I don't remember what it was that first gave my wife cause for concern. Make no mistake: my wife has always been more perceptive about our children than I am, though I would guess that comes naturally after bearing them in the womb for nine...well, in this case, eight months. Anyway, I don't remember what it was that Faith noticed, but after visits with the doctor, a hearing specialist, and a neurologist or three, my son finally received an official diagnosis just before his third birthday: autism.
When the twins were about a year old, before we had noticed that something wasn't right, I remember saying a prayer in which I thanked God for giving us healthy children. I am not a brave man, I admit. Especially after having been forced to make a long-distance move so late in the pregnancy, I had been terrified that one or both of the twins would be born with a developmental disability or some rare disease, something that would require of me reserves of courage or strength or patience or strength of faith (or all of the above) that I'm not sure I have. So when we received the diagnosis of autism for Michael, it was a bit of a kick to the stomach.
So we began to run the gamut: speech therapy, occupational therapy, special education. Meanwhile, here we had a three year-old boy who has all the physical size and strength of a six year-old (Michael may someday play on the offensive line for the Bills or Saints), but he was unable to communicate to us his needs except through screaming fits and tears. Very seldom do Faith and I have opportunities to spend time together alone outside the home. We can't leave Michael with just anyone. It's not that we don't trust our friends or congregation members, but if one of us (or his maternal grandmother) isn't around, it's an invitation to a screaming fit that won't end until one of us is there to comfort him. And taking him out in public isn't always a very good option, either, because he still does have those crying and screaming fits. (Have you seen the dirty looks people give when they hear a screaming kid in a public place? And how long before they call Child Protective Services?)
Michael turns six next month. It's been three years this month since he received his diagnosis. Michael has come a long way. He willingly looks us in the eyes more often. At times he asks for things using complete sentences, though even when he asks for what he wants with one or two words ("grey" or "yellow" meaning jellybeans, "two breads" meaning two slices of bread, etc.), it's still a vast improvement over what used to be crying and screaming jags that could last a half-hour or more. He smiles more often. He kisses us more often. He has even made progress with potty training, though his current "Angry Birds" addiction has put a damper on that. (Long story.) We still don't get out much, though we're thankful that Michael has been able to go sometimes to worship and Sunday School (which Faith is teaching).
I don't write any of this to garner pity. One of the real blessings of all this is the understanding we've been shown by those around us, especially by the members of the congregation I've been called to serve. I've had to regretfully refuse a lot of offers from members to watch the kids--again, not because we don't trust the members of the church, but because of Michael's reactions to the unfamiliar. The members of St. Peter Lutheran in Campbell Hill, Illinois, have been wonderful in their understanding and acceptance of the unusual circumstances surrounding their pastor's family, and that has made our life here so much easier.
God is good. Even in the midst of affliction, tribulation, trouble, our Lord Jesus Christ remains our Rock, our Refuge and Strength. Nothing--and since death can't do it, autism certainly can't: not screaming fits, not crying jags, not changing diapers at an age where most children have been potty trained for over half their life, nothing--will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
For an excellent insider's view of autism and how it affects parents and families, listen to this November, 2008, Issues Etc. interview with Pastor David Petersen of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Right-click on this link to save it to your computer and listen to it at your leisure, or hit play on the embedded player below. Perhaps the most comforting part of this interview for me was knowing that someone else out there can relate, someone who can say, "I've been there, too. Hang in there. You're doing okay."