The church was packed. The music was loud. Lily clasped her hands over her ears and started to shake. Her father gave her a pair of earphones and took her outside where Lily waved her hands in front of her eyes and slowly calmed down. Two boys came over. The older, about fifteen years of age, said, “Hi. I don’t like the music so loud either. I wear earphones too.”
Lily ignored him but her father smiled.
The smaller boy looked at the ground and said, “The whirlwind vacuum cleaner had to be cranked by hand. But there are not many left now. They all got burned up in the fire in Chicago in 1871.”
All three of these children have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with varying abilities to communicate.
If your child has just been diagnosed with ASD, it means he or she is unique and special, just as every child is unique and special. Your son or daughter will have strengths and weaknesses; good times and hard times; successes and failures, just like all children. Your child will also be very different from other children with ASD. It is good to remember the saying, “If you know a child with ASD, then you know one child with ASD.” However, God knows his people so intimately he can number every hair on their heads (Matthew 10:30). And it is your privilege to let your child know nothing can separate him or her from the love of the creator of the universe (Romans 8:38–39).
What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
The term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) was identified in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) in 2013. This is a manual doctors and psychologists use when diagnosing patients.
To be diagnosed with ASD, the following traits must be observed:
1) Difficulties with social and communication skills:
• Problems relating to peers and developing friendships
• Problems understanding both verbal and nonverbal communication
• May avoid eye contact and does not understand the concept of give and take in relationships and in conversations
• Expresses emotions differently from what may be expected
2) Has restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior:
• Might get fixated on a special interest or routine and be very inflexible with change
• May love lining up objects or organizing objects into patterns
• Speech and movements can be repetitive and might rock or flap or spin.
3) Has hyper- or hypo-activity to the senses, including balance and body position in space.
A New Path
Jen was thrilled when she gave birth to the daughter she had always wanted. But by three years of age, little Amy did not interact much with others, preferring to line up her collection of shells over and over again. She screamed for the slightest reasons and ignored most people, even those she knew well. After visits to many doctors, Amy was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. For Jen, this was a relief. Finally there was an explanation for Amy’s behaviors, but it also brought an awareness that there was no quick fix for the difficulties Amy faced. Jen did not love Amy any less; in fact, a fierce love welled up inside her. Amy was her precious child, no matter what label was put on her, but still many hopes and expectations had to take a new direction.
And that’s the secret of coping with a diagnosis. You’re on a new path, one you may not have chosen for yourself. But it’s not a wrong path or a path of punishment, and certainly not a hopeless path—simply a new path. It’s not a bad thing to be initially sad or confused about an ASD diagnosis.
Some parents will agonize, “What did I do to cause this? Did I eat something or drink something I shouldn’t have?” Or they look at their spouses with new eyes, assuming the “gene” must have come from that side of the family. Others cry out to God, “Why me? Why my child? Am I being punished?” Sometimes the answers given by well-meaning people are not so helpful. Glib quotes such as, “God will never give you burdens you can’t bear,” (often misquoted from 1 Corinthians 10:13) or “God needed someone extra special for this child, so he chose you,” are little help to parents who haven’t slept for two years and have just endured another of their child’s hour-long meltdowns.
But there are answers.
The Bible tells us we live in a fallen world and every one of us is less than we would be in a perfect world. Even before Adam and Eve chose to control their own lives rather than trust in God’s love for them, God set in motion a plan that would draw all people back to him. Today we all live as part of that plan. God has a purpose for every one of us, which is ultimately to grow closer to him and glorify him. The paths we take to those ends are unique for every one of us. Not one person’s path is Plan B. In God’s eyes, no one is lower or higher or more or less important than anyone else. God knew all people before they were conceived, and he guides and protects his people in every step they take (Psalm 23:1–4).
Did God Give My Child Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Never forget that a fact doesn’t negate a truth. It’s a fact that those with ASD can experience difficulties. It’s also a fact that God has knit them in their mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). This does not mean God is not caring or loving. Rather, the truth is God is caring and loving, and he cares for, loves, and is always present with your child.
Jesus addressed the issue of imperfections when he was on earth.
As he [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in his life.” (John 9:1–3 NIV)
Note how Jesus turns the disciples’ questions away from the cause of the problem to the outcome of the problem. Regardless of why this man was blind, society looked down on him, yet Jesus healed him and God was glorified. There are many examples in the Bible of God using people for purposes that others would not think them fit. God chose Moses to speak for him, despite Moses being a murderer and a stutterer. He chose David to defeat Goliath although David was just a boy with a sling. And likewise, God has a purpose for you and your child.
The cause of ASD may never be known. Perhaps there are environmental or genetic or biological reasons or the world simply needs a new way of thinking. But your child’s purpose is the same as your own purpose, regardless of any circumstance you both face—to be loved by God and to give him glory (Romans 11:36).
American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5 (Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013).
Excerpted adapted from Autism Spectrum Disorder and Your Child © 2016 by Kathy Hoopmann. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.