Raising an autistic child helped mom see that we are all 'spiritually autistic'

Leslie Hughes  ·  Jan 30, 2018

“Mom, when’s now and forever?” This was the loudly voiced question that my 10-year-old autistic son asked during the Sunday worship service. As the pastor began his sermon, I whispered, “Jeffrey, you can’t speak out loud in church. Use your inside voice so that we don’t disturb others.” “OK, sorry, Mom,” he whispered back.

I was pleasantly surprised to think that he was contemplating spiritual concepts like eternity. Five minutes later, he put down his pencil and asked me in a mock whisper, “Mom, when’s now and forever?” Sensing that this was something important to him and that he would be persistent until satisfied, I answered, “Well, it means for all time. Eternity.” He got a quizzical look on his face, but went back to the drawing. Three minutes ticked by. Jeffrey tugged on my sleeve and asked, “Mom, when’s now and forever?”

Realizing that I had not communicated, I decided that I needed a definition to which he could relate, and the more visual, the better. Since Jeffrey loves video games, I decided to try a gaming word picture. Feeling smug and clever, I responded, “Now and forever is like getting endless ‘continues’ at the end of your game when the hero dies.”

Shaking his head he went back to drawing. Thirty seconds later he said, “No Mom. When’s now and forever?” Because we were being disruptive I whispered, “Jeffrey, we’ll talk about this in the car, OK?”

The sermon concluded and we sang a hymn. The pastor stood and raised his hands. His weekly benediction from 2 Peter 3:18 says, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and forever! Amen.” As he spoke, it hit me. Jeffrey was not asking a deeply spiritual question about eternity. He just wanted to know when the pastor was going to say, “now and forever” signifying the end of the service. He just wanted to know when he could get some lunch!

Seeing the world differently

On our best days, we are ill prepared for the task of parenting and are driven to Christ. But parents of autistic children face additional obstacles to overcome. Some autistic children have physical problems: repetitive, self-stimulating, or self-injurious behaviors. Almost all have cognitive, social, and language deficits.

Decisions are required for medications, diets, academic placements, and non-conventional intervention measures which come with fantastic anecdotal success stories and astronomical costs. In addition to practical issues, Christian parents are rightly concerned about communicating spiritual truth.

I have sought the Lord’s wisdom in these areas for almost 28 years. While not having all the answers, I share some learned lessons.

Autism is a pervasive developmental delay in which cognitive, social, and language abilities are impaired. Autism is not diagnosed through physiological symptoms and objective medical testing. Rather, diagnosis is based on observation. Behaviors are compared with a prescribed list of symptoms. Based on the number and severity of behaviors observed, diagnosis is determined.

Autistic individuals process information and “see” the world differently. Jeffrey attended a chapel service at school shortly after 9-11-01. The speaker’s goal was to emphasize that the way we process events is related to our worldview. He displayed an overhead stating, God is N O W H E R E. One of the kids questioned, “God is nowhere?” From the back of the auditorium Jeffrey shouted, “God is now here.” The speaker exclaimed, “Yes, that is exactly my point.” The kids all turned and looked at Jeffrey with new respect. The “not so smart kid” caught what they missed. Why was he able to see what others couldn’t? Autistic individuals uniquely process the sensory input they receive.

While atypical, Jeffrey has a wonderful sense of humor. In Bible class, we read the “ites” of Canaan. The passage mentioned the Perrizites, Hittites, Hivites, Ammonites, etc. Jeffrey piped up, “Mom, what about the parasites?” After he realized he’d said something funny, he added, “And what about the websites?”

Understanding that autistics tend to be visual learners has been helpful in imparting spiritual concepts to Jeffery. Scripture says spiritual truth must be revealed by the Spirit. We cannot “make” anyone understand spiritual concepts. We can give a stellar presentation of the Gospel message or we can badly botch the whole thing. But, unless God is at work, regenerating and illuminating, all is in vain, irrespective of intellectual ability. First Corinthians 2:12-14 says, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit Who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, … But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” The Spirit must work to bring understanding, yet we are still responsible for seeking the most appropriate ways of communicating truth.

Asking Jeffrey to read a Bible with words but no pictures is futile. But Jeffrey loves colorful books where the ratio of pictures to words is high. When younger, Jeffrey would read “The Comic Bible” for hours. We initially questioned the wisdom of allowing this, but concluded that any means of imparting truth and maintaining interest in the Bible was profitable. NIV verses are printed on the top of each page, and we took comfort knowing the Word of God is powerful (Hebrews 4:12).

Another example of visually presenting a spiritual concept was, “Hug for 10.” This was a visual means of teaching about God’s loving discipline. When Jeffrey was in need of discipline, we got our spanking stick. Because his receptive language was weak, we simply explained his disobedience. He knew the consequence was a spanking. But before it was administered, we “hugged for 10.” This meant hugging as we S-L-O-W-L-Y counted to ten together. It served two important purposes for us. First, it ensured our discipline flowed out of proper motivation—loving concern for the child. The purpose was restoration, not ventilation of any anger we may have been feeling due to personal idolatry. Secondly, it provided a visual representation of God’s discipline flowing out of His love. Even though Jeffrey could not have understood if I said, “Sweetie, sin is a suicidal act of your will against itself. Because God loves you, He wants you to stop these self-destructive behaviors. He knows if unchecked they can become progressively worse, ruining your life and relationships. So, He has tasked me with lovingly disciplining you.” However, I believe Jeffrey experienced that truth because I loved him and the spanking flowed from that love.

Lessons learned

Finally, I have learned that I am usually the student. The Lord uses Jeffrey to teach me countless lessons.

The first lesson is that I am spiritually needy. I am “spiritually autistic.” Many symptoms used to diagnose autism parallel our spiritual condition. Autistic children don’t make or maintain eye contact. They play inappropriately with toys by obsessively lining them up. Attempts to alter the configuration are met with frustration or tantrums. Autistics are usually socially inappropriate or awkward. To communicate needs, they physically direct caregivers.

The Holy Spirit revealed that I am spiritually autistic. I am easily distracted from what is important. Just like the child who obsesses over toys, I obsess over the idols my heart worships. Idols are things to which I thoughtlessly, effortlessly and relentlessly give myself. I invest time, money, and resources to “please” them, foolishly thinking they will rescue or reward me. I refuse to lift my eyes and “look” at my Father. I act inappropriately and seek to control and manipulate others. I am spiritually needy, broken, foolish, and weak. Individuals with autism are excellent reminders of that.

Second, do I really believe God when He says He has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and the weak things of the world to shame the strong (I Corinthians 1:27-30)? Theoretically, I believe this, but in reality I don’t.

Jeffrey’s curriculum included building social skills. One book featured stories with illustrations and questions designed to reinforce appropriate social behaviors. “Helping Mom Cook,” was the story of Nadia. While watching cartoons, Mom asks Nadia to help her cook breakfast. The first question was, “What should Nadia say to her mom?” Jeffrey replied, “She should say yes.” To the next question, “Should Nadia help even if she’d rather watch TV?”, he replied that she should. The third, designed to examine feelings, asked, “How will Nadia’s mom feel if Nadia helps her?” This one was more difficult. But, when I asked Jeffrey the final question, “Why should Nadia help her mom?”, his response delighted me. Without missing a beat Jeffrey replied, “Because God loves her.”

I hugged him and said, “Excellent answer.” We could quit for the day.

If Jeffrey understands the proper motivation for all we do is God’s love for us, then he’s learned the ultimate lesson. We don’t do good deeds to earn God’s love or so that others will approve of us. We seek to live righteously because God already loves us in Christ. For him to easily comprehend a concept of which I need constant reminders was amazing. God demonstrated that He can enable one with intellectual deficits to understand the deepest spiritual truths. He truly uses the foolish to shame the wise.

God is committed to seeing that His own understand the Gospel message more than we as parents ever could be. And where we are inadequate, He is able!

Ron and Leslie Hughes are members from Clemson, South Carolina. Leslie is the author of The Gospel for the Visual Learner: The Fork Illustration, available from Amazon.com and on Kindle (bit.ly/hughesfork).