Emily Colson is an author, speaker and extraordinarily powerful advocate for the inclusion of families impacted by disability in the church. Most importantly, she’s Max’s mom. We’re honored that Emily agreed to serve as our guest blogger for Autism Awareness Day 2014, and our guest for this month’s Inclusion Fusion Web Symposium on Monday, April 7. Here’s Emily…
I desperately needed church this morning to calm my fevered mind. Pressures have splintered my life lately. I am living in fragments of therapies, paperwork, medical appointments, work demands. And in between I’m often in a frenzied search for one of Max’s favorite objects that’s gone missing, which in our house feels like a sign of the end times. I’d been nursing a four-day stress headache, and I needed to be quiet before God. I craved stillness.
But our morning would be more aerobic.
Max stood in the doorway of church so excited that he was practically vibrating. His helper Marsha stood proudly beside us. It’s not that I can’t manage my 23-year-old son with autism alone; I’ve been a single mother for most of Max’s life. But when someone steps in to help, I feel like the ground shifts less beneath me. I straightened my son’s blue blazer and the three of us waited for the first car to pull up. Max stared through the windows and then started to bounce, straight up from his toes. His calf muscles are the size of New Jersey. As a woman approached the door Max stretched out his hand, his voice exploding into the foyer. “Welcome to church!” he yelled, now leaping like a 190-pound ballerina. Caught off guard, and trying to grab for his moving-target handshake, the woman burst into a smile. “Thank you,” she answered, her armor dropping noticeably.
After 30 minutes of high-impact greeting, I corralled Max over to the busy Welcome Center. That’s Max’s spot during the service. We’re a bit too “wiggly” to enjoy sitting through the sermon just yet. Max often sits with a helper at the Welcome Center, and I’m even able to attend some of the service. Max listens to the sermon on a television monitor positioned beside the Welcome Center. When our pastor reads scripture, Max always reads along for others to hear, holding up the sermon worksheets as if he were the town crier. Max sleeps with those worksheets under his pillow. We’ve come a long way since those early years of staying home on Sunday mornings when we couldn’t find our place. Back then, like so many families, we couldn’t even make it across the threshold. Autism held us hostage. I had to make a conscious decision to go forward every day, no matter what, and claim the abundant life God promises. I always knew Max needed the church, but no one could have imagined how much the church needed Max.
The church service ended and Max threw open the doors. Light spilled into the darkened church. As the music began, loud with guitars and drums, I let go of my helium-filled son. People here expect Max now, delight in him. If their only contact with Max had been at the mall or the park, they might have smiled politely and passed him by, or even pretended they didn’t notice. I might have too. Most of us avoid what makes us this uncomfortable. We keep our distance, until someone changes position.
The music carried Max through the open doorway and right into the church. I prayed extra hard, asking God to surround him with angels, a Holy Spirit cowcatcher clearing the track of small children and older folks, especially those carrying cups of hot coffee. I watched as Max made it to the center of the church, and then dropped to the floor in a yoga-gone-break-dance move. Max’s arms and legs flew wildly as if bouncing over twisting currents of whitewater. He became the music. I could see the worship team smiling at him from up on stage.
Max jumped to his feet and lept toward several people who were standing and singing. We do have a non-traditional format in our church, but this is New England; people here are rather restrained in their worship. My trigger fast reflexes kicked in and I darted into the church, ready to shift Max into a more open space. But before I could get there, people started clapping for Max. His unbridled joy seemed to call others to it. The whole back row welcomed him. And in that moment they all forgot themselves.
And they danced.
The beauty and ache caught in my heart, and everything stopped. Even the music grew faint. I could see Max still dancing but he was in slow motion, floating weightlessly in a too big sort of way, like a bubble in a lava lamp. And I knew I’d seen a little miracle this morning, watching our lives connect, seeing God plant gifts in Max that the rest of us desperately need. It’s as if God gives gifts to one person knowing they will be delivered to another, like a spiritual FedEx system. But we have to get up close, forget ourselves, and be open to receive. God’s fingerprints are on every life.
I could sense Max’s presence behind me. He was making breathy little noises from all that exercise. Max gently wrapped his arms around my shoulders from behind, this gargantuan muscle-bound young man hovering over his tiny mouse-mother. I think he was smelling my hair. I leaned back against my son in awe of how God has used Max to bless so many lives, right through the autism. God can create such beauty through what the world defines as brokenness and loss; He never makes mistakes. And there, in the noise, in the flashes of neon vying for my attention, in the unpredictability of life with autism, I found my focus. And I was still.
Emily Colson is a popular speaker, and author of the award winning book, Dancing with Max. She speaks in churches and organizations nationwide, and has appeared on numerous media outlets including Focus on the Family, the Huckabee Show, and Hallmark’s Home & Family. Her book was recently awarded “Book of the Year” by the Autism Society. Through her powerful message of the sanctity of life, Emily has inspired many to persevere through their own challenges and see the gifts. Emily has been a single mother for most of Max’s 23 years, with hard fought lessons in faith, life, love and a whole lot of laughter. Emily and Max live on the coast of New England where they can often be found dancing.
Key Ministry has assembled a helpful resource on the topic of Asperger’s Disorder and Spiritual Development. This page includes the blog series Dr. Grcevich and Mike Woods developed for Key Ministry, links to lots of helpful resources from other like-minded organizations, and Dr. Grcevich’s presentation on the topic from the 2012 Children’s Ministry Web Summit. Click here to access the page!