. We don’t have to do anything special. Just a quick Our Father, and then you receive. Can you do that?”
“I think so,” she said.
It took all of 90 seconds, and we were done. And you know what? It made a huge difference. The anxiety faded. Her smile (a slight one, at least) returned. Her hunched shoulders relaxed, and she breathed a little easier.
The change was so dramatic that I was actually able to convince her to come on a couple of errands with me. Of course, I bribed her with the promise of lunch from McDonald’s, but her willingness to join me was still a marked contrast to how she had been just minutes before.
Now, I can interpret this episode in a number of ways. Maybe my persistence paid off. Maybe the memory of her nightmares had faded. Maybe I had chosen just the right words, and delivered them in just the right tone of voice. Maybe the good feeling she got from doing what Dad wanted softened her up.
Or maybe, just maybe, God actually worked in my little girl’s heart and calmed her fears.
This answer makes the most sense from a faith standpoint, but it also makes the most logical sense. The desperate scenario I described above was not going to change. My girl was far too anxious. The only variable that changed in the equation was the impromptu Communion service. She eased up only after she received the Eucharist—which we Catholics believe is the actual presence of Christ.
I know this sounds odd. I know it sounds like I’m trying to justify my faith. But I don’t care. As long as mini-miracles like this keep happening, I’m going to keep believing. As long as I find help and answers in prayer, I’m going to keep giving God the credit. As long as my kids can point to evidence of Jesus’ presence and his work in their lives, I’m going to go with it.
That’s why I’m keeping my pyx in my pocket.
See that picture? That’s my wife and my daughter (15) taking a walk. Oh, and our dog, Roxie. Do you know why I’m posting this picture? Not because I love these two (which, of course, I do), but because of how proud I am of my little girl. The fact that she is out on a walk shows how courageous she is.
You see, about four weeks ago, my daughter had a seizure. It was her first. Not a little tremor—a grand mal. You know, the kind where you’ve fallen to the floor convulsing, with your eyes wide open but seeing nothing. The kind where you can’t remember anything about it. The kind where you wake up as the paramedics are gently placing you on a stretcher and wheeling you into an ambulance. Terrifying stuff.
Then, ten days later, she had another one. The first one was in our house, but this one was out in public, at a food court. Again, it was a grand mal, and it lasted longer than the first one. Fortunately, I was there with her, so I knew to roll her onto her side, cradle her head, and wait it out. Again, she woke up, disoriented, to emergency personnel hovering around her.
So what does this have to do with the picture up there? Everything.
Overcoming “What If.”
Events like these would be traumatic for any adolescent girl; they can be positively paralyzing for a girl with ASD and anxiety disorder. The randomness of the seizures, the lack of memory, the waking up surrounded by strangers—it’s all so upsetting. The largest question that looms in her mind now is “What if?” What if I have another one? What if Mom and Dad aren’t around? What if it happens in front of my friends?
She’s on anticonvulsants now, and she hasn’t had a seizure in two weeks, but that doesn’t matter. The anxiety is so big, and the autistic tendency to perseverate is so strong, that the mere possibility of another event has kept her pretty much homebound ever since. She even missed an appointment with her counselor, whom she really likes.
Now do you see why this picture is so precious to me? Katie and I have convinced her that she needs to start getting out. We’re starting slowly, having her join us as we walk the dog in the mornings. And she’s doing it! She’s walking, she’s talking about everyday stuff, and she’s not perseverating over the seizures.
(The walking stick? That’s because she has mild scoliosis, and it helps her posture.)
Now take a look at this picture. Do you see that plush doll in the crook of her right arm? That’s Phantump, one of her favorite Pokémon characters. She is rarely separated from this creature, and when she is, she’s holding another one of the more than 100 she has collected over the years. They are her security blanket. They bring her comfort. They help her bridge the gap between the fantasy world she so enjoys and the real world, which is fraught with challenges and dangers.
So there’s my daughter, out in public with a walking stick and a plush Pokémon. While most girls her age are swooning over boys, preparing for their learner’s permit, and paying close attention to their appearance, here is my girl, walking to the beat of her own drum. She’s fighting her fears. She’s facing down her anxieties. She’s pushing through some things no fifteen-year-old should have to face. And she’s still standing.
There was a time when I’d object to the plush doll. “You’re a young woman now. For God’s sake, leave that thing behind!” There was a time when I’d try to force her to push through her fears more quickly than she was ready to do—usually to disastrous results. There was a time when I knew pretty much what I wanted her (and all my kids) to be, without paying too close attention to her unique personality. But if walking this autism path with my kids has taught me anything, it’s to throw away all of my expectations and to not care about how other people look at them. Those concerns were more about me than the kids, anyway.
So march on, girl! I don’t care if you need to take five Pokémon with you. I don’t care if you choose one of the most ornate, obvious, obnoxious walking sticks possible. Do whatever you need to do. Just keep moving forward. Today, it’s a walk with Mom, Dad, and Roxie. Next Sunday, it may be joining the whole family at Mass. Or maybe just part of Mass. Or maybe not yet. It doesn’t matter. Take it one step at a time, and we’ll be right there with you.
“Do you mind checking the dosage on this one? I think I put too many in the boy’s cup this morning, so I told him to take only one. I think we need to put the extra one back in the bottle”
So said my wife when I came down for breakfast, as she handed me a medicine cup.
This is how we dole out the kids’ medication. Each kid gets his or her own cup with the proper medicines at the proper dosages. Normally, this is my job every morning and evening—a job that involves taking every pill bottle out of our “apothecary box,” reading each bottle to verify who gets what and how many of each, and placing the appropriate medicines in each kid’s cup. It also involves getting out the Gatorade for the one kid who can’t handle the taste of his medicine with water, and getting out the milk for the other kid who can’t handle Gatorade or water. In the morning it also involves bringing two of the boys their medicine in bed so that it can begin working in them before they join the rest of us. Depending on how awake I am, this can take between five and ten minutes.
Well, this morning I was late coming downstairs, so Katie took over the job. Only our doctor had just changed the dosage on one of the prescriptions, and she couldn’t remember what it had changed to. Hence the extra pill.
So I sat down at the table and began my usual ritual of sorting through the apothecary box to find the right bottle so I could put the extra pill away. A few minutes later, this is what the kitchen table looked like. (For those of you not patient enough—or not anal enough—to count, that’s eighteen bottles there.)
Why eighteen? Because, in keeping with the laws of the universe, it was the last bottle in the box. It’s always the last bottle in the box. Just once, I’d like it to be the first bottle. Or the fifth. Or the eleventh. Hell, I’d be happy if it was the seventeenth. But no, it’s always the eighteenth. <sigh>
Check out this article that appears on the website of America magazine. It’s lengthy and theological, but the author, Candida Moss, makes an excellent point. She talks about how disability is viewed in the Bible, and how a misunderstanding of the Christian tradition, by overemphasizing God’s healing power, can unwittingly place people with disability on the margins.
According to Moss, many of the healing stories in the Bible can be used to “reinforce the understanding that disability is a deviation from the way God intends us to live.” In other words, disability automatically equals defect. In some cases, it also means sin—or even demonic possession. So a person with a disability is in need of a cure, someone who needs to be made different than who he or she is before gaining entry into heaven.
As a counterbalance to this interpretation, Moss asks, “Can we find ourselves as ourselves in heaven? Can the view that God loves the disabled as they are be biblically sustained?” For answers, she turns to the story of the Doubting Thomas. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to Thomas not as a completely restored person, but as one still bearing the marks of his crucifixion: “Jesus’ wounds are an integral part of his identity. It is by his wounds that he is recognized.” So “If God incarnate is known by his glorified impairments, why would we not hope for the same?”
No Cure Needed.
As I’ve written before, I have long had a strong gut reaction against the thought that you can pray the autism away. Autism is woven so finely into my kids’ identities that to take it away would be to unravel an essential part of who they are. I find it hard to believe that, in order to be made worthy of heaven, they would have to be unmade as autistic individuals. I find it hard to believe that all the things they have learned and become precisely because of their autism has little significance or value.
My kids have spent their entire lives as autistic individuals. To a large degree, autism has made them who they are. Their “otherness” has dramatically shaped the way they live, love, and function in the world. What’s more, they have taught numerous people (most especially Katie and me) valuable lessons about what it means to be human, to love, and to be loved. I would hate to think all of that has to be left behind once they enter heaven’s gates. Who would they even be then?
What Do I Want?
So what would it mean for my kids to find themselves as themselves in heaven? Here are a few things I would want to see.
I’d Change the World for You.
Now, you’ll notice that some of these bullet points focus on my kids’ own healing and others focus on the world around them. And that is as it should be. For many of the challenges that my kids face come not from themselves or their unique neurologies. They come from a world tainted by sin and in need of renewal. They come because of the “structures of sin” that promote intolerance, ignorance, prejudice, and small-mindedness.
There’s a popular meme in the autistic community that says “I would not change you for the world, but I would change the world for you.” As a parent with two eyes, I know there are things in my kids that need to change—just as there are in me. But I also know that the world they are living in can be cold, cruel, and inhospitable to people who are different. And that’s the biggest change I’m anticipating.
So yes, I want to see my kids healed, and I believe they will be—of the selfishness and fear and pride that infects all of God’s people. But I don’t want them healed of their autism. I want them to remain the same loveable, quirky, autistic people that they are right now.
After all, that’s how God made them.