Professor struggles, finds God amidst autism

Before my son Logan was born, I had a premonition I might have done something wrong to affect his health or development in the womb. I remember praying as Logan’s due-date approached that if he were born with a disability, the Lord would let it be one familiar to me like the hearing impairment of my best childhood friend Danny, who eventually became quite popular at school despite his social missteps.

When we learned Logan might be on the autism spectrum, we watched all of our hopes and dreams for our son tumble down a cliff. But our own lives as well, in the words of a W. B. Yeats poem, “changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”

We watched our cuddly, babbling infant gradually tune us out, not respond to his name, not look us in the eye, not interact at all but instead develop alarming habits. Shutting and opening doors and drawers in a kind of trance lasting twenty minutes or longer. Screaming his only means of communication. Ripping any object in arm’s reach to shreds or breaking it to pieces. Worst of all, I remembered my fears during Amanda’s pregnancy that I had endangered our son’s development.

Was this how Abraham felt? God had given us a beautiful son, but then one day out of nowhere revoked his life, his very soul, on the altar of some unimaginable sacrifice. It was maddening.

I worried that my bad habits might have contributed to his autism (I was reckless with my diet and wasn’t exercising). Or maybe it was the truck that spewed mosquito spray in our neighborhood on our evening walks. Or perhaps I mixed his baby formula improperly (the labels have ominous warnings). Maybe my faults — ridiculing others’ oddities that I now recognize as symptoms on the spectrum — were coming back to haunt me.

Life was scary and depressing until we found an in-home therapist, Beth McKee, who intervened with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and brought our boy back from that dark place. Through therapies that drained us emotionally, physically, financially, God was letting us have our son back, albeit in limited ways.

Logan attended Beth’s clinic for two years, and, although he’s still nonverbal and severely autistic, he can look us in the eyes and occasionally mutter a monosyllabic word. He is seven now, but not much beyond the toddler stage in his capacities.

The routine behaviors we strive to teach Logan — using the toilet, sitting still for story-time, using a fork and napkin instead of grinding food to wipe all over himself — are simple tasks that children usually acquire without effort, but he views them as demands that range from irksome to sheer torture. His compromised neurology prevents him from using language in any form on a consistent or frequent basis. This will make it extremely hard for him to relate even to any minority group of his own, much less the wider world, no matter how “tolerant” and accepting of differences we strive to be.

Why does God allow some children and their families to struggle through life with such severe hindrances? I don’t have all the answers, but I know that Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” One word Logan is not hindered in uttering is “Jesus,” and our church downtown, First Presbyterian, is helping him come to Jesus by providing a weekly aid, Alex McDuffie, which helps our whole family take part in worship.

Like all children, Logan has quirks and weaknesses (he wears his on his sleeve), but he too was made in God’s image. My Lord didn’t make Logan the way he is just to teach us something (though he does that). God’s glory is made perfect in weakness, yes, and His works will be manifested in Logan’s life. But He made him for Himself, because He delights in Logan’s particular smile. He made him for Love’s sake. And the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

Himes is an associate professor of English at JBU. He can be reached at jhimes@jbu.edu.