Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Scene From My Story Along the Autistic Road to Belief

Everyone has a story.  The details may differ. The settings may not be the same. The tale of one man may look like a divine comedy, while that of another may best align itself with an allegorical adventure.  

Mine?  

Well, I like to think of my story as Greek tragedy meets the Twilight Zone. 

I came crashing on the scene as the result of an adulterous affair.  My birth parents were middle-aged professionals and they weren’t banking on a baby. The introduction of my story would add a whole heap of conflict to the narratives of quite a few other folks.  In response, it was decided that I would be aborted and I narrowly escaped that fate when my birth mom abruptly exited the abortion clinic she had earlier entered, committing to carry me to term - at great personal cost to herself. 

I was adopted, but all was not well. My adoptive mom, a brilliant woman, suffered from mental illness and I sometimes suffered at the hands of that which haunted her.  Years later, after I was married and had children of my own, her paranoia pushed her to cast me out of her life completely - re-orphaning me in the dust. She told me that she no longer loved me and really never had. 

Those are hard words to hear.

At her request, the relationship remained severed until only a few weeks before her death. In God's kindness she allowed me to be with her as she died - even asking me to wash her feet during her final day of clear cognition. Her last words were spoken to me in that moment.  As I kneeled before her with basin and towel in hand, remembering 4 decades of struggle and strife, she simply said, "Please forgive me." 

I did forgive her - because Christ has forgiven me!

My adolescence was spent as an angry atheist.  From my earliest years I had longed to know and understand God, but my constant questions were either met with petty pat answers, calls to blind belief, or hypocritical hubris. Fed up with it all, I turned the page on God in high school and began a new chapter of theistic disdain. That section of my story could best be described as “a dark and stormy night.”

On top of all these things, as an adult I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – a malady I’ve had all my life, but one that slipped under the medical radar of the 70’s due, in part, to a lack of understanding of the autism spectrum (particularly as it relates to higher functioning females).  That autism was a constant and painful (albeit anonymous) companion throughout every scene of my story.  

It still is.

Not only do I live with ASD personally, but also parentally.  My 12 year old son, Josh, is also diagnosed with autism - thus our stories share a common theme by virtue of a common thorn.

Now, lest you think this is an article by Lemony Snicket, let me assure you that this is no mere “Series of Unfortunate Events.”  

For the people of God all of our stories, even our dark stories, are ultimately redemption stories.  Every story of every Christian is faithfully written down by two glorious hands – the hand of God’s providence and the hand of His grace.

Providence is that sovereign skill by which God faithfully foreordains whatsoever comes to pass.  At times providence can seem to frown, and frown fiercely.  Just think of Joseph and Job!  

But, things aren’t always as they seem on the surface, particularly not in a gospel economy. 

William Cowper reminds us that “behind a frowning providence, God hides a smiling face.”  That “smiling face” is God’s amazing grace!  It’s the redemptive way in which our heavenly Father, the ultimate story weaver, perfectly and purposely knits trouble, trial, and even tragedy into the epic of our lives. He does so, not to make us bitter, but to make us better.  By grace, every stinging stitch of our story is being used to conform us more and more to the image of Christ. 

Yes, it’s true, much of my story has been hard; but the greater truth is that in the hard things God has been working good things.  Adultery, abortion, adoption, abandonment, atheism, autism – all of the scarlet “A’s” in my story have been divinely ordained to drive me deeply into Jesus. Could there be a better end to any story than that?

While my growing in knowing Jesus has been the primary plot of providence and grace, there have been quite a few remarkable sub plots sewn throughout my story.  One of those sub plots relates to autism. 

God, being the incredible author that He is, has allowed me to see how the characters of my ever present autism coupled with those of my hard dying atheism create a unique tension in my tale.  Let me try and explain.

Recently, PLoSONE did a study on autism and belief in God. The results of that study suggest that people with autism are only 11% as likely to believe in God as those without autism.  They suggest that this is due, in part, to the autistic struggle with “theory of mind” – i.e. being able to mentalize or assess what another is thinking (in this case the "another" would be God.) 

While I can’t know for sure the accuracy of that statistic, I can say that from the experience of my own life and from the conversations I have with many other higher functioning folks with ASD, it really doesn’t surprise me one bit. 

I came to Christ in college, thanks to six gals who cared enough to step into my story of unbelief. They faithfully proclaimed the gospel to me, prayed that I’d be enabled to grasp it, and were continually present in the affairs of my daily life, allowing me to see “Christ in them, the hope of glory.” 

I did see Christ in them and, by grace through faith, I ran to Him in repentance. 

Mine was a radical conversion. I often describe it as a high speed cognitive car crash on a modern day Damascus Road.  My faith didn’t come easily and wasn’t entered into lightly. I kicked against the goads all along the way and the road trip to redemption whiplashed every square inch of my philosophical frame.  

Like Jacob, my wrestling with God – even with the God whose existence I questioned – left me with a limp, but in that limp was life!

In spite of a radical conversion, at times I still war against the old vestiges of atheistic doubt. The fiercest season of that fight happened about 7 years ago when I, PCA church pastor's wife that I am, found myself suddenly fainting in my faith and questioning if anything that I said I believed was truly believable.

This deep and almost metaphysical duel with doubt looked to many as if it might be the hamartia of my Greek tragedy.  In the rare moments that I was actually able to pray, I weakly echoed the words of that dear dad in Mark 9, “I believe, help my unbelief.”  Our merciful Savior did help my unbelief, carrying me through those dark days, and in the process shedding light on the physical Achilles’ heel that has played such a role in every chapter of the story of my life – autism.

Since my diagnosis with ASD, I’ve learned much. One thing I’ve learned is that my struggles with doubt seem to be uniquely linked to my struggles with autism.

You see, autism is a neurological disorder that affects certain areas of normal brain function.  One of the affected areas is in how the brain processes the 5 senses, and I believe this may be a key to help unlock some of the mystery of ASD faith struggles – at least it has helped me unlock some of my own.

With autism there is a neurological “disconnect” in the way that sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch filter through the body. That “disconnect” influences how we view, interpret, and interact with the world around us. 

If you think about it, the 5 senses are the primary way in which people discern reality and come to understand their environment.  We see a person, hear a bird, smell a flower, taste a piece of chocolate, or feel a hug from a friend and come to believe in the existence of that which we have just “sensed.”

For the person with ASD, it is as if much of life is interpreted via the short circuiting route of a neurologically frayed wire - think of a frayed stereo speaker wire.  

The “wire” through which sight, sound, smell, taste, and feeling (physical and emotional) travels is “frayed.”  It has a “short” in it and therefore, sensorial things sometimes reach us with a great deal of “static” and confusion attached.  

That “static” affects how we discern our surroundings and at times the electrifying physical pain which ensues can cause us to want to “unplug” from those surroundings.  Perhaps that will help you understand the moments when a person with ASD seems unplugged and disconnected from the things around them.  The truth is, we are – and by necessity.

This autistic static can serve as an aggravating source of struggle in processing through and connecting to what I call the “real” of life. 

Take the frayed wire scenario of autistic struggle to connect with the things of the physical world and transpose it into the autistic struggle to connect with the things of the spiritual world.  If that which is tangible is so hard to grasp, then how much harder that which is intangible?  If discerning the seen is such a struggle, then how much more is discerning the unseen? Perhaps enough to explain the staggering statistic of the PLoSONE study!

In my personal story of faith and doubt, the frayed wire of my neurology has played a recurring role in the narrative conflict of my theology.  

The way I’m physically wired has a unique correlation to how I spiritually struggle.  My doubt and my disability are related – that gives me no excuse for sinful doubt, I must repent of that, but it surely helps me to understand why doubt is such an aggravating thorn in my flesh.  Like Paul, the persistent prick of that thorn forces me to see that the grace of Jesus is sufficient for all that I face.   

How thankful I am for the preserving grace of an omnipotent and compassionate God; a God who knows my frame because He formed my frame; a God “who is able to keep me from falling, and to make me stand in the presence of His glory blameless and with great joy;” a God who gave me autism “that the works of God might be displayed” in my weakness.

I am often asked, “So Lori, how does the church hold forth the gospel and minister grace to people with autism in ways that are helpful and not hurtful?”  It’s a great question, because sadly the church has done much that has been hurtful rather than helpful to folks and families living with ASD. Our own family has endured quite a few hurtful things at the hands of Christ’s bride. 

The answer to that is really an article all its own. 

In regard to holding forth the gospel in an evangelistic sense:

  • We could talk about the ways that altar call emotionalism and a simplistic summons to blind faith can serve as pitfalls rather than pathways to grasping the gospel. 
  • We could walk through the autistic struggle to understand an intangible God and discuss how the gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is presented in God’s perfect Word, builds a tangible bridge to that intangible God. 
  • We could look at the idea of rest and the fact that physical rest is utterly unknown to so many who live with autism; and from there we could dialogue as to why settling into the call to rest in Christ is such a mystery. 
  • And finally, we could take some time looking at the simple means of grace: proclaiming, praying, and practicing the presence of the gospel when our stories intersect with the stories of a soul on the spectrum - just as six college students did when their stories intertwined with mine.  

There’s much that could and should be said about how the church can best help those who live with ASD. For now, I would simply encourage you to care about those who live with ASD. That is the foundational starting point for all the rest. The horror stories I hear, and the ones that I’ve experienced, have all ultimately flowed from a lack of compassionate concern and a lack of interest in trying to understand. 

So, if you want to minister grace to the person with ASD then I would simply call you to care!  
  • Care about that man, that woman, that child, that family who is struggling as they war their way through the angst of autism.  
  • Care enough to get to know them.  
  • Care enough to seek to understand them.  
  • Care about them as Christ has cared about you – with intentional compassion.  

Look for ways to compassionately enter their story even as Christ has compassionately entered yours!  

Jesus entered into the chaos of our stories with intentional gospel compassion at His incarnation and at our regeneration. In so doing, He has turned our divine comedies, allegorical adventures, and Greek tragedies into the greatest love story ever told.  

May we learn to love those with ASD, and everyone else we meet, as Christ has loved us; and as we do, may we see the “happily ever after” of the gospel begin to bear its eternal fruit in the narrative of our eternal tale. 

5 comments:

  1. I just read your article in By Faith Magazine after a friend shared it on facebook and then I found your blog from your music site. I'm really excited to read more. My son has autism and I want to understand everything I can to help him. This post was helpful to me. I really liked your explanation about the frayed wire. That makes a lot of sense. Thank you for writing about things that can't be easy to write about.

    ReplyDelete
  2. YES! THIS ARTICLE IS NEEDED! YOU ROCK, LORI SEALY!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Jennifer ThomasonMay 22, 2015 at 8:33 AM

    Lori, my question is when are you writing a book? Your articles have provided me with so many tools as a parent of a higher functioning ASD teen. I've learned so much from you and have been convicted of my lack of patience that flowed from my lack of understanding. The more I've learned the better I've learned to not be so naggy with my son. One thing I would love to see you address is stimming. Our doctor has tried several times to medicate for that and its never been very successful. The stims have settled down but it seems that other things have ramped up. Weve decided to not medicate even though he has some odd movements. Id love to know your thoughts on it and any advice you have. I know youve written about using your toes (?) in your stimming. Id really love to hear more on this. Maybe you could put a chapter on it in that book youre going to write. :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Everything you write blesses my soul. Thank you Lori for faithfully speaking to these issues and for always pointing us to Jesus as you do.

    ReplyDelete
  5. " Care about them as Christ has cared about you – with intentional compassion." This sentence jumped out at me...this is how I long to be and will continue to strive to be. Thank you for sharing so openly so that others like me can learn how to better reach out to all of God's children. You bless me continually Lori.

    ReplyDelete