Five Things I’ve Learned from Kids with Autism
Every weekend, I help host a group of children with special needs, including many children with autism, at an overnight respite center. When I’ve asked people what they learn from people with autism, even some very compassionate caregivers say things like, “Well, they’ve taught me to be patient” or “that I can turn to God for strength to handle them.” Those are good and real lessons, but they don’t answer the question. What do people with autism themselves teach us? Here are five things children with autism have shown me about the Christian life.
1. Focus on the voice that matters most.
You’re able to read this sentence because your brain is ignoring most of the sounds around you. That’s an incredible ability that many kids, like one ten-year-old girl with autism I know, don’t have. Her brain can’t easily filter noise, so she hears the purring of the HVAC system, the cars driving by outside, and the tick of the clock. Can you imagine trying to focus through all that noise? In addition to her autism, God gave her the ability to learn how to filter and focus on the voices she needs to hear.
I admire and need to imitate her efforts in concentration. Despite my brain’s ability to filter noise, I find it incredibly difficult to hear God’s voice. All too often his still small voice is lost in the noise of my thoughts and anxieties. Only when we learn to listen like this child with autism to his words of grace will we obey and trust him.
2. See life through the lens of God’s word.
Ron Suskind writes in the New York Times about his son, Owen, who has an encyclopedic memory for Disney movies. Owen uses these movies to understand and communicate with the world around him. To communicate fear, Owen acts like the rat in Ratatouille. To show strength, he acts like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. The real world doesn’t make sense to Owen, but the world defined by Disney does.
In a similar way, the world we live in doesn’t make sense until we see it through the lens God has provided for us in his word. Like Owen and his Disney stories, we need to allow the Bible’s story to explain our lives and direct how we live them. Some kids with autism, like Owen, see life through a text. We should too.
3. Discipline yourself to remember God’s unchanging love.
I know one little guy whose autism is expressed through extreme sensitivity to any kind of change. In a world that’s consistently inconsistent, he’s comforted by familiar routines and schedules. He insists that the car be parked a certain way, that the laundry basket remain in its place, and that tasks are completed in the same order. First the toothbrush, then the shower, then the clothes.
That kind of repetition can be really hard on the families we serve. But this little guy has helped me see the strength in the discipline he needs to have order in his world. Like him, I need to establish routines that help me remember God’s unchanging love for me. This boy feels safe within the restrictions of his schedule. We’ll feel that way too when we restrict ourselves to schedules that remind us of the irreversible freedom we have in Jesus.
4. Clearly speak the truth in love.
I love one little boy I see regularly who is very precise in how he processes language. His autism is expressed through saying what he means — exactly! — and assuming I will speak with that same level of precision. If he forgets to say “please” when asking for something and I tell him to use the magic word, he’ll reply, “abracadabra!” because “please” isn’t a magic word. If I tell him, “we don’t hit our friends,” he think it’s ok to hit strangers.
God has invited all of us to speak the truth in love, but we rarely do that. We use harsh and dishonest words because we don’t understand the power our words have to hurt and heal. We haven’t practiced the straightforward communication like my young friend does. I want to be like him! And in doing so, I can join him in showing off our God, who kept his word by giving his Word to redeem and restore the world.
5. Rest consistently in the grace of God.
There is a group of young people with autism who come to Jill’s House regularly. While their autism expresses itself uniquely in each of them, they all find themselves making so many social mistakes — so many faux pas, accidentally offending people so often — that the cycle of grace becomes second nature. One of the kids will greet his mom after a weekend of respite and say, “You’re still fat, mom.” He always feels terrible about it, but he has learned to quickly ask for forgiveness. His mom is quick to offer it and he’s quick to receive it.
For most of us, the cycle of grace is much longer. We hate being told that we’ve made a mistake. We try to defend ourselves. We blame other people and attempt to justify our behavior. The cycle can drag on years longer than it should. It’s in these moments that I need the humility of this group of young people. They rely on grace because they know they need it and trust that it’s available. And the same is true for us. So be like them and practice quick forgiveness.
God has blessed me with the work he has given me to do because of all that I have gained through these young lives. Join me! When you spend time with children, both those with and without disabilities, you’ll see their unique needs and gifts. In our American culture, it is easy to see the needs of children with disabilities like autism, and much harder to see the gifts. But God has said he made them to image him! So take the time to see and truly appreciate the gifts that God has given and celebrate these lives who were made for his glory and for our good.