My son Micah was officially diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) right around his seventh birthday, only less than a year ago. At the time, I thought I was fairly prepared for any future challenges that would come with the label. After all, ever since Micah was a baby, my husband and I have been navigating through tough stages –from his inability to speak and look others in the eye, to excessive monologues about the weather and maps, to reports of complete shutdowns in a loud, busy school cafeteria.
What I was not prepared for this year however, was the bit and byte “moments” of realization that Micah has not been involved in activities with his peers. Largely absent are the birthday party invitations, after school playdates, gym partners and recess buddies.
Both of my children are enrolled in an inclusive Christian school. Raising a child with ASD in this learning environment has impacted my desire to raise children who can run hard after Jesus’ call to love their neighbors as themselves. To embrace all classmates, especially those identified on the social fringe. Embrace defined is to envelope someone in the warmth of affection, a powerful gesture of belonging. There is a sweetness to its picture, and at-a-glance is a few steps more personal than a handshake, high five, or even a smile.
Finding a place for my son to belong is a daily journey
I remember the first time I became aware of Micah’s social outsider status at school. It was early fall, I was waiting outside for classroom dismissal. While enjoying a casual conversation with other second grade mothers, our talk took a turn to what their kids were doing together that upcoming weekend. As the mothers were busy making plans with their children, understandably oblivious of any inflicted pain the conversations caused me, I tried to hide my feelings of exclusion. Since that day, I’ve noticed the budding friendships among Micah’s classmates, as well as his distinct lack of having a specific social group.
Micah visibly fits in at school, and even the trained eye would not easily detect that he has high-functioning autism. I’m sure most families assume he belongs somewhere within the social circles. But he doesn’t quite, yet. His identity on the fringe is subtle. Look hard enough, and you’ll see it surface in the playground setting during recess. The few times I’ve supervised, I’ll see kids running together, laughing together, playing sports … together. And then there’s Micah, alone. Looking lost and somewhat out of place. As his mother, I need to prayerfully, creatively help him navigate through the peer wall to find the right fit.
Micah’s daily journey towards the image of belonging is slow moving, though we do see progress made in baby steps. Progress sees a classmate come over our house every Friday, where I’m armed with stickers and games and ideas on how to get the two kids to play and bond with each other.
Autism taught me about the love of the Good Samaritan
For me, Micah’s ASD places a lens over aspects of Christianity that I’ve been able to peer through daily. The ideas of Good Samaritan love towards the outsider, serving the poor, and cultivating community have a fresh perspective when “outsider,” “poor,” and “unconnected” refer to ASD children who live with social deficits.
This perspective would not be there if I gave birth to a child who was equipped with the normal social skill toolset. If this was the case, I could see myself accidentally trapped inside the Pharisee’s mindset in the 18th chapter of Luke, who treated others without favor due to a self-absorbed focus on what he perceived was a well-lived life. If my children could easily make friends, it would be wrong not to thank God for their ability to make friends. However, would I be carrying the burdening conviction to cry out to God regularly for His help and heart in my children to love and reach towards the outsiders?
In the Christian household, what does it mean to “train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6 ESV)? Jesus’ challenge for me to love in a radical way extends to the way I teach my children to love others. He wants me to model and raise children who can reach beyond the social virtues of politeness, kindness, and giving to charity. Through this new lens, I am challenged to have my family open up our home more, to spend real, quality time with others, get involved, and be a source of help and friendship to many in our church, community and school who we might not normally gravitate to.
This might not easy, and loving others beyond our comfort zones often takes at least twice the effort. I can imagine it especially true for children who want to reach out to Micah, who has a social disorder where he appears disinterested, disengaged, and not easily responsive. What I do know is that when they do make the extra effort to include Micah in their activities and friendships, he will come home and tell me about it –with a smile.
Caring for one another makes the love of God tangible
My hope for Christian schools, especially, is to together find proactive ways to educate parents and students on topics such as servant leadership, inclusion, and how to identify and show caring towards one-another’s needs, in-and-out of the learning environment. By leading through this kind of tangible love, we are moving closer towards God’s picture of stewardship of His kingdom on earth. The everyday reality that God’s love envelops me, embraces my family, is something that I will never take for granted.
As Ron Sandison, who himself has high-functioning autism, beautifully writes in A Parent’s Guide to Autism: “There is no cure for autism, but with love and acceptance, we can help children with ASD reach their full potential and bring glory to God” (p. 17).