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February 18, 2023

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There I was again, holding onto the phone as if for dear life—which, in a sense, I was.
6 min read

There I was again, holding onto the phone as if for dear life—which, in a sense, I was. This was not the first time I had placed such a call, having come to the end of what I knew to do with my autistic son (now ten). The person on the other end of the line was a veteran special ed teacher, a tried-and-true source of wisdom and empathy when it came to all things neurodivergent and all parents desperate. Not only is he a really careful listener, but when his mind attaches to a problem having to do with a “different” kid needing “different” help, you can almost see the hamster running on the wheel behind his eyes, as his brain gives the situation his tenacious, no-holds-barred attention. He is a situation-solver down to his bones.

The dilemma this time? My approximately 5-foot, 100 lbs. kid has been having problems protesting appropriately. If he only needed to protest once a month that would be one thing. But now, approaching his pre-teen years, my decidedly big boy is getting quite touchy about being told what to do when he clearly has his own agenda. Specifically, he does not like limitations being placed on him—like lowering the sound on his iPad, not pressing the enticing red button in an elevator, or being informed it’s time to stop doing one preferred activity and start another less appealing. In an instant, my sweet child can let loose a pterodactyl scream, a gob of spit, or, most alarmingly, windmill an arm in either his dad’s or my direction.

If only he could tell us how much he hates what is being said to him, or even hates his dad and me in that insurgent moment, we would have more to work with, less to worry about. Because words, however unpleasant, are mostly acceptable coming from a kid, mostly moldable. But lacking such verbal skills (especially during episodes of anger), my son is reduced to the methods of a toddler to make his displeasure known. Not socially acceptable at all at his age, and potentially dangerous. Something needed to be done about it, and done now.

Hence the phone call, to see if there were some strategy I might employ based on some clue I was missing. After he had heard me out, the teacher had a wealth of things to say, some of them meant to talk me off the ledge that this latest developmental challenge had pushed me onto. He reminded me of my son’s strengths, such as reading visual aids, and encouraged me to make up signs to communicate my boy’s choices to him when emotions are riding high. He suggested we read books on anger during times when everyone is calm, so the topic of human emotion can be better understood. Offering my son a “punching pillow” is another option, a place where he might safely channel unwieldy feelings. Each of these suggestions was accompanied by stories of children in his classes who had benefitted from them—some of whom seemed worse off than my kiddo.

One word of counsel stood out to me amidst all the rest. The teacher said, “The most important component to all this is one that everyone forgets about. And that is: you have to offer the kid a way back.” Meaning, if a child is having a really hard time behaviorally, and is triggering unpleasant consequences left and right, the adult in charge has to show that one can be redeemed, so to speak. That there is a light at the end of the tunnel to work towards, where things will get better again. Otherwise, with no hope of a return to normalcy, a child has no motivation to fight their downward spiral, like a derelict convict with no chance at parole for good behavior.

This golden nugget of advice immediately brought to mind one of my son’s toys, which is a track you piece together like a puzzle so a windup car can run along its grooves. One or two of the pieces have twists and turns that set the car spinning back in the direction from which it comes. Besides being fun to watch, that circular motion keeps the car from simply rolling in a straight line off the track and getting lost. The curve keeps everything contained, moving where it should be until needing to be wound up again.

The teacher’s recommendation also brought to mind a Scripture, which I find remarkable for a relevant reason:

Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

Isaiah 1:18 ESV

If you read the verse in the Hebrew, the small word translated as “now,” which is “nah” (נא) in the original text, stands out to me because of who is speaking it, and to whom. Called a “particle of entreaty,” this “nah” is often attached to a petitionary verb used by a person of lesser social ranking speaking to a person of higher social ranking. Not so here. The Most High God of Israel is speaking it to His people, and in the context of them having sinned against Him. It is almost as if He has come down from His exalted throne and extended a hand toward His wayward sons and daughters. “Walk and talk with me,” He exhorts, quite incredibly, “and let’s figure out a way to get back to a good place.”

Honestly, if I heard that invitation more often inside my soul, I’d go running full speed into the eternal arms. If I had any idea how low my Lord bends down towards me, I’d never hesitate, never stop winding myself up—doing whatever it takes—to catapult myself once more in His direction.

Because the sad truth is that I more often find myself spiraling down emotionally when in trouble. Not expecting God to help me return to His good graces because I feel I have disappointed—or worse, angered—Him. I have no problem imagining myself triggering all manner of painful consequences from Him. It’s the empathetic part that escapes me, the picture of God wanting to hold me close and speak reassuringly, putting Himself at my disposal, absurdly true as that may be.

But then I remember how I feel about my son, especially when he is struggling. His autism may batter, exhaust, and even terrify me, but it does NOT have the power to make me love my boy any less than I do. I love him despite his special needs, perhaps even more because of them. And for that reason, I will never, ever, leave him to his own devices or let him go sailing off the track he’s supposed to be on with none to save him.

Recently he came down with Covid, and one of his major symptoms was gastrointestinal in nature. The first night after his test came back positive, my husband heard him stirring about in the wee hours of the morning. Getting up to investigate, he found my son in the bathroom, having made quite a mess. Without getting too graphic, let’s say he did not quite get there in time. And his attempts to clean everything up with a towel were only making things worse. So my husband washed him and put him back to bed, and then dealt with the bathroom and himself.

“I felt so bad for him,” he told me later, “because he looked so miserable. Even though he’s ten, he’s still quite helpless in some ways.” Not a trace of resentment could be detected in his voice as he described all the effort he had had to expend on our boy.

Quite helpless. Embroiled in a mess of our own making that we have no hope of expunging on our own. Wretched because of it.

Is that how God sees us?

Is He in it for the long haul, committed to what He can do for us rather than what we can do for Him, no matter the cost?

I’m guessing that God has never been under any illusions about what He can expect from us as His sons and daughters. Even on our best days, we will still be His special needs children, who will always need Him infinitely more than He will ever “need” us. If He really does need us, it must be akin to how my husband and I need our son. We need him because we love him so much and want to do all in our power to see him prosper. We are not complete without him, not remotely fulfilled in our capacity to love and be loved.

With all this in mind (or, rather, “in heart”), I’m going to start looking. Looking much harder for that pathway back to God that He has undoubtedly laid down before me on the other side of discipline. In fact, I’ll be searching His face to see if He’s skipping the discipline altogether and just wants to help me get cleaned up and back to a place of rest. Maybe it’s less often about triggering consequences than I think, and more about His complete compassion for my suffering, however it has been brought on. My husband would no more have spanked my son for the early morning mess he had made than left him in it. That’s how love is.

Please join me in my search for the way back. The more of us that look for that sometimes-elusive groove, the better the chance we have of finding it.

The better the chance we have of coming home.