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God’s gift of hope in a struggle with autism

DES MOINES, Iowa (BP)–Two days: one bleak and one sunny.

The first day was in November, 1991. My wife, Rachel, and I traveled to Iowa City, Iowa with our son, Philip, age 5 at the time. Philip was being evaluated at the Child Psychaiatry Department of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Several people in the school district and our pediatrician had suspected Philip might be autistic. He was not developing normally and the teachers at his preschool were concerned about his lack of socialization with the other children. I was not convinced and was hoping for some vindication at the end of the six-hour round of diagnostic tests.

I was wrong.

At the end of the day, the doctors, social workers, psychologists and counselors gathered with Rachel, Philip and me in the conference room. “We think Philip has a mild form of autism,” Dr. Joseph Piven said to us. My heart sank.

Also known as Asperger’s syndrome, Philip’s autism is mild compared to many afflicted with the disorder, which may affect as many as one out of every 150 children. No one knows the cause of autism and at this point, there is no known cure — although there is much hope with early intervention and treatment. Autistic persons have communication and social deficits. They tend to be introverted, insist on routine and sometimes have obsessive-compulsive traits. Some speak and others are non-verbal. Many also are mentally challenged, although Philip is in the 30 percent or so that have a near-normal IQ but are affected with communication and emotional challenges.

We rode the 90 miles home on a gray, overcast afternoon and our school’s early intervention specialist, whose son also is disabled, did her best to encourage us. Later that evening, my wife and I grieved in our own ways — she withdrawing and crying, me calling friends to break the news. It seemed mighty hopeless.

I pictured Philip’s future, living in an institution, barely able to cope with society, with few friends and a bleak life. The movie “Rain Man” had just come out, in which Dustin Hoffman portrayed an autistic man who could barely cope with the world outside of his sheltered existence at an institutional facility.

Flash forward 17 years.

Yesterday, May 7, 2009, Philip graduated from college. He works as a horticulturist in the parks department of the city where we live in central Iowa. And, I should add, the day in Des Moines was a sunny spring day! My mood is much more upbeat and bright than it was on that dark, somber day in 1991.

In the intervening years, we found many resources in the school systems, the medical community and in the churches for kids with disabilities.

Philip received special educational services from the schools he attended. In elementary schools, he was assigned a one-on-one teacher’s aide. Later he outgrew that need and in high school he was only receiving special education services as needed from a homeroom teacher who specialized in autism. Philip had trouble learning to read and write but loved math and science. Today his spelling is still pretty “creative” but he finished his commercial horticulture coursework with a 3.5 GPA at the community college.

Churches have helped our family tremendously over the past 20 years or so as we tried to help Philip develop and grow physically, mentally and spiritually.

At LifeWay’s Glorieta Baptist Conference Center, kind counselors and staff at a youth camp helped Philip understand the Gospel message one summer afternoon. I asked Philip, “What did you learn about in camp today?” as we walked back to our lodge. “God and stuff,” was his minimal answer. We talked more about “God and stuff” and that led to a profession of faith — which was celebrated in the evening worship time as I watched from the back of the room with tears in my eyes.

Later the special needs ministry editor at LifeWay Christian Resources, Ellen Beene, gave Rachel opportunities to write and train in special needs ministry. Now Rachel consults with Iowa church leaders in the area of special needs and she teaches a class of adults with special needs in our church on Sunday morning.

Philip started his horticulture career a few weeks ago when he landed a job in the parks department of Windsor Heights, Iowa. It was his ninth interview of a two-month job search. Job interviews were excruciatingly hard for Philip. He is known among city employees as the nice young man who takes care of the flower beds and quietly works hard all day long in the park. He has a set of friends he communicates with on the Internet and he is so proud of his college accomplishments. And Rachel and I are just a little bit proud also!

Two days: one bleak; one sunny. God helped our family get through the diagnosis of autism with a gift of hope.

God promises “For I know the plans I have for you” — [this is] the Lord’s declaration — “plans for [your] welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11 HCSB)
Richard Nations is the publications editor of the Iowa Baptist (bcisbc.com), newsjournal of the Baptist Convention of Iowa.

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  • Richard Nations