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 shared a seven 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.”
Becoming More Fluid in Our Relationship With God
I have a friend named Tom, who I have been investing in as a spiritual mentor. Tom is a very enthusiastic, very driven person who started off his journey as a Christian with an amazing zeal. Along the way, Tom began to be involved in more and more activities at the church until he began to feel a certain level of spiritual fatigue. The feeling of disconnect with God was also still evident, which confused Tom since it seemed logical that if one reads their Bible more and comes to more and more church activities, the connection should begin to grow, right? And yet, it had not.
“Man! I just feel like I am spiritually tired and God still seems so distant. What do I do?,” he said.
Having gotten to know Tom and his git-‘er-done, gung-ho spirit, I wondered if he had substituted events for relationship; if he had assumed that there was a simple equation like- Bible study + small group + ministry involvement = closer connection to God. It certainly seemed like a static system of fixed movements. So I gave him an assignment involving our son with autism.
“OK Tom, here is what I want you to do. If you are coming to church this Sunday, I want you to spend one of the hours watching Micah. And as you interact with him, I want you to think of yourself as God and Micah as you. In other words, use this little moment to see yourself through God’s eyes and tell me what you learn about yourself and your relationship with God.”
Tom, who is both very willing and very teachable, ran with it. I saw him that Sunday morning near the end of second service. The sweat was beading on his forehead. He was smiling, but clearly exhausted. Micah was twirling about the atrium while Tom was catching a breather. The service was ending with a time of dedication prayer for our graduating High School Seniors. Micah, who had lulled Tom into a false sense of security (one of his best tricks), saw his chance and made a break for it, running into the Worship Center while everyone prayed, with his eye on the drum set at the back of the platform. Tom’s eyes widened and he launched himself after Micah before he disrupted the service. Thankfully, my wife headed Micah off at the pass. Later that week, we debriefed. I asked Tom if he knew why I had given him that assignment.
“I think so. When I picked him up at the door, I reminded myself that I was to look at this as though I were God and Micah was me…and a lot of stuff makes so much more sense now.”
“How so?,” I asked as Tom leaned in, ready to share his thoughts.
“Well, Micah is a really sweet kid. He was really giggly and wanted to be tickled all of the time. By the way, what is a ‘Mike Tyson?’ He kept asking for that.”
“Oh, a ‘Mike Tyson’ is when I nibble on his ear.”, I responded.
Tom got a laugh out of that little inside joke and then continued-
“You know, I really wanted to connect with him, but he couldn’t seem to move beyond the basics. He had his own agenda. When we went to the playground outside, he used me as a human ladder to climb to the monkey bars. And then he would use me to get back down again. I wanted to talk, but he just didn’t seem to understand my words. And he was all over the place. He couldn’t sit still for one thing long enough to enjoy it or connect with me. He was off for another thing to get into. It was like he could play around me, but not play with me.”
“And how did you see you and God?”, I asked.
“I get it. That’s me with God. I cannot seem to slow down long enough to find God’s desire to connect with me in all the events of life. I kind of use God the way Micah was using me- like a vending machine or something to get what I want. Relating to him felt kind of mechanical. It wasn’t fluid. I could totally see myself in this exercise.”
That is where we start with this mysterious “relationship with God” that so many people refer to, but so few can clearly define- with a little perspective, with a little self-awareness. The story of the Bible starts out at two places- the goodness of creation and the utter disruption of rebellion. I wanted Tom to live a little bit in the world of brokenness, not as Tom, but as God working with the broken creation. It is a great exercise to glimpse things from God’s viewpoint. And one of the things I wanted Tom to see was how static, rather than fluid, our relationship with God really is. In my own reflections, autism really brings my disconnect with God into HD-level clarity.
Let me stop at this point and explain what I mean by “static” and “fluid” relationships. We are so used to looking at another person face-to-face while we talk that we take it for granted how complex communication really is. It is one of the relational features of what Dr. Steven Gutstein calls a “fluid communication system”. Gutstein, a clinical psychologist and autism researcher, explains the difference between relationships for people with and without autism in terms of “static systems” and “fluid systems” of communication.
Every time two or more people interact they create a temporary communication system. A “fluid system” is one in which there is a free-flow of communication; not just through words, but through body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, volume, etc… A fluid communication system is when you and a friend sit down “face-to-face” at a Starbucks to have some coffee and shoot the breeze. The conversation moves about without any pre-planned course. The topics change depending on the mood, the interest, the un-choreographed “dance” of the relationship.
A “static system” is just the opposite. It is outcome-oriented. There are very clear boundaries; the movements of the relationship are very predictable, very staged. Standing in line at the bank is a “static system”. You walk into the bank, stand at the back of the line, stay within the roped off aisles. When it is your turn, you step to the next available teller, who says to you, “How are you today?” and you reply, while turning in the bank slip, “I’m fine. How are you?” After the teller completes the task, you get a copy of the transaction statement, you say “thank you” and “have a nice day”, and you step off to the side and go back to your car. And no one would think it strange that you and the teller never made direct eye contact. It is unnecessary because the relationship is “static”; it is based purely on function.
A person with autism, while often able to learn static systems, struggles to function in a fluid system. Micah can verbally ask for a cookie or juice, but he cannot share an experience with me. Nor does he seem to understand when I say, “I love you.” In short, our relationship is imprisoned in the routine, in the choreographed.
And that is the analogy I used to help Tom face his checklist spirituality, his “static relationship with God.” Tom, like many of us, often relate to God through a series of activities. We read our Bibles. We pray. We show up on Sunday morning and maybe put some money in the plate. Perhaps we are even involved in some ministries. And yet, like Tom, many of us also feel like this is an “on-paper” relationship with God. We could walk through the whole routine and never make “eye contact”, so to speak, with God. It feels more like an equation than it does a give-and-take fluid system of communication. It can feel choreographed, routine, static and…well, empty.
Using our sanctified imaginations a little might help us move this elusive relationship with God into a more fluid way. So let me suggest a few exercises that I have found to be very helpful in overcoming our “spiritual autism”.
- Locate yourself in God’s story
As we grow closer to God, the difficult thing is knowing where we have come from- not just individually, but also collectively as human beings. The world as it once was is so hard to grasp. It is much like a dream- a wonderful, vivid dream that we do not want to wake from and yet, when we are awake, we lose the dream quickly from our mind’s eye. The cares and speed of the day sweep those visions into the air like a small dust cloud that quickly dissipates in the wind and disappears into the background of the outdoor world. A person with a more fluid relationship with God will work hard at seeing the world that God created and then see the heights of our fall from grace in a broader context. As we locate ourselves in God’s story, we are on the other side of a perfect world, that like our dreams, escapes our minds and imaginations much too quickly! At the same time, we are being drawn towards an ending in which all things come to a climax of restoration, having seen the plot take a sharp turn away from the downward spiral of despair at the cross and the empty tomb.
This is so important because without a metanarrative (the larger story we find ourselves located in), the day-to-day events feel like individual and unrelated moments. They easily break down into a black-and-white evaluation of what happened and why. We experience a difficulty, for instance, and try to figure out if we had it coming, if it was fair or unfair, if there is someone to blame? The event is not seen against the backdrop of any larger story and thus its’ meaning to us is relegated to a static sentence is a chapter-less existence. This is symptomatic of ‘spiritual autism”.
The story of the Bible starts us off “in the beginning” when the relationship with God was unhindered and fluid. It shows us how we ended up where we are currently at and then where we are going. In other words, the beginning of God’s narrative offers us the background for the pages and chapters of our day-to-day moments, encounters and troubles in life. The world as it once was gives a point of comparison and contrast. It allows us to see our moments from the 30,000 foot perspective.
I remember when I was on a mission trip in the mountains of Guatemala and for the first time ever, I saw the Milky Way. It looked like someone had smeared the stars across the black sky! And a friend of mine who had served in the military in the Middle East told me that in the middle of the desert- far from any artificial light- the stars come right down to the bottom of the horizon. Beauty- be it in nature or in the perfection of a newborn baby or in a piece of music that has the markings of genius and soul- these are all glimpses into a world that once was; these are all traces of a world that has disappeared, but not completely.
Yet, from this 30,000 foot vantage point, there are also many pictures of the brokenness as well. The same desert my friend found himself in was due to the Iraq War. We were in Guatemala because we were trying to aid a church in dire poverty. And beautiful newborns can still grow up to be quite rebellious. All of this points us towards the upcoming chapters and where the plot will turn next.
Relating to God starts with finding your location in the story He is telling. The relationship, like any other relationship, starts with context. Otherwise, it is simply a functional relationship like that of a bank teller and a person making a deposit or withdrawal from their checking account. No eye contact required.
- Understand how you are the one disconnecting
Whenever I talk to people about their feeling of disconnect with God, it always seems- whether consciously or unconsciously- that they seem to blame God for the problem of unfamiliarity. Rarely do I meet people who both struggle to know God AND at the same time see themselves as the ones with the problem. But, one of the most important first steps in relating to God is to see yourself in a way that you may have never considered before- that the communication breakdown is on your shoulders, not God’s. There are practices to help us shift perspectives. For Tom, it was an hour with a special needs child and the task of trying to look through God’s eyes to see himself. For others, it might be asking an honest friend how often you miss things being said to you or how frequently you seem to tune out in the middle of a conversation. If we do this with others, we surely do it with God!
- Don’t confuse activity with connection
Culturally speaking, we are so into “doing” that we struggle with “being”. We are notorious for checklists and events and noise and busyness. Dallas Willard wrote about the potential terrors of ceasing the busyness and just listening when he wrote,
“Silence is frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life. It reminds us of death, which will cut us off from this world and leave only us and God. And in that quiet, what if there turns out to be very little to ‘just us and God’?”
Connection comes from multiple sources- through service, through Bible study, through the Spirit’s healing power- but to practice the presence of God, to slow down and listen, well…I have rarely had anyone walk away from an extended time of silence and solitude and say to me, “What a colossal waste of my time!” One of the biggest red flags of spiritual autism is the inability to be still, to quiet oneself, to set aside the compulsive need to occupy all space with an activity or with sound. The din of such frenzied activity actually drowns out the possibility of connecting with God. It exchanges fluidity with God to a static system.
More aware than we might realize
I think that there is another line of reasoning that we typically get backwards. Not only do I think we tend to see our disconnect as rooted in God instead of in ourselves, but I also think we have it backwards in terms of who is pursuing who. Some of the suggestions above might convey the idea that we are the ones pursuing God. In fact, it is just the opposite. Over and over again, the biblical storyline pictures humans as straying sheep that the Shepherd must go after…or we are lost coins or prodigal sons. God is the one pursuing us. That is the point in God’s story of Jesus’ arrival to this planet- to pursue us as one of us; to encounter us in our isolated, spiritually-autistic routines and confusion and sin. Yet, there is a response to this pursuit. Soon, if we are engaged with God, we realize that He is the one coming towards us, re-connecting the lines of communication and we respond by moving towards Him…and discovering new levels of fluidity, new levels of awareness.
Like I warned Tom, Micah is much more aware of what is going on around him than he lets on. But, a lot of that is from me and my wife pursuing Micah. It is us who began initiating tickle time after school- 30+ minutes of going upstairs, away from the distractions and just playing and tickling. And now, as Micah has seen the value of this time, it is him who grabs one of us by the hand asking for “tickles” or “upstairs” or “Mike Tysons”. The time we have spent with Micah has caught his attention and now he responsively pursues us for more connection. But, the connection has also enhanced the fluidity and even now, in all of the severity of Micah’s autism, he has begun to break out of his static systems…most recently through telling a joke.
A “joke” may be a slight exaggeration. How about using humor in his interaction with me? So there we were, in his room. It was after school tickle-time. He asked for interaction- “I would tickles please, I would like tickles please” and I tickled him, and then waited. “I would like tickles please, I would like tickles please.” More tickling, more waiting for the next request. Suddenly, Micah sat up, looked me in the eye and got this enormous grin on his face. “I love you…MOMMY!” “Mommy?!”, I said as he began to giggle. “Do I look like Mommy to you?” “YES!!”, he shouted followed by a long, gut-splitting belly laugh. And as we laughed, I saw the functional, choreographed, static system briefly dissipate. I saw trajectory- from a world of fluid connection that fell into chaos that substituted routines for real relationship to the end for which God intends it. I saw myself with God in the brief moments when He breaks through my own autistic, chapter-less existence and into His grand redemption story. There is no equation for this. There is God pursuing us through Jesus of Nazareth and us beginning to make eye contact again.
 Willard, Dallas, The Spirit of the Disciplines- Understanding How God Changes Lives, pub. by HarperCollins, 1988, p. 163
I don’t know what it is about watching Sesame Street in reverse that makes my 12 year old son Micah just downright giddy, but that VHS tape is getting some real wear-and-tear from the constant rewinding and playing, rewinding and playing. There he is, every Saturday morning, wrapped in his favorite fleece blanket like a royal blue “kid burrito”- his black, noise-muting headphones on, his stuffed tiger in a stranglehold under one arm while the other arm remains free in order to hit the “stop”, “play” and “rewind” buttons. Sometimes he sits in a laundry basket that he brought downstairs.
Other times, he freelances throughout the living room. As the tape plays, he will hit the rewind button, stand back, and watch a scene in reverse- laughing, clapping and hopping up-and-down only to start the process all over again. Now he doesn’t do this with the whole tape, but only with certain scenes. It is like his very own manually-driven feedback loop. The same scene shows up again and again (albeit in reverse). He seems obsessed with this video.
Then again, he obsesses about a group of stories. We routinely read and re-read…and re-read again stories like Eight Silly Monkeys, Ten Little Ladybugs, Ten Rubber Duckies, Ten Little Dinosaurs, The Monster at the End of This Book, Tickle Monster. They never get old…for him. I was pondering what it is that causes him to obsess over these stories. True, a lot of them are counting books. Several of them feature monsters. Yet, there is something else that acts as a common denominator and it is this- they all engage him to enter their story. Some of them let him touch and feel textures on the pages. In some, the monster speaks directly to the reader. The Tickle Monster book requires me to stop and execute various tickling as the story indicates. The Sesame Street characters in the books and on his videos look right at the audience and speak directly to Micah. Steve from Blue’s Clues engages his viewers to participate. I think his obsession is connected with connecting; with a story that invites him in, that involves him, that finds some deep need and makes a point of contact. So there he is, either on Saturday mornings or in his bed for the bedtime story- laughing, clapping, rejoicing with the story he is invited to participate in. Somehow, the story reaches past the autism and finds a contact point.
I am not so sure this is a trait exclusive to children with autism. In our own way, we too have this odd, little habit. What we do is we tell the same story over and over again. Oh, we use different characters and different times and different settings, but we still tell the same general story, and it is a story of redemption. I think we do it in order to see the bigger story that we are living in. I think we do it in order to fill in more pieces of the puzzle, to join in, to participate, to connect beyond passive observations. Perhaps, like our glimpses of the paradise long lost, this “common story” is another primal memory that God has downloaded into our hard drive; one in which we can access bits and pieces by playing it out again and again. In fact, let me give you a couple of examples of how we keep telling the same stories in something of a feedback loop.
The stories we tell…again and again
I love watching the more recent movies that have brought my favorite childhood comic book heroes to the big screen. It is one of the things my oldest son, Josiah and I do whenever the latest one hits the theatres. One of those movies is Thor. The story follows a hero (a Norse god) who is sent to earth for his arrogance and recklessness. Thor can only return to Asgard (the heavenly realm he calls home) after proving himself worthy. Through his experiences, he learns humility and servanthood while here on earth. And when his friends’ lives are threatened by the forces of evil (in particular, his envious step-brother Loki), Thor makes Loki an offer to save the town that is being attacked. He freely offers up his own life so that Loki’s anger would be assuaged, shielding his friends from further violence. Of course, it is at that moment when he proves himself worthy and is raised from death by the chief Norse god (his father, Odin) to overcome the forces of evil and to lead a new path out of danger and into safety. So what kind of story do we see? A story of heroic death that produces salvation for others, a resurrection and a new way forward!
I saw the same story in the Harry Potter movies, especially in the last installment- Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows (Part Two). Harry is the “chosen one”, the only one who can defeat the evil sorcerer, Voldemort, who threatens to dominate and enslave the earth. But, in order to break Voldemort’s power, Harry must allow himself to be killed by his nemesis. Harry’s death suddenly makes Voldemort vulnerable, all but sealing his fate. Thus, when Harry returns from death, he leads a rebellion against the forces of evil, defeating Voldemort for good and bringing safety and security to a once-broken world. So what kind of story do we see? A story of heroic death, salvation, resurrection and a new way forward! Déjà vu!
I saw this story yet again in J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic trilogy (and my favorite work of fiction), The Lord of the Rings in which a very ordinary hobbit becomes a self-sacrificing hero, offering his own life to save Middle-Earth and to break the power of evil. You’ll see this story in modern movies like Armageddon, Braveheart, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, etc… Different characters, different settings, but the same story. I could go on. We are telling the same story! Dare I say obsessing over it? Death/self-sacrifice, resurrection, salvation, a new world! You get the picture! It’s a feedback loop! These, and so many others, are the stories we tell over and over again in a sort of joyful dance.
Most of us are not hopping around the living room in our underwear, wrapped in a blue fleece blanket with a stuffed tiger under one arm, while the story is being told again (at least, most of us would never admit to doing this). But, why else do we keep obsessing over the telling the same story? My suggestion is that we not only find great joy and hope in these stories, but that such joy and hope is produced because God has embedded this story deep into our conscience. The “spiritual autism” that isolates us from others is penetrated, in part, by a story God has weaved into the fabric of our very being. And in that sense, it is not only we who are obsessing over a story, but God who is drawing us in- connecting with us, telling us we are part of the story! We keep hearing and telling the same story and it brings us to laughing, clapping, jumping up-and-down only to start the process all over again. Could it be that no matter where we are coming from as far as our views on God, the story of the Bible or our personal beliefs, we know deep down inside that we are yearning for a world where we will experience freedom from the enslavement of despair, doubt, oppression, sin, brokenness and isolation? And that such a world will only be accessed through the strength and sacrifice of a hero beyond ourselves? Even the notorious atheist philosopher Frederich Nietzsche, having declared God to be dead, nevertheless looked for a “superman” who would arise and bring hopeless, helpless humanity to a new world of freedom. Even Nietzsche had this story inscribed on his heart, even if it was quite warped from the original tale. Watching Micah delight and obsess over stories that drew him in forced me to look at my own spiritual autism and how God is penetrating through those barriers of static systems and isolation and a very closed world. God does it by inviting us into a story that, deep down inside, we know is true because it cannot help but resurface with every story we tell.
The Power of Stories
Watching Micah delight and obsess over stories that drew him in forced me to look at my own spiritual autism and how God is penetrating through those barriers of static systems and isolation and a very closed world. God does it by inviting us into a story that, deep down inside, we know is true because it cannot help but resurface with every story we tell.
This is the argument that was made by the author of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien to one of his colleagues at Oxford- a man he called “Jack”. Jack was a brilliant professor of literature in the early part of the 20th century. He was also an avowed atheist. But, Jack had come to respect and even enjoy Tolkien’s company. Tolkien, of course, was also professor of literature at Oxford and both of these men dearly loved mythology, the ancient hero stories- sometimes even learning languages like Old Norse and then translating the myths out of their original languages so they could be read for the simple, sheer enjoyment of the stories themselves. Around this time, Jack had also begun to seriously question his atheism. Indeed, around the summer of 1929, Jack had professed a belief in God, though he had not adopted any particular faith.
One blustery night (September 19th, 1931 to be exact), Jack had dinner with Tolkien and another literature professor at Reading University- Hugo Dyson. After dinner, the three men walked along Addison’s Walk discussing the purpose of myth. In the midst of the discussion, Jack began to wrestle out loud about his questions with Christianity. Specifically, how could one man’s sacrificial death 2000 years ago help us in the here and now? That comment led to a question from Tolkien and Dyson that went something along the lines of- “Why does it so bother you to hear of Jesus’ self-sacrificing death and yet you can read about similar acts of heroism and sacrifice in the myths and be moved by it? You are too hard on the gospels as they present Jesus as the self-sacrificing savior considering how much pleasure you get from mythology’s self-sacrificing heroes.” Jack, of course, responded, “But, myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.” In other words, the great stories of old Norse mythology about Thor or Balder, they are enjoyable stories, but they are not true, so you put no stock into them, no hope into them. To which Tolkien responded, “No, they are not [lies].”
And as they walked along, the author of that epic story of Frodo Baggins and the ring of power and the Dark Lord began to explain that all myths are trying to tell the one true story, the story over which humanity continually obsesses.
Jack listened intently. He posited a question- “You mean the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us the same way other myths do, except this one really happened?” The three men chatted until 3:00AM. Tolkien finally went home while Jack and Hugh Dyson finished their conversation. Tolkien began composing a poem titled Mythopoeia to capture his thoughts on the truth of myths which find their zenith in Christ, sending one manuscript to Jack (marked “for C.S.L.”). Twelve days after that conversation, Jack, better known to the world as C.S. Lewis, wrote to another friend, Arthur Greeves:
“I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ- in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a great deal to do with it.”
It is the power of stories, stories that we tell and hear and rejoice in over and over again…like a feedback loop. In our own spiritual autism, we continually rewind these myths to catch our favorite parts and to see the glimpses of hope in them. And sometimes we even catch ourselves, from time-to-time, breathing in these same myths and moving past the joy of the plot and the heroics to asking if they are somehow ultimately true, if perhaps they are pointing us to a true story of hope and if they may, in fact, be inviting us to participate.
So here was my little guy, Micah, standing in front of the TV, wrapped in his royal blue fleece blanket jumping up and down, clapping and laughing as he watched his favorite stories over and over again, reminding me of what I do, what we do, how we strive to fill in the puzzle pieces and reach for something that brings all of the stories together into a coherent whole. God’s story starts with a creation of all things good and a fall that poisoned everything. It was a fall that introduced both death and a despot into the world and made enslavement the norm. But, the redemption part of the story, the hero part of the story, begins with an exodus and that is something I can join in on the jumping and clapping and laughing because all of our stories tell me it is true. The myth-makers and writers of sagas gave us these raw materials to reconstruct a true hope as we find it in God’s true tale; a tale which God Himself obsesses over. Or as Tolkien wrote in a section from Mythopoeia:
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things nor found within record time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organised delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have turned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.
The Whispers of Hope
Hope is what we are really striving for in this world of static systems. We can sometimes get glimpses of a world that once was, a world long forgotten, a world where we knew God and did not need clichés that, quite frankly, no one really believed when it came to this “relationship with God”. But, these glimpses fade away so quickly, it is like grasping at smoke. And it so easy to get lulled to sleep by the routines of life that we miss both the small moments, these little wonders of everyday life as well as the startling jolts out of the routine that shout out unexpectedly that there is a God who wants to know us and a world to come that will restore all that was lost. I have had many of these moments in the midst of Micah’s routines. It seems as though God uses my own routines to insert little opportunities for me to break free from my spiritual autism and see true hope. I caught one of these moments while putting Micah to bed one evening. I caught another moment sitting in the living room just after tucking him and his siblings in for the night and watching one of my favorite movies…for the twelfth time.
Now Micah has a set routine for just about everything. When he heads outside to get on the bus for school, he steps just outside the garage and finds the same spot and hops back and forth five times. And when he gets off the bus, he checks the mailbox and then hops five times up the driveway before settling into a skip/walk the rest of the way to the house. And when it is time for bed, he turns on the fan (for the white noise, I assume, since it is not pointing towards him), sits on his knees at the side of the bed and then picks up some imaginary something-or-other from the carpeted floor and pretends to toss it into his bed…five times. Then, I lie next to him in bed and read a story to him while he gets situated. His favorite is a children’s Bible with lots of pictures, though he also loves the book, Man Gave Names to All the Animals by Bob Dylan (I read it in my Bob Dylan voice for both of our entertainment). Then, we turn out the light, I sing him a Jewish prayer called the “Shema” followed by my own prayer for him at the end…and then comes another routine. He calls out for a “zerbertz” (blowing farty noises on his belly) and then a “Mike Tyson” (an ear nibbling), another zerbertz, another Mike Tyson and three “tickles”, a spasmodic all-out tickle attack targeting the belly, knees, feet, neck and -as he calls them- “underarm pitties”. Finally, I tell Micah, “I love you, Micah” and he responds by saying, “I love you, Micah”. I then correct him by saying “no” and then point at myself, to which he then makes the adjustment and says, “I love you…daddy”. Then, and only then, is Micah ready to settle in for the night.
So, one night we read our book and did the zerbertz, Tyson, tickle routine. I finished with, “I love you, Micah” and he whispered, “I love you, daddy”. I kissed him goodnight and trudged downstairs to watch one of my top ten favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption…for the twelfth time (yes, I have my own routines). The movie had just begun when I suddenly realized that Micah had said, “I love you, daddy” without the correction. I pondered that little ray of hope before settling into my own routine of watching the story of Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) and his friendship with Ellis “Red” Redding (played by Morgan Freeman) and a story all about hope.
In a nutshell, The Shawshank Redemption is a story about a banker who is suddenly dragged out of his normal world when he is found guilty of murdering his wife and her lover and transported to Shawshank Prison. Andy has a very rough beginning to prison life. His education (he was a banker) makes him something of an outsider and he is targeted by a savage group of inmates who call themselves “The Sisters”. But, eventually he begins to not just move along with the routines of prison life. He begins to find redemptive things to do. He begins a friendship with Red and starts introducing the inmates to the concept of hope. He finds hope everywhere- in the music of a Soprano duet, in helping inmates attain their GED, in shaping his own chess pieces with his miniature rock hammer in order to engage Red in chess matches for a time to simply play. He is able to take the library with a few Reader’s Digest books and some magazines and turn it into a first-rate prison library equipped to give the inmates an education and the hope to make it on the outside.
Andy gets used to the idea of confining his own hope within the prison walls until a new inmate, Tommy, puts some past experiences together and Andy’s innocence is able to be established. That hope is dashed by Warden Norton (the tyrannical slave master in this hero story) who is using Andy’s financial skills to cover up all of the money trails he is making through scandalous dealings outside the prison gates. Norton has Tommy shot and makes it look like an attempted prison break. But, these years in prison have also given Andy the chance to burrow a hole from his wall to the sewer pipes with his rock hammer. He escapes Shawshank and flees to Mexico to a place on the Pacific where all of the horrors he has lived through can be forgotten. But, before he goes, he pushes Red to make a promise to him. If Red ever gets out, he must look for a particular field in the town of Buxton, and for a particular oak tree in that field where Andy had proposed to his wife…and for a peculiarly placed, black volcanic rock at the base of that tree where Andy has left something for Red. The tree is a symbol for Andy- it is the place that pictures a world almost forgotten, a place where tragedy and horror had not yet invaded into Andy’s life. Red, who has all but lost hope of living in a world beyond his prison routine and settled into the static systems of life behind bars, promises Andy that he will. Soon afterwards, Red is released and finds the rock. There under the rock, just as Andy had promised, is an old tin box. And in that old tin box is a large sum of money and a note from Andy encouraging Red to meet him in Mexico. “I will keep an eye out for you and the chess board ready”, Andy writes, “…Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”
Red sees hope within reach and grabs it. He boards a bus, breaking parole and heads off to reunite with his friend. And as the film draws to an end, we see Red taking the bus to Fort Hancock, Texas and we hear his voice gently narrating this little moment of wonder-
“I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”
The film ends with Red and Andy reuniting on the beach in an embrace of friendship and peace for which they could only have dreamed. There I sat, some two plus hours after having tucked in Micah, having heard him break the routine to whisper, “I love you, daddy”. I could see his face in my mind, looking right into my eyes and beaming from ear-to-ear with a smile as beautiful and brilliant as a field of wildflowers in full bloom. “I love you, daddy.” I had done this bed time routine so often, this moment of hope had almost slipped right past me. It fled so quickly, it was like grasping at smoke, except I had stored it in my mind. And then, I watched The Shawshank Redemption. In fact, what I had watched was yet another movie that told the story that was burned onto my hard drive- a story of a hero and a force of evil attempting to enslave; a story of redemption and restoration and the whispers of hope.
Experiencing the God of Hope in the Prison of Spiritual Autism
Being the parent of a special needs child is often a journey of constant despair. You ache for the many things your child will probably never enjoy or experience. With autism, you pine for some kind of deeper connection that you know will always be impaired. Sometimes, it can feel like a kind of prison. But, in this small moment, I suddenly realized that God was taking my routines and trying to break through to connect with me. With this little crack in the wall, I could feel God burrowing through the walls of hopelessness with a small glimmer of a promised world renewed; of a deep blue Pacific Ocean, of a place where the bars and cement block walls that kept me away from my son and kept me away from my God would one day crumble to dust.
Some more puzzle pieces were snapped into place. Yes- I had simply watched a movie. But, what I had really watched was the story of the Bible, particularly the Book of Exodus. I don’t know how I had missed it all those other times, but when Andy had escapes and Warden Norton goes to the wall safe to make sure the financial books Andy kept were still there, he found that Andy had replaced the books with his prison-issued Bible. Norton opened the cover where Andy left him a little note- “You were right, Warden. Salvation lies within.” And then, Warden Norton flipped open the Bible to where Andy had been hiding his rock hammer. It was in The Book of Exodus!
But unlike the Book of Exodus, there is more completeness to this story. Our hero stories all stir a desire for hope, for redemption, but they leave us looking for the bigger story. This movie, however, took this desire a step further. It was the story of the Exodus- a people under bondage and a heroic figure who leads others to freedom and an encounter with the presence of God. But, Andy was not a Moses-figure in the story. He was a Christ-figure in the story. He was an innocent man thrust into a horrible world filled with guilty men; men who could not even admit their guilt- that is, all but Red who jokingly called himself, “the only guilty man in Shawshank.” And wherever Andy- this one truly innocent man- went, he brought renewal and restoration and hope. His escape from Shawshank Prison was a virtual death and resurrection as he crawled through the sewer pipes under the earth for 500 yards before emerging alive, reaching towards the heavens after shedding his prison uniform and feeling the rain on his face. And then he drew his friend Red out of despair and into a new land; a friend who was imprisoned not just by iron bars and cement block walls, but also by fear and guilt and hopelessness. He instilled the promise of hope in Red and then gave him the means to leave this hellish world behind and join him in a completely new and beautiful place that had been all but forgotten. And there, on a heaven-like seashore, Andy embraced his redeemed friend.
When these puzzle pieces fall into place, I sometimes “feel” God with something other than a sense of vision or hearing or smell or touch. I feel God as I see myself as part of a larger story with little moments of hope.
- A moment of hope with my little boy, who broke from his routine to whisper to me that he loved me.
- A movie I have watched so routinely that I had missed how it suddenly became part of a bigger story of redemption crying out about the power of hope.
- Another reading of The Book of Exodus where God redeems His enslaved people, brings them out of oppression and establishes a reunion where His presence would reside in the midst of them. God brings His people not simply out from slavery, but into this elusive “relationship” with Him; into a new land, a new world.
Routines that had lulled me to sleep had suddenly begun to burst with a sense of hope. And this prompts a question in my mind. From where does hope come? False hope certainly could come from our own attempts to make an unlivable situation livable. Perhaps some people can conjure up this false hope better than others. Or maybe the people who refuse to hold onto something false and live in despair are the only ones living in truth. But, I have a hard time believing that. There is something to these stories that reflect something from this bigger story that just does not seem like a coincidence to me. Why do they keep telling the same story over and over again? And why do these stories finally point us to hope? Why do stories of hope live on in our memories, while stories of despair tend to die? Is it simply because we prefer being sedated by an unrealistic hope or because we instinctively know these stories are true in some sense?
The story of redemption had suddenly bounded over this barrier in my head that said, “A relationship with God must be attained through the same sensory system that interprets the rest of this world I live in.” This was a difficult barrier to get past. Since I could not see, smell, taste, touch or hear God, I guessed that I could not actually have a relationship with Him. And yet, maybe He meets us in our world of sensory input and basic needs and familiar routines to awaken the mind. We see little moments of redemption- the beauty of music or the truth in a piece of art or a small display of kindness in a world that sometimes scoffs at such sentimentality…or a rare moment when a little boy whose mind seems imprisoned in routines and repetitions breaks free and whispers a sincere, “I love you” to a father who wonders if he truly understands how much he means to the father. And in these small hours, these little wonder, we see hope within reach. Maybe God is whispering to us through the little moments of hope amidst the routines of life. Maybe God is breaking through our static system with a narrative that woos us to a more fluid place of hope, whispering to us, “I love you.” Maybe those flickers of hope are actually little signals to us. Maybe those glimpses of our deepest heart’s desire resonate in our stories that are burned onto the hard drive of our minds. Maybe God is helping us out of our spiritual autism with something right before our eyes. These are among my hopes and I do not believe that they are hopes that are merely sentimental, but rooted in something real and rich. And so I hope.
- I hope that my connection with Micah continues to be less and less impeded.
- I hope that my connection with God continues to be less and less impeded.
- I hope that this world to come is as green and lush as it is in my dreams.
- I hope.
 Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms- A Theological Commentary, pub. by Augsburg, 1984, p. 28
 Gutstein, Steven E., Autism, Aspergers: Solving the relationship puzzle, pub. by Future Horizons Inc., 2000, pp. 33-35
 Lynden, David J., “Overcoming Spiritual Autism”, Discipleship Journal- Issue 168, March/April 2008, p. 66
 Willard, Dallas, The Spirit of the Disciplines- Understanding How God Changes Lives, pub. by HarperCollins, 1988, p. 163
 Carpenter, Humphrey, Tolkien- A Biography, pub. by Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977, p. 146
 Carpenter, p. 148
Mind photo courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net