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Joseph and I were having lunch the other day in a little cafe when the sweet face of a Downs Syndrome boy suddenly popped up at our table. This boy couldn’t speak too well but he obviously wanted to make friends with Joseph, and we had a delightful little interaction.

When he’d gone, Joseph said, “That’s James from my summer program!” I figured it couldn’t be, because this kid seemed a few years younger, but I checked it out with his mom and confirmed that he was not James.

Later on, I told Joseph that the reason this boy looked like James was because they both were born with something called Downs Syndrome, and I explained a little bit about what that meant.

I intentionally have conversations like this with Joseph from time to time, because, brick by brick, I’m laying down a foundation. We’ve talked about people who have no arms and who have learned to use their feet to eat, paint and play with toys. We saw a cognitively-challenged girl not long ago, and I used the occasion to talk about people who move and thinkĀ  differently from the rest of us. Not that they’re any less than the rest of us — just that God’s given them a special role to play.

I go through life with a Special Needs lens on. I notice people with special needs so much more now than I used to, and the truth is I take more delight in them than I used to. I admire these souls who have come in with such courage, daring to be different in a society with major conformity issues. I am at ease with them even if they’re “deformed”, using a breathing tube in a wheelchair. This is just another gift that Joseph has given me.

Maybe one day Blues Eyes and I will tell Joseph that he, too, thinks differently from most people. That God gave him a special way of looking at life and that we earthbound people call it autism.I’d expected to tell him long before now, but it’s simply never come up.

Why hasn’t it come up? It’s said that when we’re very young we form impressions about who we are and the world around us. From then on, we unconsciously accumulate evidence to confirm our impressions.

For example: Remember my last post, where I couldn’t grasp how to tie a certain knot and was secretly convinced that I was handicapped? I was in the mentally gifted program at school; I got lots of accolades for being smart. And yet there I was, unable to do this knot and convinced it meant I was slow, stupid, mentally damaged. Because I had severe low self-esteem as a child, I attached myself to the external evidence that matched my internal conditions.

I can only gather, therefore, that Joseph does not have the internal condition of being different in a bad way from others. He has never asked us why other kids are okay in noisy crowds and he’s not. He’s never asked why he flaps his hands when none of the other kids do. He simply accepts himself as he is, without a lot of mental accusations.

This is great! And it may not last forever. Quite possibly, as Joseph gets older and awareness increases on both his part and in the kids around him, he’ll be told, or he’ll see for himself, that he is different. The experts say that this often occurs in 4th grade — as, not coincidentally, does an increase in the autistic child’s level of anxiety and depression.

That will be the time to have the autism talk.

What will we say? I’ve thought about this through the years, and I still don’t have a hard and fast answer. Something about how his brain is wired a little differently than most people. That this wiring makes it harder to understand social cues. That he has an extra sensitivity to noise and overstimulation than do most of us.

But just as I make it a point to talk about how all of us have certain gifts, I will do the same with autism. Sensitive people are the poets, the artists, of our world. Different people think outside the box and therefore can come up with ideas and solutions that would never occur to the rest of us (Bill Gates, for example). I collect articles about autistic people and how they’ve turned their challenges into gifts — and I will present these to him.

Hopefully Joseph will take the understanding of autism not as a reason to limit himself, but as a way to understand himself better and take advantage of his strengths.

When the time comes to talk about autism with Joseph, I pray for the wisdom to present it to him in a way that helps without hindering, that expands awareness without labeling.

I also have a prayer for myself. I pray that I see Joseph as an amazing soul who happens to have autism. I pray to remember that this soul chose autism as a way to help himself and many others, including me — definitely including me! — to grow.


Autism and Spirituality: the Dance