The Autism Redemption   19 comments

“Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.”

Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi; Come, Come, Whoever You Are

Churches and places of worship are common settings for stories of redemption.  Unfortunately they’re far less common for stories of autism-related successes, particularly when it comes to acceptance and inclusion.  The purpose of this blog, however, isn’t to label anyone as intolerant or close-minded…except for myself. But I have seen the light, so to speak, and my wife Jen and daughter Skylar are to thank.

You aren’t likely to find me in a church or place of worship of any type unless it’s for a funeral, wedding, or religious ceremony for a family member’s child.  In other words, I only go when obligated and never by choice.  This isn’t because I have anything against religion or anyone who attends church or places of worship.  As a matter of a fact, I have a deep admiration for anyone who truly possesses faith and walks the walk of their religion’s positive tenets.  It’s just for me, individually, faith is an extraordinarily private matter that the public nature of being in a church or place of worship doesn’t mesh with.

Much to my relief, a bolt of lightning did not immediately strike the church when I entered

Much to my relief, a bolt of lightening did not immediately strike the church when I entered

Jen feels differently.  That’s her right.  She tried on numerous occasions to get Skylar to sit peacefully through the church service of her primary religion to no avail, as our daughter was just too restless and talkative when expected to keep quiet.  Thankfully, my wife never had an autism-related horror story to share of anyone objecting to Skylar’s presence beyond the occasional dirty look or eye roll (though anything beyond that would have compelled my black heart to accompany them the following week to have a chat with the offending party).  Nevertheless, Jen was spending far more time in a closed room off to the side with our whining daughter than she was having a church experience.  What was the point?  I’m all for exposing our daughter to as many things as possible and enduring misery in the hopes some of them eventually stick but church was never going to be one on the list of triumphs.

Sure, it would have helped her and Skylar if I’d gone, too, but I wanted to honor my personal beliefs.  To me, that was my right and, to Jen’s credit, she never questioned it, no matter how much trouble Skylar gave her. I felt some guilt but if my wife wanted our daughter to continue to attend church, the project was to remain all hers.  Jen didn’t give up, though. She simply adapted and started attending the First Unitarian Church of Worcester with Skylar instead.

When I spotted this chandelier, I counted on Skylar's fear of heights keeping her from swinging on it. What I didn't count on was that she loved attending this church!

When I spotted this chandelier, I counted on Skylar’s fear of heights keeping her from swinging on it. What I didn’t count on was that she loved attending this church!

I was impressed when my wife told me how the new church had graciously offered to draw from their limited funds in order to staff Skylar and another boy during the classroom portion of the weekly session.  It wasn’t enough to change my point of view, mind you, but I had to admit it was nice of them.  As weeks and months passed, Jen continued to claim the new church was going “pretty well” but I didn’t buy it, as her stating otherwise would have been to admit I was correct.  And what did “pretty well” mean anyway–that the National Guard hadn’t been deployed yet to undo my daughter’s carnage?  Whenever I tried to talk to Skylar about what she’d learned, she’d reply with nonsense, not anything remotely spiritual.  To me, there remained no point in Skylar attending and I stubbornly continued my boycott…until this past Sunday.

What made me change, or, better yet, finally open my mind?  Well, at that point, I still hadn’t. I agreed to walk back into a church for one of the most common reasons of all:  I did something wrong and felt guilty.  But it wasn’t spiritual atonement I sought as I, personally, believe that takes place within one’s mind, not a building.  No, my motives were more related to marital atonement, which is why I finally broke down and decided Jen should have my help, even if just for one week.

The place from which the beautiful music that moved Skylar so much emanated

The place from which the beautiful music that moved Skylar so much emanated

We took seats in the balcony against Jen’s will because my younger daughter Alyssa thought it would be cool. Hey, it was cool by me, too, as we weren’t near any other churchgoers for Skylar to bother and me to subsequently apologize to and/or confront.  The Reverend explained the themes of the day were going to be tolerance and inclusion. Ha! I wondered how tolerant everyone was going to be when Skylar started asking in a loud voice when she could leave as they tried to worship. A little girl walked up to light a chalice and Skylar’s eyes grew wide.  Oh great.  I clicked on my smart phone to check if our insurance covered fires started by residents with autism because Skylar would be looking to recreate the lighting of the chalice sans a chalice as soon as we got home.

As the Reverend spoke more, Alyssa began to move around and talk to the point of needing to be admonished. Other kids were making noise periodically, too.  None of the churchgoers seemed to mind, though.  They were listening to what the Reverend had to say and just laughing off the kids.  And so was…Skylar? Wait, Skylar was paying attention?  Wow!  I made a face of shock to Jen who looked back at me as if to say, “See, Stupid?”  I was beginning to.

Skylar paying close attention to the Reverend's words. She would prove this later.

Skylar paying close attention to the Reverend’s words. She would prove this later.

Skylar eventually lost some focus during the fifteen minute sermon about welcoming others no matter how different they were but would regain it whenever the organ played or people sang, her eyes again growing wide.  It then hit me that she hadn’t been interested in the chalice being lit because it produced glorious visions of arson—she was moved by it, just like the music.  Wow again.

When the sermon ended, we walked our daughters to their classroom, passing a young man with obvious special needs along the way. People walked by him and said hello but he was still standing alone… until Skylar broke free of us and approached him.  She didn’t say anything but she didn’t have to. She was simply welcoming him, just as the Reverend had advised us to.

Skylar was able to compose some thoughts while in the classroom. Behind her and blurry is her soul mate Seamus but that's another blog for another time.

Skylar was able to compose some thoughts while in the classroom. Behind her and blurry is her soulmate Seamus but that’s another blog for another time.

When we left our kids and returned to the church for the remainder of the sermon, the Reverend spoke of how we lived in a shared world that functioned best when we spoke both to and across our differences instead of ignoring or rejecting one another over them. She was referring to other religions and cultures but I immediately thought of autism.  People with autism and special needs were not only tolerated and welcome at this church, they were encouraged to be there.  I was in a place that collectively walked the walk.

We ended the session at a coffee/social hour.  After grabbing a considerable amount of cookies, Skylar searched for a table to sit until again seeing the young man with obvious special needs. He was seated with a younger boy who also had obvious special needs.  They were by themselves so she headed over and sat next to them, this time causing them to both smile.  It turns out my, or better yet, Jen’s Skylar walked the walk, too.  She was a product of her accepting environment…but no more so than her accepting environment was a product of her.  Everyone there was a better person in part because of her faith–especially her Dad. I plan to return next week.

Skylar surveys the scene while her little sister makes one

Skylar surveys the scene while her little sister makes one

19 responses to “The Autism Redemption

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  1. Bravo!

    Joanne Doyle Kuzborski
  2. Well done.

  3. What a beautiful experience…thank you for sharing!

  4. Amazing story…

    Melissa (Stanley) Cann
  5. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Love this!

    Joanne Kuzborski
  7. So very awesome! You’re a great husband and dad, whether you ever go back to church again, at least in my book. 🙂

    • Thank you! Well, I’m going back this Sunday and we’ll see where it goes from there. I clearly owe it to my wife and daughter to support them in their spirituality and was long overdue in my realization of that.

  8. Very revealing and also inspirational. Skylar has found her place of peace and acceptance. I hope you do too.

  9. Great blog! I’m the mom of those two boys with “obvious special needs.” (The older has autism, as well as being deafblind, with cognitive and neurological challenges and a number of medical issues. The younger, just Down syndrome and heart defects). They both love Skylar. Both Terry and James have grown up in the church attending classes, going on church field trips, taking part in Christmas pageants, even joining the children’s choir when we had one (I enjoyed your previous post, too). When the church offered a Coming of Age Program, I signed my older son up with some trepidation, but the leaders and other youth welcomed Terry and his interpreter, and found the perfect man in the congregation to be his volunteer adult mentor throughout the year. On the Sunday service when the Coming of Age Youth presented to the congregation, two of his peers set up the giant screens for his presentation to be shown through photographs and Mayer Johnson sentence picture strips. I was worried when he aged out of the classes, knowing that Terry would not be able to sit through the entire service each week. However, the church sexton has welcomed Terry into the dining hall during services, allowing him to set out the children’s table of cookies and pouring out punch and apple juice into little cups on the trays. Thus, Terry continues to have a role in the life of the church, and receives a lot of love from the members. I hope you do return and have many more positive experiences.

    • Thank you for the kind words and reading, Abigail. I believe your sons also walk the walk of acceptance and tolerance because of the way they welcomed Skylar last Sunday. That’s wonderful the church has been so helpful but I also think your sons help make it such a great place so I’d say it’s win-win.

  10. Pingback: The Autism Redemption: A Quick Follow Up | Diamond Is the Sky

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