This morning I’ll be the keynote speaker for the annual communion breakfast at Saint Francis of Assisi Parish in Mount Kisco, New York. I was asked by the pastor, Fr. Steven Clark, to deliver a few appropriate remarks concerning where we are in the mushrooming autism epidemic.
This isn’t a clinical seminar, it’s a communion breakfast, and so I plan to share our story of Joseph’s autism and its impact on our lives in every dimension: family, marriage, sibling, professional, etc.
Autism occurs within the context of family life and radically alters every single aspect of that life. It exposes the strengths and weaknesses of the marriage and family dynamic. It calls for a different dimension of parental love, and full-time involvement. I’ve thought much over these past seven years of Joseph’s autism and what it has done for us, for me.
It has taught me depths of love and devotion, of ferocious advocacy that I never would have thought that I had a capacity for. It has slowed me down as I was on a rapidly rising professional escalator, and taught me how to encounter Joseph in the inner sanctum of his fragile existence. He can’t just fall into line with the plans I had so neatly mapped out. This has been a derivative benefit for my wife and daughters.
Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov writes:
“Brothers, love is a teacher, but a hard one to obtain: learning to love is hard and we pay dearly for it. It takes hard work and a long apprenticeship, for it is not just for a moment that we must learn to love, but forever.”
No words so completely capture the challenge of parenting an autistic child. Loving behavior doesn’t come to an autistic child the way it comes to ‘normal’ children. It needs to be handwired bit by bit. In teaching love, we learn love. In suffering with and for our children, we learn depths of love unfathomable but for the experience.
So why so many autistic children?
I believe that in His infinite Love and Mercy God is permitting this to happen as a means of rescuing us from ourselves. We are aborting 93% of all Down Syndrome babies, engaging in sex selection, experimenting with cloning, etc. We need to stop this, and soon.
Autistic children are Love’s answer to our designer approach for offspring, especially as there are no clear genetic markers or physical attributes to pick up in pre-natal testing. We are being given one last chance as a civilization to get it right, to learn the meaning of sacrificial love through a condition that strikes at the very heart of social communication, to walk ourselves back from the precipice of the abyss of narcissistic annihilation. We are being given the chance to learn the true meaning of human dignity and marital love, a love that creates new life and is large enough to swallow any imperfection that comes with that new life.
Such capacity results from being at peace with our own imperfections and having allowed ourselves to be the recipients of God the Father’s healing love. If we haven’t, we must begin there. Our hearts certainly have that capacity. We need to empty them first of the clutter that we amass when we turn from God, seeking instead fulfillment with things and egocentrism.
This may be our last chance.