by Seth Long
Photo by Shutterstock
In these latter days, God requires only faith, not an understanding of the world’s minutiae. . . . On certain days, at quiet moments in the boy’s room, I recognize that under my blinded eyes the Spirit may be moving in David and delivering to him an understanding that far surpasses my worldly wisdom.
Every morning I knock on the door of a small home in a working-class neighborhood outside Los Angeles. I slip cold hands into my pockets, wait, and listen for familiar voices on the other side of the door.
“David, he is here.”
The door opens, and the boy’s mother, not yet 30, smiles wearily and says with a heavy accent, “Hello, come in.”
The boy himself stands near the television. Or in the kitchen. Or at his mother’s side. He greets me with a high pitched “Seth!” and stamps his feet. When I first met the boy, he did not greet me at all. After a few months, he greeted me with a neutral blink. A few months after that, he began to open the door and blurt out, “Time to work!”
Today, the boy stands at his mother’s side. I come in and kneel down and ask him how he feels this morning.
Naturally, he doesn’t answer. The boy—we’ll call him David—is 6 years old. He has dark brown hair, dark brown skin, and dark brown eyes. He is autistic. He was diagnosed 16 months ago at a state-funded regional center; not long afterward, I started to work with him. Today, I take David’s undersized hand and lead him to his bedroom, where we begin our first speech exercises.
I have worked with David for nearly a year-and-a-half. I work under the supervision of speech therapists and child psychologists. Their services are too expensive for most families with autistic children, so they train people like me (graduate students, mostly) to work in the children’s homes on a part-time basis. The past two years, I have spent many hours with these children, helping them to perform simple tasks, to say simple things, to learn rudimentary skills that other parents take for granted their children will learn.
You know autism when you see it. Many children turn 5, 6 years old without uttering a coherent sentence. Before I met David, I worked with a girl who drooled and pinched her face whenever given food that was not entirely intact. I worked with a boy who, at 5, stared at reflected sunlight rather than playing with other children. Another boy I worked with had not learned to chew food properly. When I began to work with David, he had virtually no communication skills. He still wore diapers. He did not talk or even point when he wanted something.
When I looked into the eyes of David, on those first days, I sought the spark that glitters in the eyes of all children. I saw it occasionally. I saw it when he laughed, when he learned to ask for cookies. But too often, I saw no spark in those wavering irises. I saw blankness. I saw disinterest. I saw David seeing the world, and it was a strange world of shapes and colors without names, of voices and figures without meaning. With each child, it is only through time and practice (and patience) that I witness an emergence from this disinterested shell.
Sometimes a child emerges partially, like a girl who learns to say only what she has been taught to say. Sometimes a child emerges brilliantly, like a butterfly from a chrysalis. David has emerged only partially. He has come far, to be sure, but even now I catch his mother, on bad days, crying into her hands in the kitchen. A bad day would be when David points to his pants and says, “I love you, toilet” not long after saying, “I love you, Mom,” underscoring the fact that David has not grasped the true meaning of the words, “I love you.”
Photo by Shutterstock
The strange connection between words and knowledge is never so clear as when working with young autistics. I try not to dwell on it. I try not to fathom the terrible logic of it. The serpent, we must remember, tempted Eve with logic, and I know too well where my own logic (the logic of a fallen mind) will take me—into doubt, into anger, into the agnostic mantra: God would never let this happen.
And yet I always wonder: How will David and children like him, children more disabled than him (not to speak of the adults), how will they understand the Word when they cannot understand the words? How would I explain to David that God created the world, that 2,000 years ago He incarnated Himself in a Jewish peasant, and that this humble peasant sacrificed Himself on a cross because humanity had fallen and could not abide by God’s moral law? How would I begin to explain this to a child who cannot tell me what he did 10 minutes ago? How would I explain this to an adult who has yet to learn the meaning of Hello?
I have no answer. On certain nights, I consider asking God, but I suspect that He will not answer because, in the end, I do know the answer, only find it unsatisfactory. It is what theologian Karl Barth answered when asked about the most important thing he had discovered after decades of academic, theological study: Jesus loves me, this I know . . .
Could I teach David to understand those simple six words? Perhaps. Perhaps then, when the boy understands the definition of love, when he connects feelings with words, I won’t worry when I ponder the plight of children who cannot understand.
But what of understanding? Today, David and I work through exercise after exercise, trying to make him understand words, speech, and proper behavior. But at some point, through all the repetition, through all my striving to make David understand the things of the world, I slowly realize this: all understanding is trivial as long as we come to understand those simple six words: Jesus loves me, this I know.
My faith commands me to believe that the Spirit inhabits us in Baptism (Acts 2:38–39), that faith begins in that new birth (Titus 3:5–6—even for infants and autistics). My faith tells me to believe that an understanding of Christ’s love co-inhabits regardless of linguistic abilities, regardless of educational abilities, regardless of what I think transpires behind autistic eyes.
Paul tells us, in a message often overlooked, that God has had His fill of the world’s “wisdom.” He writes: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). It reminds me that what I take for foolishness, what I view as a lack of understanding, may be the grace of God Himself in disguise.
Paul further tells us that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor. 1:27). I myself am put to shame in doubting God over the simple ignorance of an autistic child. Who am I to judge what kind of knowledge and understanding brings glory to the Almighty? In these latter days, God requires only faith, not an understanding of the world’s minutiae (otherwise only Ph.D.s would inherit the kingdom!). On certain days, at quiet moments in the boy’s room, I recognize that under my blinded eyes the Spirit may be moving in David and delivering to him an understanding that far surpasses my worldly wisdom. It is a humbling possibility. It is humility itself. It reminds me that God continually shatters all expectations; that God appears where we never expect Him; that God uses the foolish things of the world to lower us all.
Disabilities Ministries and Your Congregation
by Dean Nadasdy
Autism is just one of many disabilities we may confront in life. Here are a few ways a congregation can serve people with disabilities and their families:
- Invite and welcome the disabled person as one who seeks to know Christ or as a fellow baptized disciple, called to worship, grow, and serve.
- Develop a team of individuals committed to lead the congregation in its ministry with the disabled. Often these teams are led by a “champion,” with a deep passion for disabilities ministries. Be sure the team includes people with disabilities. A great question to ask: In what specific ways has God equipped our congregation to serve people with disabilities and their families? Pay special attention, too, to the barriers (architectural, administrative, physical, curricular, and attitudinal) obstructing ministry with the disabled.
- Educate the church. Begin with leaders and then help the whole congregation learn what to expect in worship and other settings from those with disabilities—sounds, movements, ticks, etc. What at first might be distracting or even annoying can over time be understood and accepted.
- Work toward sensitizing each ministry in the church (choir, youth group, Sunday School, small groups, etc.) to their unique opportunities for service with the disabled in their midst.
- Identify the unique gifts of each person with a disability. Disabled servants are also willing and able servants, each with a unique set of often extraordinary gifts and skills.
- Host respite evenings for parents or families of the disabled, providing care for the disabled family member at church while parents or family spend a night out.
- Provide group support for parents and families of those with disabilities—from a biblical, Christ-centered perspective.
- Invite, train, and encourage buddies, or partners, who will worship and attend classes with a disabled friend. These mutually caring relationships can grow deep and meaningful for both buddies along the way.
- Network with local agencies, group homes, and schools, offering assistance and partnerships in meeting the needs of the disabled in your area. Consider, for instance, offering transportation to worship services from a group home. Many people with disabilities have little or no contact with the church. Mission opportunities abound here.
One thing I’ve noticed about our congregation: We are all disabled in some way, some of us more visibly disabled than others. Yet, God’s grace in Jesus Christ embraces us all, and because God is able, God can use us all!