Throughout Autism Awareness Month 2014, we’re honored to share with a blog series from a true champion of families of kids with autism and other special needs in the church. Dave Lynden will be sharing with us a six part series on the topic of Spiritual Autism.
Dave is a graduate of the University of Akron and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. While serving as an associate pastor at Far Hills Community Church in Dayton, OH, Dave was instrumental in launching a respite care initiative for families of kids with special needs. Dave and his wife (Desiree) experienced the need firsthand… their middle child (Micah) is diagnosed with autism. Early in Dave’s five year tenure as Senior Pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Chagrin Falls, ohio he launched “Breathe”…the largest, free, church-based respite ministry in Northeast Ohio. Here’s the first post in Dave’s series…
The morning ritual
Most mornings for our family are a clockwork-like routine. On school days, I get up around 5:50AM, get some sweatpants on, descend the staircase, make a pot of coffee and turn on the TV for the morning news shows. Then, it is time to head back upstairs and get the first two kiddos up. To achieve this, I typically reach up and grab our oldest- Josiah- by the heels and begin to drag him halfway out of his loft bed so that the sensation of hanging out of bed will wake him the rest of the way. Cruel, maybe. Effective, absolutely…and he has not fallen yet. Our daughter, Jordan, requires a simple wake-up call. After trudging down the stairs and over to the kitchen table, they slowly begin to nibble away at breakfast. Despite the grogginess and the tinge of crankiness of my two early morning diners, there is something peaceful about this morning routine. It has a certain serenity and quiet safety to it. Everything is ordered, everything is structured. Josiah and Jordan are still too sleepy to begin pecking at each other. It is a small moment shared with others who belong to you and you belong to them. I cannot say why I experience this sensation as I watch two of my kids slumped in chairs, eating their breakfast and grumbling about how tired they are and how tough they have got it, but I do. In all of its simplicity, it is a little wonder with two of my three children.
About the time they are finishing breakfast (and perking up), 7:00AM rolls around and it is time to wake up child #3 (whose bus comes later). And there is rote and routine here as well. Like his brother Josiah, waking Micah usually requires me to drag him feet first out of his bed. After a long, deep stretch, Micah begins pulling his socks and pants on, although still bleary-eyed and zombie-like. He slips his shirt over his head, gives me a big hug, squeezing his face against mine and then off we head downstairs, past Josiah and Jordan who are heading up the stairs to brush their teeth and have my wife Desiree fix up Jordan’s hair. Micah is still hugging me as we get to the steps, which he counts all the way down even while clinging to my side before tiptoeing over to the kitchen table to nibble away at his own breakfast. It is a small little innocuous moment and yet, one filled with wonder…if you are looking. Walter Brueggemann wrote,
“The most foundational experience of orientation is the daily experience of life’s regularities, which are experienced as reliable, equitable and generous…this experience is ordained and sustained by God.” (emphasis his)
Why don’t I experience God?
I don’t know if it is just me, but it always feels like I am waiting for some big encounter with God to assure me again of His presence and His care. I don’t need a burning bush, mind you. But, it seems like it should be something fairly out-of-the-ordinary, something that really stands out.
Perhaps if you have become familiar with the Bible, you might be tempted to see stories of God speaking audibly with Abraham or Jacob. Or perhaps you might see Daniel having dreams and visions and assume, “If I have an encounter with God, it should look something like that. So, why do I not experience God?”
Yet, sometimes it is these small wonders and little moments where it becomes obvious that God is present. We forget the story of Elijah when God “passes by” and he sees a firestorm, a windstorm and feels an earthquake only to experience God in a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). Sometimes, it is the simple, the subtle, the hard-to-detect that offers us a fresh encounter with God. Sometimes, it is in the everyday routines and rhythms, the “daily experience of life’s regularities” in which we are able to orient ourselves to see what might have slipped by in the chaos of the moment. I have found that my relationship with Micah not only helps me see something new about this relationship with God, but I even see it from what it might look like from God’s perspective.
Small breaks in the routine
Micah is a beautiful twelve year old boy who also has autism. He is very low functioning with a minimal capacity to use language expressively. His favorite toys are everyday items around the house with which he can engage in stimming (e.g. strings, beads, rubber snakes, etc…). His world is one regulated by routine- when he gets up, what he has for breakfast, the order of brushing his teeth, combing his hair, getting his coat on, waiting for the bus. Later the same day, when he gets off the bus, he checks the mailbox, comes in the house, takes off his shoes, gets his folder out and sets it in the same spot and then looks for snacks. Soon, it is time for dinner, some play time, a shower, brushing his teeth and getting ready for bed. For bed time, Micah will request the same book for a month at a time. Currently, we’re reading The Monster at the End of This Book and I have developed a sore throat from trying to talk like Grover every night for the past three weeks.
There are plenty of times when Micah is walking through his routines, that I find myself feeling more like a prop than a parent; more like a means than an end. If he cannot reach something in the cupboard above the refrigerator, he’ll grab my arm and aim it at what he wants. When he needs pressure, he wedges himself behind whoever is sitting in a living room chair. If I ask, I can get an obligatory hug from Micah, but if it interferes with one of his routines, he squawks loudly. As I stand back from these interactions, however, I wonder if that is how God experiences us. Perhaps we do not experience God’s presence because we are missing the gift of routine.
God’s routines and rhythms
Curiously, the story of the Bible begins with routines. It begins with a certain rhythm. God speaks- “Let there be”…and it is so…and there was ______ (e.g. light, waters above and below, land, fish, birds, etc…)…and God saw that it was good…and there was evening and there was morning, day ____. Woven into the very creation is a rhythm to the week- six days work, one day rest. Then later on in Genesis, God establishes another routine, another rhythm- the seasons (Gen. 8:22). Such a rhythm is quite counter-cultural to our world of 24/7 news coverage and the immediate accessibility, the adrenaline junkies seeking new thrills and the continual need for upgrades for our tech toys. And yet, God counters our penchant for stimulation (which, left unchecked, will ultimately overstimulate us) and has gifted us with rhythm and routine in life.
Micah may need routine, but even through his disorder, God has been teaching me about order. God has given us routines and rhythms for living so that we do not get overwhelmed and frustrated. I stumbled across an interesting observation while reading the book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon. The main character, telling the story in the first person, is a teenaged autistic savant who shares with the reader the feeling of being overwhelmed by too much noise and change. He describes it as trying to listen to an AM radio station where two stations are coming in at the same time and all you hear is static with an occasional word or two. Is this what Micah experiences? Is this how our children with autism feel? This is why we give our children the gift of routines and structure. And in that, perhaps we can stop and see beyond another sunrise, or the rhythm of the work week or the school year to understand that God is offering us structure to help us cope with our “spiritual autism”. Brueggemann wrote this about the rhythm and routine of the week with Sabbath rest:
“Sabbath is an unspoken prayer for the coming of a new sanity shaped by the power and graciousness of God.”
In a word, we experience God by the rhythm and routines He gives our lives. And we also experience God in the breaks in the routine.
Breaks in the routine
There is something more about the gift of routines: they can create a contrast to help us see what might be considered small and insignificant. One of the mantras of wisdom that our autism support group used to rehearse is to celebrate the small, incremental progressions of our children with autism. And they were easier to see because the routines make them stand out so much more than our typical children.
For instance, Micah and I have a very regular bedtime routine. After brushing his teeth, he leaps into his bed. He must have “Tiger” (his favorite stuffed animal), whom he holds tightly with his left arm. I then pull his favorite blanket over him, lay down on the side of the bed with the big floor fan blowing at us and read him his night time story. Then I sing him the Shema (I was raised Jewish and this was part of my night time routine), pray for him and tell him, “I love you, Micah” to which he responds, “I love you, Micah”. I shake my head and point to myself and he makes the correction- “I love you (pause), Daddy.” “Night night”, I say. “Night night”, he echoes back. “See you in the morning”, I say. “See you in the morning”, he echoes back…and then I am free to leave the room and allow him some sleep.
That is how we have done bedtime for years. So when Micah and I were settling down for bed and I said, “I love you Micah”, the break in the routine stood in sharp contrast to the norm. This particular night, he rolled towards me, pressed his nose against my nose and giggling, said without prompt or adjustment, “I love you, Daddy”. The routine created a backdrop for this interaction. The “I love you” statements that get tossed about so casually in most typical relationships jumped out at me with Micah. And this moment, too, taught me how to move past this spiritual autism of ours. It called me to pay attention to the subtle differences, to the incremental changes in the routine. With a child who is so restricted socially, the question of, “Does he really know I love him? Does he really love me?” is answered by the break in the routine- “I love you (pause), Daddy.”
We need, then, to both know our routines and pay attention to the subtle changes. When we look at the sky that we see every day and every night with a new tinge of purple or orange painted across the bottoms of the clouds, we see God reaching through the routines to get our attention. When we read the Gospels or the Psalms and get away from the assumptions we bring to the text and then see something we had never seen before, God is drawing us out to a fuller awareness of who He is. And yet, it is the routines that draw our attention to these moments in the first place. It is the routines that slow us down enough to hear the still, small voice of God. Part of the solution to the spiritual autism that isolates us from God and makes “eye-contact” so difficult is the discipline of slowing, the structure of routine, what some Christians call a personal “Rule of Life”. I love what Chuck Swindoll once said when it comes to the speed of life and the lack of quiet.
“The only trouble with success is that the formula for achieving it is the same as the formula for a nervous breakdown.”
One of our more recent mornings went like clockwork. The kids were up at the slated times. Breakfasts were eaten, sleepy kids grumbled, teeth were brushed, hair was combed, backpacks were filled and buses were boarded. But, this morning presented a slight change to Micah’s routine. Our dog Buttercup recently had ACL surgery and we have begun short walks down the driveway as part of her therapy. So we combined Micah’s walk to the bus with Buttercup’s therapy, which meant that I had to stop halfway down the driveway and allow Micah to get on the bus without me right next to him. The change in the routine offered a contrast and thus, insight. He followed much of the routine as though I were right there. And standing back with a wider perspective of everything, I could see beyond the routine.
Without me there to stop him from getting his shoes wet, Micah played around the stream of ice water in the drainage ditch which ran under our driveway, hopping over the tiny brook or tossing in a stone for the “kerplunk” noise. With the subtle switch in routine and my newfound perspective, I watched this little boy experience a bit of wonder in the things that we both pass by so quickly in the midst of our various missions of the day. When the bus arrived, Micah was standing in his typical place. The door opened, he climbed on and in accordance with the routine, said (with back still turned to me), “Bye Dad, I love you.” But, I was a little further back with the dog and I didn’t hear him, thus breaking the routine of echoing back to him, “Bye Micah, I love you.” The break caused Micah to stop, turn back, look directly at me and repeat, “Bye Dad, I love you.” I responded, “Bye Micah, I love you. Have a good day at school.” A broad smile crossed his face and then he sat down to buckle up. Was this how God sees us? Is this how God gains our attention? With routines, and subtle breaks in the routine? Is this one of the still, small voices by which God breaks through our spiritual autism to look at us face-to-face and declare, “I love you” with greater clarity? Is it the broad smile of understanding that God is seeking in us?
“The most foundational experience of orientation is the daily experience of life’s regularities, which are experienced as reliable, equitable and generous…this experience is ordained and sustained by God.”
 Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms- A Theological Commentary, pub. by Augsburg, 1984, p. 28
Some photos courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net
Emily Colson, speaker, award-winning author and mother of Max will be serving as our special guest blogger for Autism Awareness Day 2014 on Wednesday, April 2nd, and will be our featured interview for a special edition of Inclusion Fusion on Monday, April 7th. Emily will share her family’s experience prior to finding a church where they were welcomed and accepted, and we’ll learn of the unique and wonderful ways that Max has been a blessing to the people of his church. Emily will be available at designated times throughout the day to chat online, and our participants will be provided the opportunity to share their stories as well. Mark your calendars today!