In Memory of Me

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So we made it to Holy Thursday Mass yesterday again this year. It’s a pretty big deal in the Catholic Church, since it is the beginning of our Easter celebration. It’s also pretty important because on Holy Thursday we remember the Last Supper, when Jesus gave us his Body and Blood in the form of bread and wine and told us, “Do this in memory of me.”

. . . Into the Hands of Sinful Men.

I love the idea that by saying, “This is my body . . . This is my blood,” Jesus made sure he would be present to us all the time. I’ve always loved the way that the Last Supper foreshadows the cross: in both cases, Jesus gave himself into the hands of sinful men so that he could lift them up to be with him. I find it moving that Jesus continues to give himself to us—sinners though we are—every time we come together to celebrate Mass.

Now, before we get to all the autism stuff, do me (and yourself) a favor. Let this thought sink in for a moment: Jesus continues to let sinful, conflicted, duplicitous, envious, lustful, bitter, [insert sin here] people take him into their divided hearts.

Six Sacramental Signs.

All this was in my mind on Thursday as we entered the church. I was really looking forward to a deeply meaningful, spiritual experience at the church. But alas, it was not meant to be. A couple of our kids had had a rough day at school, and they brought their agitation with them to church. One had forgotten to take her ADHD medicine, so she couldn’t stop chatting with Katie, fidgeting all over the place, and trying to engage her brothers. Another was worried about a difficult test that morning, and his anxiety worsened as the Mass went on. A third just plain didn’t want to be there, and he made sure to let everyone know it.

So there I was, trying to keep the kids from boiling over, trying not to distract the people around us, feeling more than a little uncomfortable with the way we stuck out, and feeling cheated out of my time with God.

Then it hit me.

Jesus has given these children to me. He has placed them into my hands. He knows what kind of person I am. He knows my weaknesses and my faults. He knows my selfishness and my lack of generosity. He knows my impatience and perfectionism. And still he saw fit to give me six kids with special needs. Six kids who would need extra attention. Six kids who would need a creative, flexible approach to parenting. Six kids who would need extra love to help make up for the world’s lack of understanding and acceptance.

I saw this right there in the middle of Mass. These kids are also the body of Christ. They are all signs of God’s beguiling creativity. They’re signs of his maddening ability to call forth the better part of my human nature while at the same time exposing my darker parts. They’re sacramental signs who both symbolize God’s mystery and impart his grace to everyone whose hearts are open.

In the midst of their everydayness, their struggles, and the occasional banality of their lives, there is something sacred about my kids. Like the Eucharist, their simple, unassuming appearance belies their wondrous complexity and depth. And like Jesus himself, they are a sign of contradiction, especially in the way their place on the autism spectrum evokes extreme reactions, both positive and negative. Yes, they are the body of Christ, and God has placed them into my hands. Just as Jesus is placed into my hands at every Communion line.

The Divine Risk-Taker.

I don’t know that I would take such a risk if I were God. There are a lot of men who would do a lot better at this than me. But then again, God seems to be in the risk-taking business. Again, it’s like the gift of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist. Jesus knows the risks involved in giving himself to us. He knows that not everybody will accept him with the right state of heart. He knows that nobody will ever grasp just how awesome this gift is. But none of this stops him from offering himself to us. Over and over again. In love and humility. For our sakes.

In a similar way, Jesus has seen fit to entrust these six children, these six images of himself, into my hands. He knows the risks. He knows that I won’t always be worthy of the gift. He knows that I’ll never fully understand how much he has given me. Still, he has given them to me and said, “Here, I trust you.”

At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples, “If I have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet.” He also told them, “Do this in memory of me.” He says the same thing to me. Every day. Through every one of my children. In every challenge and melt down and IEP meeting and therapy appointment and sensory overload.

Wash their feet.

Do it in memory of me.

And all I can do is stand in wonder that he trusts me so much.

Happy Easter, everyone.

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 show himself to (not necessarily 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 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. 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. 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. 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 whom 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.

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.

 

Thanks, Mom

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There she is. Mom.

This picture was taken back in 1996, during one of my visits to her and Dad’s home in Sarasota, Florida. I have another picture of her from two years later that means a lot more to me. But I’m reluctant to share it because it contains our entire wedding party, and I try not to post pictures of people without their permission.

Anyhow, the story I want to tell has to do with my wedding to Katie in 1998 and the role Mom played in making it special—as well as the role she continues to play, even though she has long passed on.

A Special Wedding Gift.

Two months prior to our wedding, Mom was pretty sick. The leukemia she had lived with for years was beginning its final march on her system. We weren’t sure she would make it to the wedding. We even began looking into moving the wedding to Sarasota so she could be with us. Continue reading

Stubborn Faith in a Heavenly Vision

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A chilly morning in Emmitsburg, Maryland

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!”

Ha!

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.

Stubborn Faith.

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.

The Unfortunate Theory of “Spiritual Autism”

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So this was fun—not. Last Thursday, a Catholic blogger named Gregory Popcak posted an article titled “Spiritual Autism and the Catholic-Evangelical Divide.” In his article, Popcak describes people on the autism spectrum in the following way:

Their brains tend to see people the same way they see objects. They aren’t good at picking up or even appreciating the need for emotions and emotional cues.  In fact, the emotional demands of relationships often feel intimidating. Because of this struggle with the relational dimension of their experience, they tend to become fixated on curious hobbies and obsess over minute details.

Needless to say, I was offended by this characterization, and I found it to be demeaning of people on the autism spectrum. My children definitely do not look at Katie and me as objects. They may struggle with relationships, but not for the reasons Popcak states. If anything, the “Intense World Theory“ explains their struggles much better than the “Robot” theory he is espousing. The same goes for the many other autistic people I have come to know. They know the difference between a person and a thing, and they know how to treat people like people. Again, they may have some struggles in knowing how to relate or in regulating their emotions—causing them to shut down or retreat into their shells—but it’s not for a lack of trying.

What’s worse, Popcak uses the term “spiritual autism” to describe a certain deficiency in some Catholics’ spiritual lives—that they favor ritual and routine over relationship and interaction. That may well be the case for some, but it’s unfortunate that Popcak links this spiritual “deficit” to autism. It gives the impression that autistics aren’t capable of religious sentiment or spiritual experience. Again, it may be challenging, but it’s not impossible. (As an aside, I’m not a fan of his theological premise either. It sounds as if he is setting ritual in opposition to relationship, which isn’t wholly the case. But that’s for another time and another place.)

Yesterday, I wrote Popcak an e-mail stating my objections and asking him to either reword or remove his piece. I also posted a brief comment objecting to the article on his Facebook page. We’ll see if and how he responds. I’ll keep you posted. In the mean time, feel free to post your own comments on his page if you want. Just be sure to keep it civil and short. I don’t want to start a hate campaign against the fellow. He’s just misinformed, and a sloppy writer. He should know better than to paint with such broad—and harsh—brushstrokes.

Do They “Get” Religion?

We had quite a bit of drama last Sunday over getting the kids to church. One in particular—our second, a 12-year-old girl with Aspergers—gave us a lot of grief. First, there was the feigned illness excuse. Then there was the pulled muscle stratagem, in which she faked a sore back because she had been throwing the football with her brothers the day before. Then, when all else seemed lost, she pulled a very clever ploy: the constipation gambit. Just one minute before we absolutely had to get out the door, she ducked into the bathroom, locked the door, and protested that she really had to go, warning us that it would take a long time.

By this point, I was done. I had been working with the others, trying to get them ready, all the while fielding this girl’s anxious protests. So by the time she played her final card, I gave up and told her to stay home. I also made sure that the computers were not accessible. I may have been done, but I was not going to be anybody’s fool!

Then came the afternoon, when she was set to go to Sunday school, or CCD as we Catholics call it. She had sworn up and down all day that she would not try to get out of it, but as soon as the time came, the same old excuses came up. Only this time with far more emotion: desperation, anxiety, fear, anger, recrimination, exaggeration. You name it, she threw it at us. Again it was clear that, short of physically throwing her in the car and dragging her to class, it just wasn’t going to happen. (Note: she’s big for her age, and not all that easily moved. If I were to try the physical approach, I would likely look like an abusive dad.)

This was all so frustrating for me. This girl is getting close to her confirmation, and to this point everything related to God or faith or the Church has been a struggle. As you can guess from previous posts, I take my faith pretty seriously, and one of my highest goals is to see all my kids come to a personal embrace of their faith, just as Katie and I have. But this is probably the best picture of how this girl’s guardian angel must feel on Sundays.

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Literal Brains, Spiritual Truths.

It took me a few years to get to the point where I’m not all that surprised by this. For quite a while I tried to force my expectations on them, wondering if they would ever accept the faith that is so important to Katie and me. It’s hard to admit that this may never happen because of their ASD, but I’ve come to realize that it’s a very real possibility, if not a downright probability.

After all, teenagers on the autism spectrum tend to have a harder time with religion than their neurotypical peers. ASD kids are very concrete thinkers. Inference and abstraction are foreign concepts. So the thought of an invisible Person whose presence and influence can be detected by intuition and emotion can seem absurd. Aspies tend to be fiercely independent and unwaveringly evidence-based, so there’s not much room for faith in a brain like that. There’s not much room for the idea of submitting one’s heart and mind to an exterior, mysterious God. If my girl were in the upper room with St. Thomas, she would have outdone him in his demand to probe the wounds of Christ before believing that he had risen from the dead.

All this can make the whole idea of a religious service, whether it’s a solemn Mass or a nondenominational electric guitar-fueled gathering, extremely foreign. Then, when you consider all the sensory issues involved—incense, lots of unfamiliar people, loud music, all that sitting and kneeling and standing—it’s a melt down waiting to happen.

At times this has left me wondering if I should even bother to teach the faith to my children. Maybe it would be better just to aim for good, moral kids who stay out of trouble. If their brains are wired so differently, why pretend they’re going to “get it” anyway?

Meeting God.

But I just can’t do that. I may have to accept a different script for my children’s lives than I had intended, but I’m still not giving up. For all the trouble it can cause, and for all the creativity it can demand to get them to Mass, I still believe it’s worth it.

That’s because I believe in a God who acts—and who acts dramatically. You see, while many of my convictions about religion were formed by the Catholic intellectual tradition—I studied philosophy and theology at a Catholic liberal arts college—these convictions came to life for me because of a deep interior conversion experience.

It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that when I was a junior (32 years ago this month, in fact), I had an experience of God that was intensely personal. Everything I had learned in my brain became real to my heart, and I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was real, that Jesus loved me, and that his Holy Spirit was alive and working in my life. I felt a joy I had never known before, as well as a freedom from guilt and a new sense of purpose to life. I’m convinced that without this experience, I would have lost interest in God years ago.

That’s why I’m not giving up. I know that God is bigger than ASD. I know that he loves my kids. And if he loves them, he can’t help but want to show them his love. So I believe that somehow, somewhere, in some manner, he will do for my children what he has done for me. He’ll make himself known and touch their hearts. I don’t know when. And I certainly don’t know how. But I believe deeply that he will do it. I just have to adjust my expectations of what that will look like.

Doing My Part.

So in the mean time, I’ll keep doing what I can. I’ll keep making sure that they have the data in their minds so that when God moves, it can transfer to their hearts. I won’t try to force faith on them. And I certainly won’t get my expectations too high about their emotions or their spiritual intuitions. Where some of my friends’ older kids are beginning to own their faith, I’m not expecting my kids to do that any time soon. At this point, my main concern is to make sure that the information is there. It’s to help them feel as comfortable as possible in church. I know they may never be all that comfortable. But at least it’s a start.

So here I am doing my part. The rest is up to you, God. Good luck!

And if it never happens for them, if they never “get” the experience I had, I won’t sweat it. As I said above, God is bigger than ASD. He’s also bigger than any one model of religious experience or salvation. Even if they can simply come to accept the premises of faith and try their best to live an upright life, I’ll be happy.

Because you made them the way they are. You know who they are. And you won’t let them down.