“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” – Matthew 5:46-48
My son Micah was officially diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) right around his seventh birthday, only less than a year ago. At the time, I thought I was fairly prepared for any future challenges that would come with the label. After all, ever since Micah was a baby, my husband and I have been navigating through tough stages –from his inability to speak and look others in the eye, to excessive monologues about the weather and maps, to reports of complete shutdowns in a loud, busy school cafeteria.
What I was not prepared for this year however, was the bit and byte “moments” of realization that Micah has not been included in activities with his peers. Largely absent are the birthday party invitations, after school play dates, gym partners and recess buddies (we receive daily in school reports from Micah’s Educational Assistant).
Both of my children are enrolled in an inclusive Christian school. Raising a child with ASD in this learning environment has brought about deep convictions of how I should be training my children to truly live out Jesus’ call to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the school context, this means all classmates, especially those on the social fringes.
How to love if you are the outsider
I remember the time I became aware of Micah’s social outsider status at school. It happened this fall, while I was waiting outside for classroom dismissal. While enjoying a casual conversation with other second grade mothers, our talk took a turn to what their kids were doing together that upcoming weekend. As the mothers, my friends, were busy making plans with their children in front of me, I tried to remain conversationally polite without walking away.
Since that day, I’ve been made increasingly aware of budding friendships among Micah’s classmates, as well as his distinct lack of having a specific social group. Quite a few mothers have chatted with me about birthday parties or gatherings that Micah has not been invited to, understandably oblivious of any inflicted pain the conversations caused me.
Micah visibly fits in at school, and even the trained eye would not easily detect that he has high-functioning autism. I’m sure most families assume he belongs somewhere within the social circles. But he doesn’t. One tell-tale sign of his friendship struggles can be seen in the playground setting during recess. The few times I’ve supervised, I’ll see kids running together, laughing together, playing sports … together. And then there’s Micah, alone. Looking lost and somewhat out of place.
And as his mother, I need to prayerfully, creatively navigate through the peer wall and help Micah find his place.
When Micah was in preschool, playdates typically involved him doing something nearby the other children, but never with them. Today, this picture doesn’t look very different. I have invited a classmate to come over every Friday, armed with stickers and games and ideas on how to get the two kids to play with each other. It takes strategy from my end, in hopes that the effort will develop a deeper bond between the boys. It’s been wonderful to witness progress, even baby steps, each week as the boys grow in their interactions with one-another.
For me, Micah’s ASD places a lens over aspects of Christianity that I’ve been able to peer through daily. The ideas of Good Samaritan love towards the outsider, serving the poor, and cultivating community have a fresh perspective when “outsider,” “poor,” and “unconnected” refer to ASD children who live with social deficits.
This perspective would not be there if I gave birth to a child who was equipped with the normal social skill toolset. If this was the case, I could see myself (accidentally) trapped inside the Pharisee’s mindset found in the 18th chapter of Luke, who treated others without favor due to a self-absorbed focus on what he perceived was a well-lived life. If my children could easily make friends, I don’t think it would be wrong to thank God for their ability to make friends. However, would I be carrying the conviction to cry out to God regularly for His help and heart in my children to love and reach towards the outsiders?
Radical love is more than being nice; it’s building a community that includes others and connects beyond the superficial.
In the Christian household, what does it mean to “train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6 ESV)? Jesus’ challenge for me to love in a radical way extends to the way I teach my children to love others. He wants me to model and raise children who can reach further beyond the social virtues of politeness, kindness, and giving to charity. Through this new lens, I am challenged to have my family open up our home more, to spend real, quality time with others, get involved, and be a source of help and friendship to many in our church, community and school who we might not normally gravitate to.
This might not easy, and loving others beyond our comfort zones often takes at least twice the effort. I can imagine it especially true for children who want to reach out to Micah, who has a social disorder where he appears disinterested, disengaged, and not easily responsive. What I do know is that when they do make the extra effort to include Micah in their activities and friendships, he will come home and tell me about it –with a smile.
My hope for Christian schools, especially, is to together find proactive ways to educate parents and students on topics such as servant leadership, cultivating community, inclusion, and how to identify and show caring towards one-another’s needs, in-and-out of the learning environment. By teaching and modeling radical love within the school walls, we are moving closer towards God’s picture of stewardship of His kingdom on earth.
As Ron Sandison, who himself has high-functioning autism, beautifully writes in A Parent’s Guide to Autism: “There is no cure for autism, but with love and acceptance, we can help children with ASD reach their full potential and bring glory to God” (p. 17).