Monday, January 31, 2011

Autism as a sacred trust

I’ve just returned from a week in my daughter’s home. I give Kristin and her family a week each month, to help with the kids and give Kristin some space as she is working through an online masters degree program. The two older kids are in school, Reilly in third grade and Paige in kindergarten, which leaves two-year old Peter at home. So, for five days I essentially am on “Peter-patrol.”

Peter is bright, beautiful and quite a handful. He has already defied a diagnosis of blindness (see earlier blogs), although he probably will be classified as “legally blind” once he is old enough to respond to the vision tests. But his continued quirky behavior has led the people working with him to suspect autism. He is currently in the middle of a series of tests, and the results seem certain at this point.

Autism—this mystery condition that seems to be affecting more and more people in our country. As if Peter’s visual impairment were not enough, his parents now add this to the challenge of raising this little boy. The crisis element of this news has passed, and we are all on a journey of exploration. What exactly is autism? What does this mean for Peter and his future? What does it mean for Jon and Kristin, for the hopes they cherish for their children?

Our family recently watched the movie, Temple Grandin, and I am currently reading Grandin’s book of essays, Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism (2006). Grandin’s amazing story documents her struggle through childhood, her social and educational challenges, and her discovery of a connection with animals. This connection eventually led to her Ph.D. as an animal scientist and her remarkable contributions in the design of livestock handling facilities.

One thing that seems clear from this story is that Grandin’s contributions would probably not have been possible without the uniqueness of her autism. It was the specific traits of autism—the visual thought patterns, the intuitiveness, the connection with animals—that enabled Grandin to design the cattle chutes and curved lanes that have made the handling of these beasts much more humane. Grandin writes, “I love nothing more than surveying a plant I’ve designed where the animals are calm and quiet. One third of the cattle in the United States are moved through handling facilities that I have designed.”

Kristin and Jon have taken the position of accepting Peter as he is and considering him God’s gift. The total package includes the autism and visual impairment. This is part of who Peter is. They are actively pursuing resources for ensuring that their son has every chance in the world to become the person God created him to be.

I affirm them in this, although I will continue to pray for God’s healing light to be at work in Peter. I’m open to miracle. I wouldn’t be offended if God took away the autism and give Peter 20/20 vision.

On the other hand, I see the wisdom in my daughter’s attitude, and I admit my lack of perspective. I don’t yet know what God has in mind for Peter. I wonder sometimes, “Is there some way that Peter will bless the world, not in spite of, but because of the special challenges he has?” Is Peter’s autism part of the sacred trust that God has given to us?

So I continue on this journey of prayer and service to my family. Perhaps my best praying is simply being there for them. I’m certainly learning a lot. Already the blessing that is Peter has touched us all. What will this gift to the world become?


  1. Hi Nancy,

    I really appreciated your letter about Peter. What a gift you are to your daughter and encouragement you have been to me, as well. One thing, I have really learned about all of our special kids (adhd, autistic, or visually impaired) is that they will surprise us and even surpass our expectations. Peter's family will work and work and work and wonder if growth/maturity will happen and then like a lightning bolt--bam it happens. A huge jump. For Liam it seems like we don't climb a bell curve of growth; rather we push at a wall really hard for a long time and then all of a sudden the wall starts to crumble and we grow right through it. It happened this week for us in writing. He is almost 11 and we have been working on the writing skills for years! It's been exhausting, painful, and I wondered if he would ever get it. We've been using a program from the Institute for Excellence in Writing that builds and teaches the skills as though he was learning to play an instrument. Well today, he took his notes and sat down and wrote a double spaced 3 page story. He came up to me in the kitchen and said, "Listen to my example of alliteration." The story uses excellent vocabulary, followed the story sequence, was funny and had a clear ending." A wall fell down! This is what it is like and why I have to celebrate today because tomorrow there will be a new wall. Moms like your daughter and myself will hit the new walls again and again, we will cry, we will pray, we will be creative and learn how to move these kids forward on the path God has for them. The walls will crumble and we will celebrate and praise. I'm learning and being refined by the whole humbling process as I shed the layers of expectations that get in my way of meeting Liam where he is in life. I just know in my heart that God will use it for something good in ways we cannot know. Bless you and your family.

    Love, Priscilla

  2. Thank you, Priscilla. You inspire and encourage me. Thank God for Liam's latest breakthrough.

  3. Please don't misinterpret my silence. Praying with you, Mary