The Pyx in My Pocket

 

Pyx

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.

A Mini-Miracle.

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.

Dreaming of Heaven

Simpsons Heaven

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 want them to be able to appreciate the world for the beautiful work of creation that it is. I want them to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells, the tastes and textures, of everything around them. And that means I want them to feel free to flap their hands, jump up and down, or react however they want to the beauty that will surround them.
  • I want them to be able to enjoy a quiet walk in the woods and not get scared by the rustlings of a busy forest. I want them to revel in the feel of sand between their toes and delight in the sound of the crashing waves—not run in terror of them.
  • I want them to feel free to share their unique, quirky insights without being mocked or marginalized. Heck, I want them to be free to share, period, and not be so anxious about communication that they can’t put a complete sentence together.
  • I want them to no longer feel the need to lash out or clam up or hurt themselves when they get overwhelmed. Or better yet, I want them not to ever have to feel overwhelmed again.
  • I want them to enjoy a world that accepts and treasures them for who they are. A world that doesn’t judge or sideline them because they are different. I want them to be in an environment where they don’t have to feel constrained or threatened by unnecessary expectations. A world where they can lose their anxiety over fitting in.

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.

A Breach of Trust at The Mount

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Take a look at this article from The Washington Post. It covers a controversy that has been roiling the campus of my alma mater, Mount St. Mary’s University, in Emmitsburg, MD, for the past few months. It seems that the newly-installed president initiated a survey for all freshmen to take early in their first semester. It was presented to the students as a way of helping them get to know themselves better as they transition from high school to college, and to help them understand better “the person you are and could become.” Fair enough. Everyone likes taking personality inventories and surveys like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It’s helpful to know what instruments like this tell you as you begin your academic career.

Only that’s not what the survey was really about. It was designed to help the university identify which students were at the greatest risk of dropping out so that administrators could encourage these students to leave early in the semester. And it was done in the hopes of boosting the school’s retention rate, thereby getting it better ratings in places like the US News ranking. The information in the survey was meant to be shared and discussed, not just scored and returned to the students for them discuss with their advisors.

Probing, Inappropriate Questions.

Now, the misrepresentation of the survey’s purpose is bad enough, but what’s worse is the fact that some of the questions are one-sided and not really related to its stated goal. Have you experienced a death in the family in the past year? Are you taking on major student loans? I don’t see how questions like these can help the students come to know themselves better.

But wait—it gets worse. An entire section of the survey is dedicated to the student’s mental health. They are asked how strongly they identify with statements like: In the past week . . . I felt depressed. I felt that people disliked me. I thought my life had been a failure. These are very personal questions, and the students should never be asked to divulge this kind of information—especially in a survey that is not kept confidential. They are also asked if they think they are calm and emotionally stable. Can they be trusted with money? Are they a hard worker? Have they been obsessed with a certain idea or project and then lost interest?

Then comes the final indignity. The closed-ended section of the survey ends with a question that comes out of the blue: Do you have a learning disability?

Seriously?

A Breach of Trust.

The best word I can find to describe the survey and its intended use is repugnant. Targeting for removal students who report feeling unstable is bad enough, but then expecting them to divulge whether they have a learning disability crosses several lines.

First, a student with a disability has the right not to disclose that disability to the school. At all. Ever. It is no one else’s business except the student’s—and anyone to whom he or she wishes to reveal it. It’s like Federal HIPAA guidelines; this information is protected by law.

Second, if a student does disclose a disability, the school is obligated to work with that student to determine the appropriate “academic adjustments” that will ensure that he or she is given an equal education opportunity. While not as stringent as the IEP process for elementary and high school students, the Americans with Disabilities Act lays out specific requirements for colleges—at least for those colleges, like Mount St. Mary’s, that accept government funding.

Finally, the school is obligated to keep this disclosure confidential. A teacher may not tell other teachers or students without the student’s permission. An advisor may not tell the president or dean. Again, it’s up to the student to decide who should know and to inform the appropriate people.

Elite Enclaves?

What is disturbing in this story is the implication that someone with a learning disability doesn’t belong in college. Or that someone struggling with anxiety or depression should drop out. It turns colleges—especially small, private ones like The Mount—into enclaves for the elite and privileged, for the well-adjusted and socially savvy.

But there are plenty of people with disabilities and disturbances who are more than capable of succeeding in higher education. What’s more, plenty of these people have the potential to go on and do great things with their lives—and great things for the people around them. Robin Williams comes to mind. So does Theodore Roosevelt. Or Charles Shulz. And, of course, Temple Grandin.

Not to mention, the presence of students who “deviate from the norm” is a great gift to any campus. Not to get too maudlin, but students like these challenge their peers’ assumptions and prejudices. They redefine the word “ability” for their teachers. They are a humanizing influence, opening people’s minds and hearts at a time in their lives when they are making crucial decisions about the kind of person they want to be.

I have children who would absolutely bomb on this survey, but who are earning As and Bs in high school. How would they fare? Or worse, what would they think of themselves when asked all of these questions? I hope they would have the common sense to either lie or leave them unanswered. I would be thrilled if they had the courage to challenge the whole thing and refuse to answer a single question. But I don’t know how they would respond. I can’t help but think of how questions like the ones above could convince someone that he or she really doesn’t belong . . . when it’s just not the case.

Praying for a Turn-Around.

I spent four wonderful years at The Mount. I graduated Summa Cum Laude and went on to earn a masters degree and pursue a meaningful, successful career in Catholic ministry and publishing. Much of that I owe to the education I received there and to the spirit of camaraderie and Christian charity I experienced there. But the first semester of my freshman year was hell. I was homesick and depressed. I felt overwhelmed by the work load. I started off in a dorm room with obnoxious, mean-spirited roommates. I didn’t know how to navigate the social mores of a college campus. It took me a while to adjust, to find my niche, and to settle in. Once I did adjust, however, there was no stopping me.

I would have failed that survey; I would have been encouraged to leave. But that didn’t happen. There were enough faculty and upperclassmen who knew how to help freshmen like me find their way. They embodied the best of The Mount—and the best of the Catholic faith. It saddens me deeply to see this happening at an institution that means so much to me. I can only pray that things will turn around soon.

No Rules, New Rules, One Rule

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So last night, the Fourth of July, held a minor victory as our oldest kid did pretty well facing his fear of fireworks. All the kids did pretty well, in fact, with each one showing a little more improvement in the sensory processing realm. Plus, they got to stay up later than usual. Mind you, we didn’t go anywhere for fireworks. We’re just talking about the small-time crackers and roman candles that some folks in the neighborhood set off. Still, progress is progress.

Anyway, this morning we ended up paying for the late night and the extra stimulation. As we were trying to get everyone ready for Mass, we were presented with two very strong tantrum-melt downs from two different kids, one stubbornly tired kid who could barely keep his eyes open, and another one exceedingly anxious about the her siblings’ potentially bad behavior in church.

We tried to roll with it. We really did. But after a while we realized that Mass just wasn’t going to work. It was too risky. So we played hooky. Sort of. Rather than go to our local church, which is only a half-mile away, we loaded everyone in the van and drove twenty miles to Mount St. Mary’s University–my alma mater of a Catholic college.

A Mini Pilgrimage.

The van is a safe zone. Each of them can enter their own world, whether by staring out the windows or by putting on their head phones and listening to music or by taking a quick nap. It’s one way to help them press the reset button, and that’s pretty much what happened. By the time we arrived, they were doing better. Not great, but better.

We spent about an hour there, walking the nearly empty campus and visiting the Grotto, which is a replica of the shrine to the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, France. We ended with a visit to the grotto chapel, where I had the kids sit as quietly as possible for as long as possible (5 minutes) and told them to try to pray. Then we read the Gospel reading they would have heard if they had gone to Mass, I said a few words about it, and we left. Nothing big. Nothing dramatic. And no other people around.

The kids did pretty well overall. We did have to deal with some sensory issues and low-level anxiety. And our toe-walker started to complain about pain in his legs from all the uphill walking. But I was glad that they got the message that Sunday is more than just another day. It’s still the Sabbath. It’s still the day that we honor God as a family. They saw that the alternative to missing Mass isn’t a free pass to video games.

A New Rule Book.

I don’t like skipping Mass. I really enjoy the closeness to God that I feel there. And for the most part, I can see how it helps the kids. But as far as I could see, there really wasn’t an alternative.

This is one thing that I’ve learned again and again as an autism parent: you have to learn to live by a different set of rules. It seems that everything we do—from church services to school, to recreation to family gatherings—we do differently. And there are times that we have to throw out even our modified rule book. But that’s okay. Because the only rule that really matters is this: Love and accept your kids where they’re at, and they’ll be more likely to follow where you want to lead them.

A Wibbly-Wobbly Ball of . . . Stuff

Wibbly-Wobbly Ball

Before we start, take a look at this very short clip from Doctor Who, in which The Doctor explains the true nature of time. Trust me, it does relate.

That was pretty good, wasn’t it? Now for the explanation.

In a recent blog post, ASD guru and Aspergers role model John Elder Robison tackled the use of terms high-functioning and low-functioning when it comes to describing people with autism. Here’s what he said:

Much has been written about calling people high functioning or low functioning. With all respect to you and your situation, I don’t do it anymore and I suggest you don’t either.

It’s not accurate, and it’s degrading. . . . Suggesting that “you’re a real high functioning autistic” feels to me a lot like “you talk pretty good for a retard.” People say the former to me all the time today, and they said the latter to me quite a bit 50 years ago. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now.

Robison then goes on to talk about how dividing people up based on their “functioning” status misses the point of how autism works:

We now know that our functional level changes with time and other factors. As bright and capable as someone like me can seem, I can have meltdowns during which I become essentially nonfunctional and have no more usable intellectual capability that someone with an IQ of 70. It’s true that is not a lasting condition for me, but it happens, and when it does I would just as soon not be stigmatized for it.

As I said in my last post, my kids are showing me that autism can shift and swirl over time. Not for nothing is it called a developmental difference. It’s a matter of how and when a person develops social, cognitive, and communication skills. Some people develop more slowly or more unevenly than others. Some have persistent, nagging glitches in their development that affect them throughout their lives, while others overcome some challenges as they mature—only to find new challenges crop up. For many, it’s a mixture of both permanent and emerging attributes. So it’s awfully simplistic to reduce such a complex thing as autism to a question of high or low functional skills.

Forget the Spectrum.

But I want to go one step further. I want to suggest that along with abandoning the high- versus low-functioning distinction, we should scrap the image of a spectrum altogether. When we use this term, we evoke a kind of linear gradation, with some people lower down, or farther back, on the scale than others. But one problem with this approach is that people are assigned their place on that spectrum according to different criteria. Is it IQ? Is it verbal communication? Is it eye contact? Social skills?

Someone with limited verbal skills may well have an off-the-chart IQ. Or someone who can appear gregarious and outgoing in public may be masking significant social struggles, only to melt down in private. Where would you place each of these people on the spectrum? How would you decide? And most important, what purpose does it serve?

The Autism Ball.

Rather than talking about a spectrum, I’d like to suggest we talk about a sphere—a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, autism . . . stuff. There’s no low or high end. There’s no up or down or forwards or backwards. You just happen to be somewhere on that sphere, and your fellow autistics are somewhere else on it. No one is farther along than anyone else. No one is of greater value than another because he or she is “higher functioning.”

This is why I like the Doctor Who clip. It paints the picture of time, or in this case autism, as something that isn’t static but full of life and energy. And that makes it unpredictable: wild and mysterious, wonderful and dangerous.

So let’s imagine a ball that contains all the possible symptoms and manifestations of autism, all wibbling-wobbling around. Things like hand flapping, mind blindness, rigid thinking, sensitivity to loud noises, toe-walking, perseveration, narrow focus of interest. Imagine that ball also containing the comorbid conditions connected to autism: OCD, depression, ADHD, ODD, etc. Finally, imagine that this ball contains the positive traits of autism: laser focus, attention to detail, unflinching objectivity, a quirky imagination, a strong sense of justice, and an innate innocence.

Now, imagine your own ASD profile as a line running through the ball in one end and out the other end. As that line travels through the ball, it intersects with the various ways your autism manifests itself—not all of the traits, just the ones particular to you. No two lines are in exactly the same place, and no line is in a better position than another. They’re just there, marking out their own individual quirks and challenges, strengths and gifts.

High? Or Low?

All of this theorizing has a point. In an earlier post, I described how misleading the term “mild autism” can be. I gave some examples from my own kids of how difficult things can be for them, even though they would be considered high-functioning. As Robison said, people with high-functioning autism still have autism, and it still affects them profoundly.

We recently went through a rough patch with one of our kids, in which we saw just how much he keeps things hidden inside of himself, especially his awareness of how different he is and how hard it is for him to feel like he fits in. But on the outside, he presents as a clever, quick-witted, amiable boy. So while he seems very high-functioning, a lot of “low-functioning” stuff is going on underneath the surface: depression that can keep him in bed for two days straight, lack of empathy, misunderstanding of other people’s emotions, learning glitches, and an inordinate need for physical stimulation. He can navigate the outside world, but only for a time. Then he shells up when he’s home or alone. Where would you place him on the spectrum? Is he low-functioning or high-functioning?

Then there’s another one of my boys. You need only five minutes with him to “see” the autism: his odd gait, his lack of eye contact, his unusual speech patterns, his stimming, and his tendency to disappear within himself for a time. But hidden behind all of these quirks and tics is a very intelligent, sensitive child with keen insights into his own behavior and the people around him. Where does he fit on the spectrum? In the higher-functioning part of the line? Or the lower? Why?

Get on the Ball!

Mind you, most of this is irrelevant to me. I just look at them as my kids, with all of their strengths and weaknesses, their beauty and awesomeness, and work with each of them based on who they are. But it does make a difference in the universe outside of our home. It makes a difference when I attend IEP meetings or when I have to explain some unusual behavior to a friend or neighbor. It also makes a huge difference in the way society treats people with autism. If you’re a Bill Gates kind of autistic, you are given as many opportunities as you want. But if you’re nonverbal or if you’ve got some other trait that people might call low-functioning, you’ve got fewer chances to show just how awesome you are and what you can accomplish. And that’s sad, because you risk accepting a bleaker narrative about yourself and your potential than if you were given the opportunity to shine.

If we can get away from defining people based on their so-called levels of functionality, we can get closer to seeing each person as a precious individual with his or her own unique set of talents. We will stop assigning each person a value based on what he or she “contributes” to society. Each person is a gift, and you don’t assign a value to a gift based on its usefulness. You treasure it for what it is: a token of love from the One who gave it to you.

So get off the line and get on the wibbly-wobbly ball!

Dispelling the Cloud, Removing the Chip

Oriole

So I was out of town a couple of weeks ago at a meeting of the Catholic Biblical Association. It’s an annual gathering of biblical scholars that I attend as an “associate” member—someone who isn’t really a scholar but who works with the Bible on a regular basis and who would benefit from hearing research reports from the full members. One of the things I enjoy about this gathering is the collegial atmosphere. For the most part, everyone is treated equally: the great, the near-great, and the just plain silly. You are not looked down upon if you don’t have a PhD; you are welcomed just as much as the most celebrated, published scholar.

At the conference, I had the pleasure of sharing dinner with an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in a few years. Like the others, he is a respected scholar and researcher, but he is also a born teacher who brings a pastoral approach to his studies. Plus, he’s from Canada, so he has niceness encoded into his DNA. The last time we met, I had told him a little about our fourth child, whose high-functioning autism we were just learning about. This was our first diagnosis. We didn’t know about the others until later on. So it was only natural for him to ask me this time how our boy was doing and how the rest of the family was adjusting to his uniqueness.

That’s when the discomfort began. Should I tell him that all six of our kids are on the spectrum? Do I have the emotional energy to give a minor tutorial in the ins and outs, the mysteries and challenges of ASD? I’ve been down this road before with a lot of other people, and I was getting tired of it.

I debated changing the subject, but I respected this fellow too much to stay shallow. So I dove in, with a lump in my throat.

An Impromptu Community.

As it turns out, I didn’t have to worry. My friend, along with a couple of others at our table, listened carefully and asked insightful questions. They showed genuine concern for our kids. They shared their own experiences and understandings of autism. We ended up talking together about how God is and is not at work in challenging situations like mine. So what began as a general “How’s it going” conversation grew into a shared reflection on mercy, grace, compassion, justice, and perseverance. It was as if we had formed an impromptu community of faith.

Mind you, I did feel somewhat uncomfortable being the center of attention for so long. I was afraid that the conversation would decline to the kind of pity and mock-sympathy that I detest. But another part of me thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. There was something distinct about it. Everyone there was immersed in Scripture and its teachings, so our discussion had a strong faith dimension to it. Of course, not every Scripture scholar is a saint, but it was clear that these people had taken Jesus’ words to heart and were striving to live in the love of God. That’s no small thing.

The Cloud and the Chip.

Rather than feeling drained, as I usually do after “raising autism awareness,” I left the conversation feeling energized and encouraged. And that got me thinking. You see, I’m not used to having such genial discussions about my kids—and especially, not with people who don’t know me well. I have spent so much of my time the past few years advocating for them in a cash-strapped school system and among neighbors who (with a few exceptions) didn’t have patience for anything outside the status quo. So I wasn’t expecting such a kind reception of my story.

Add to that the fact that I didn’t have that many friends in Florida. Katie and I spent so much time with our kids, and that made it hard to meet new people. Plus, we lost a couple of friends due to our kids’ challenges, and these losses left me defensive, guarded, and cynical. I didn’t want to get to know anyone else. “Why bother?” I’d think. “It’ll only turn out bad.” I didn’t realize it until after having left Florida, but I had spent the better part of four years walking around with a cloud over my head and a chip on my shoulder.

A New Beginning?

That seems to be changing now. A couple of months ago, we moved back to Maryland, where Katie and I both are from. It’s something we had been wanting to do for quite a while, but never had the chance. We knew that Maryland schools were better, and most of our family is there. So when the opportunity finally arose for me to be transferred back to my company’s home office, we grabbed it—and we’re really glad we did. The school year hasn’t started yet, but all of our preliminary meetings have been extremely encouraging. Accommodations we could only dream of in Florida were offered to us without our even having to ask for them. Programs are in place here that we had never heard of down South—programs to help ASD kids not only survive but thrive.

What’s more, and I don’t exactly know why, there seem to be a lot more families with ASD in our new hometown. Maybe it’s because of the higher population density. Maybe it’s because there are more doctors here who are trained to spot the signs of autism. Or maybe the parents are just better informed. Whatever the reason, that increase in numbers brings an increase in awareness and acceptance. So we’re feeling like we fit in here better than we did down there. It doesn’t feel as lonely.

And then there’s family. All of my siblings are within an hour’s drive, and most of Katie’s siblings are even closer. Plus, Katie’s parents are just a ten-minute walk away. So there’s a lot more support where we are now, and our kids are surrounded by more than twenty cousins ranging from age three to twenty-six.

All these factors have helped me relax a little bit. With increased awareness and acceptance, our kids have a better shot. With family around, we have ready-made friends and social situations. With a more accommodating school district, we hope to have fewer fights and less tension. A few days ago, I wrote that our family’s future is beginning to look brighter. Maybe I’m just fooling myself. Maybe we’re in a bit of a lull right now, a respite between crises. Or maybe with this fresh new start Katie and I are able to see our situation and our kids in a different light. Whatever the case, I’m enjoying it—almost as much as I enjoyed my conversation with those biblical scholars who reflected a God who loves and cares for his people.

An Inspired Diptych

Pieta

So here we are in the middle of another Holy Week—the seven days between Palm Sunday and Easter. This is the time when Christians pay especially close attention to the stories of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection. And as you might expect, believers conjure up beloved images during this time—images drawn from the Stations of the Cross or from a classic movie like The Ten Commandments or Jesus of Nazareth.

My favorite image, however, is a little different. I tend to think about Jesus’ mother, Mary, and especially that moment after the crucifixion that has been called the Pietà. See that picture up there? It’s Michelangelo’s rendering of the scene, and it’s on display in St. Peter’s Basilican in the Vatican. 

Anyway, the Pietà wasn’t always my go-to Holy Week image—at least not until something happened about four years ago. And since it’s Holy Week, I thought I’d share the story.

It had been a long evening—and it was only 6:30. Our second child had been fighting Katie over homework, fighting her older brother over the use of the TV, and fighting me over whether she was going to eat her dinner or just sit at the table and wail.

She was nine years old at the time: a very pretty girl with big, ice-blue eyes; light brown hair with natural blonde highligts; and a fair face with a few freckles. When she’s not throwing a tantrum, she has a lively sense of humor and an innocent, even sweet disposition.

She also has Asperger Syndrome. Among other things, this means that her brain has a difficult time processing all the visual and auditory input that we neurotypical people take for granted. So after a full day dealing with the sights and sounds of school, she has had just about as much as she can handle. She spends six hours every day holding it all in, and it’s only when she gets home that she feels safe enough to let it out. And that’s precisely what happened this evening.

So there I was, taking my daughter from the dinner table and escorting her to her room—again. “Maybe if I sit with her for a few moments,” I thought, “she’ll be able to calm down.” So up the stairs we went, me tugging her as she reluctantly followed, crying and swatting at me. I sat down on her bed, held her in my lap, and tried to speak in soothing tones while she shook and wept. But it was no use. She just kept pitching back and forth, wailing and screaming until she fell asleep in my arms.

Recognition and Revelation.

I was lucky that night: she fell asleep quickly enough for me to make it to the prayer meeting I had been attending. It took place in the chapel of a large Catholic church. The chapel was dedicated to Mary, and it featured a series of stained-glass windows depicting various scenes from the Virgin’s life.

I got there a few minutes early, tied up in knots and on the brink of tears. Since only a few people had arrived, I found a quiet corner and knelt down for some private prayer.

As I bowed my head and shut my eyes tight, a host of anxious thoughts swirled in my mind. What was going to happen to my little girl? Would we ever find the right therapies and medications? How could Katie and I keep up? What about our five other children, all of whom are also on the autism spectrum?

But then I looked up, I saw that I had stationed myself right next to the stained-glass window depicting the Pietà. I saw Mary, a look of both resignation and surrender on her face as she cradled the lifeless body of her son, the image pierced my heart. I had just come from cradling the seemingly lifeless body of my child, and here was Mary doing the same thing.

It was a moment of recognition and revelation. My reaction to my girl’s suffering was tinged with bitterness, but so was Mary’s. Looking at her face, I could tell that she didn’t just shrug off what had happened with a sense of holy indifference. She was a real mother holding her own flesh and blood. As I kept looking at the image, I imagined Mary telling me, “It hurts, doesn’t it? It really hurts. I don’t have comforting words to offer you, except to say that I know how bitter it is—because I’ve tasted it. Does that help?”

An Inspired Diptych.

In that moment, I felt a sense of kinship with Mary that I still have a hard time putting into words. The best I could come up with was a diptych, a kind of two-paneled painting. On one panel, I imagined myself holding one of my children, much the way that Mary holds Jesus in the Pietà. As I contemplate this panel, I realize that, just like Mary, I too am sharing in my children’s pain and frustration and anguish. When melt downs like my little girl’s happen, I am just as helpless as Mary was, and the best I can do is keep vigil with them and pray for God’s strength to keep moving forward.

On the other panel, I see myself as the lifeless body, spent and exhausted, lying in Mary’s lap. I have given all I have to give, I have done all that I know how to do, and there’s nothing left. But Mary is there, accepting my pain, sadness, and helplessness as her own and ennobling it by turning it into a prayer that we offer to God together.

I realized that night that this is an okay place to be. If Mary is with me, I know I’ll find some kind of resurrection, some kind of divine grace to help me get up and take the next step. I saw that it’s okay to collapse upon occasion; someone will always be with me until I can rise again.

Rising to the Challenge.

What I learned—what I felt—as I looked at that stained glass window has stayed with me. My little girl is not so little any more. Her melt downs may not be as dramatic, but her challenges have become more complex. So too have our other kids’ challenges, melt downs, and rough patches. Frankly, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t get the chance to identify with one or another—or both—of those pictures on my diptych. And that’s a good thing. Because I don’t know what I’d do without them.

I hope you have a happy Easter.