Seeing God in the Midst of Autism
About the Guest
God is good, even when life presents challenges. Dr. Laura Hendrickson, a mother of an adult autistic son, shares what she’s learned about autism over the years and explains what treatments were helpful to her son during his development.
God is good, even when life presents challenges.
Seeing God in the Midst of Autism
Bob: As Dr. Laura Hendrickson was raising her son Eric, who was severely autistic, she came to a point where she realized that she was spending way too much effort trying to fix something that wasn’t hers to fix.
Laura: Suddenly I found myself on my face before the Lord weeping and saying, “God I can make my kid a really good autistic child. I’ve been working real hard at it for the last several years but only you can really heal him.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, February 17th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Dr. Laura Hendrickson shares with us today some of the important spiritual lessons she has learned raising an autistic son.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Dennis?
Dennis: If I was to be able to go to heaven right now I’ve got a handful of questions that I would like to ask God, if I could just go there and get a Reader’s Digest answer from God. One of them would be teenagers. Just kind of what He had in mind when he made that little season of life with them?
And on the not so funny side of things, another question would be what was He up to when he made children with severe limitations, whether that be physical, emotional, or mental, such as autism?
I’ve got a nephew whose name is Jacob who I really love. I really do love Jacob and I get a chance to see him two or three times a year. It’s just interesting to relate to him as a young man who is made in God’s image. He has value and worth and purpose and dignity. God has some reasons why He wanted Jacob to be in our extended family. I know what the Bible says.
I can give you some of the theological underpinnings of what God was up to but I’d just like to quiz God a little bit and maybe interview Him and ask Him what was on his heart and mind as he allowed children like this to join us.
Bob: Of course I think of your question and I think of the questions Job asks at the end of his book, which are some of those similar, “why is there suffering, why did we go on this path?” and God’s answer is “because I am God.”
Bob: Maybe there’s some of it you just don’t understand and you’re going to have to trust Him.
Dennis: There’s Job’s conclusion: “Now my eye sees Thee and I know Thee.” In other words, over his lifetime of going through these numerous valleys, Job got to know who God really was through his many trials and many sufferings. We have a guest with us who has been through not just one but a number of various challenges in her life. Dr. Laura Hendrickson joins us on FamilyLife Today. Laura, welcome back.
Laura: It’s good to be back, Dennis.
Dennis: Laura is a trained psychiatrist. She is a speaker and author and mother of an adult autistic son who, as I mentioned earlier, is right now on his way back from China having learned the Mandarin language.
Bob: He’s been studying that for the last three years in college, is that right?
Laura: Three years. He’s going to start a fourth year this fall and he’s also going to start Arabic this year.
Bob: Oh, my goodness!
Dennis: So here’s kind of the question immediately that I can sense moms and dads leaning into the radio going, “Now, wait a second. Your autistic son is not like our autistic son or daughter.” Your book is entitled Finding Your Child’s Way on the Autism Spectrum. “You’re at the other end of the spectrum than what we’re facing.” What would you say to that person?
Laura: I would say to that person, yes, and it’s fair to say that Eric is no longer autistic. But he definitely had autism when he was three years old. He was very severely autistic. They told us he was retarded, that his I.Q. was about 50. They told us he would probably never speak.
He went from that place to the place where he is today, the same way we grow in any way before our Father in heaven who has created us and planned out the path of our life. He grew one step at a time as, his parents initially, and he later on, looked to the Lord in faith for the next step.
Bob: We hear that and parents are thinking, “What, Eric was diagnosed at three with autism, or just before his third birthday, and today you said he doesn’t have autism anymore? That’s not a disorder for him anymore?”
Laura: Well, you know I said he doesn’t have autism anymore. But I would not say that he doesn’t have any autism spectrum characteristics anymore. I don’t believe that autism is a disease that can be cured so much as it’s a challenge that can be modified. So Eric’s brain today is different. He was born with a different brain. I believe that he will probably die with a different brain. But he has learned to compensate for many of those differences.
Bob: The parents who are listening are thinking, “How do I get my son or daughter’s brain to be different because I want them to be able to go to China and learn Mandarin and function on their own. Is there something I can do?” What did you do?
Laura: We did special diets. They were helpful in helping Eric maintain self-control in the early years. They became not necessary later on.
I think the primary intervention that we chose, and this is what’s controversial, and it’s something called ABA, applied behavioral analysis. It doesn’t work for everybody. It’s very labor intensive and it’s expensive. We put a mortgage on the house to take Eric up to UCLA to train in UCLA’s Department of Psychology. They were doing experiments with autism spectrum people in those days. For Eric is paid off but not every child got better, even through ABA. So unfortunately there are no guarantees.
We did other things. We did something that was very popular at the time, auditory integration therapy, which was supposed to help him with his sensitive hearing. He saw a developmental optometrist who taught me how to do eye exercise with him every day. We did home speech therapy. You name it. But to point out one particular thing that made Eric all better? I don’t believe it’s out there and that’s going to get me in trouble maybe with a number of moms who’ve pinned all their hope on one particular intervention.
Bob: But the mom who would come to you and say “I just got the diagnosis?” Or maybe “I’ve got a five year old or a seven year old and I want to know, what would you tell me to do? Where would you send me? I’ve got to do something.” Would you say just trust God or where would you send them?
Laura: I would encourage any person who is asking me what to do to start with an expert diagnosis. Very often people have been diagnosed by a pediatrician and plugged right into the public school system and that’s an appropriate placement for many. But I would want to be sure that all of the stones have been uncovered. I’ve heard stories of children initially diagnosed with autism who turned out to have something else that wasn’t treated because the expectation wasn’t there that there would be something else. So I’d start with expert diagnosis.
I would also encourage parents to follow whatever sounds promising to them, to do their own research, to look for what seems to be the most promising answers today. But ultimately we need to not put our whole hope in any treatment program. We also need to not even put our hope that our child will be cured.
I was so busy, so very busy doing so very, very many things and I believe that in the early years, even though I gave lip service to God’s sovereignty and how God was the one would be bringing about the healing, I really sort of saw God as the accessory to my hard work. It wasn’t until I got to a place where Eric and I were working on understanding the use of prepositions (those are very difficult for speaking autism spectrum people). As I was trying to explain the difference between next to, close to, on top of, underneath, beside, I realized the magnitude of the task that was ahead of me because these were only the things that I knew that he needed to know. But probably for everything that I knew he needed to know, there were twenty or thirty that I don’t even know he needs to know because I picked them up without thinking about them.
Suddenly I found myself on my face before the Lord, weeping and saying “God I can make my kid a really good autistic child. I’ve been working real hard at it for the last several years. But only you can really heal him. Please forgive me for believing that I could figure out what was needed and do it. So I was really living as though I could somehow mechanistically get the right things out of Eric. Instead I needed to believe that God had put in what He intended to get from Eric and that He would bring it about. He didn’t need me to figure it all out for Him!
Dennis: I really like your balance, Laura, because it seems to me that parents of an autistic child are really set up for others to take advantage of them…
Dennis: …and create a sense of false hope or of curing the problem, fixing the problem, and in some cases could spend a lot of money only to find their hopes and their hearts dashed by the treatment not working and not fixing the child. What I hear you saying repeatedly is that you need to make sure you’re growing spiritually in the midst of raising this young man, this young lady, and finding out what God wants to teach you through him or her.
Psalm 16 is a great psalm because it goes through several points about God giving counsel and how He is alongside of people as they go through distress. “Lord you have made known to me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy. At your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” That means someone who is going through the trials of how an autistic child can impact them, their marriage, their family, all of the chaos it can create, not every time, but it can create, really needs to pay attention to his or her own soul. Make sure they are growing and they’re learning how to go through this valley with faith.
Laura: Well that’s absolutely true. I remember when Eric was first diagnosed. I’ve already mentioned how I blamed myself and how I guilted myself. But one of the things that I thought was that I was such a tough case. I didn’t see God the way I see God today.
I thought I was such a tough case that God had to give me a child with autism because I just wasn’t growing in faith the way I needed to, the usual ways. I would want to make sure at the same time as I encourage families that God is at work in every member of that family’s lives, that the child did not get autism, that wasn’t the one who’s welfare was sacrificed, so that everybody else could prosper. That’s kind of what it seemed like to me. “Lord, I’m so bad that now Eric has to have autism”
When in actuality, if God has created him in His image and likeness, although that image and likeness is indeed marred by the fact that Eric was born into a fallen world, it’s a good thing that God has given life to Eric. God is big enough to cause me to grow in my faith and to cause Eric to grow in this faith, to whatever extent he is capable. Let’s just say that Eric never did start speaking. Then his growth and faith would be very different. But whatever God is going to do in everyone’s lives, He is perfectly capable of doing it at the same time.
Dennis: There was a moment undoubtedly where you had to really sit stunned in the audience and it was the day of Eric’s graduation. I have to tell you as I was going through your book I really couldn’t quite comprehend the title to this chapter, “Eric’s Valedictorian Speech!”
Laura: Is God cool or what?
Dennis: I mean, now wait a second. It’s written out here and I’m going to ask Bob in a moment just to read a couple of the first paragraphs of that speech. But first of all, would you just share what the context for this was and what you were feeling as you sat in the audience listening to Eric say these words?
Bob: Did he graduate at the top of his class?
Laura: Yes, he did! Not only that, Eric was elected to Phi Beta Kappa this year at the University of California.
Laura: Yes. So that was high school and this is college. So what was I thinking? Of course, I knew he was the valedictorian. He’s been working on his speech for weeks. I wasn’t worried about the writing of it because Eric has always written beautifully, which is interesting because in high school he was still pretty inarticulate. So I was pretty scared about this speech. I could visualize him standing up there talking into his tie and not making eye contact with the audience and just reading it. Oh me of little faith! I didn’t record it because I was prepared to be embarrassed. I was literally braced to keep on smiling no matter how humiliating it was for him.
He got up there and he started speaking and he looked out at the audience and he smiled. He used arm gestures. He even turned around and talked to his classmates. He did it just the way his pastor does it. He did it just the way I do it when I speak. I said, “Oh Lord, please forgive me for not believing that you can do anything.”
Now, I have to immediately back away and say that we have these wonderful mountaintop moments and yet we spend our time in the valleys too. The average day is not on the mountaintop and sometimes we spend weeks and months in the valleys. We’re still facing significant challenges. This isn’t something that you suddenly live happily ever after from. Yet God is truly able to do exceedingly above all that we could ask or think.
I remember when Eric was, well he wasn’t speaking yet. It was soon after his diagnosis and my husband and I rented the movie Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman. Raymond was a very impaired autism spectrum adult. But we looked at him and we thought he was doing great because he could speak. I remember turning to my husband and saying, “If Eric could just do that, well it would be enough.” My God was too small. I had no idea…
Dennis: In all fairness though, you had been told by a physician that he would never…
Dennis: He would never talk and so now you’re in the audience listening to him give the valedictorian speech as a graduating high school senior.
Bob: We’ve got to say there are a lot of parents of autistic children whose children will never give the valedictorian address and their God is no smaller than your God. It’s just the providence of God that in Eric’s case, for whatever purpose, for whatever reason, this was one of the mountaintops that he gave you.
Let me just read a portion of what Eric said that day. He said:
“So we’re finally graduating. This perhaps means we’ve learned something worthwhile. What have we learned over the years here at Covenant? We’ve learned to read and write, to diagram sentences, to solve algebraic equations.
“More importantly we’ve studied the Bible in depth. We know that there is one God who created everything and is the Lord of the whole world. We are made in the image of this wise, all powerful creator. It’s through God that we have our purpose which is to glorify Him and to do work. Since this is true, the ultimate question must be ‘How do we glorify God and what is His work? Is there one ideal personality type, set of abilities, that glories God best? Is there one occupation that is holier? A specific work that pleases God more than others/? Do we have to fit a mold?’
“On the contrary. There is great diversity among human beings. The Bible teaches that each of us is uniquely designed for the contribution that God intends us to make through our lives. Variety in human personality and talent glorifies God in the same way that variety in nature testifies to His wisdom and power.”
Dennis: I wish the audience could see the face of this mother. You had your eyes closed and you’ve been beaming. What are you feeling?
Laura: It is just remarkable. We’ve been talking about the past and what Eric was like and I just gave the little story about watching the Rain Man movie and hearing those beautiful words that my son wrote and visualizing him again just blowing me away. I was weeping so hard as he was speaking that he kind of started to stumble. He thought he was doing something wrong. I was just weeping with joy. So as you were reading, Bob, I was reliving that moment yet again and the glory of it. God is so kind to me.
Dennis: You know, I love seeing the look on your face. It was really cool that you, as a mom, were given that mountaintop. To those who are listening, however, and are not on the mountaintop but they’re in the valley which, as you said, is frankly where a lot more of us live, hammering day in and day out issues, the challenge is, will you trust God? Will you discover what God is up to in your life? How does He want you to glorify God and honor him in the midst of your circumstances?
Bob: On those days when you’re son is supposed to stand up and speak and he does look down and he doesn’t say what he’s supposed to say, do you lament? Of course you do as a parent. But where do you go from there? What do you do with your lament? What do you do with your challenge?
I think one of the things that helps a lot of parents is to hear from folks who have been there, how they’ve found hope in the midst of those difficult circumstances. I would encourage parents to get a copy of the book that you’ve written called Finding Your Child’s Way on the Autism Spectrum. If you don’t have a son or daughter who is autistic, but you know someone who does, give them a copy of this book as a gift. We’ve got it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center and you can order a copy from us when you go online at FamilyLifeToday.com.
You might also want to get a copy of the book that Emily Colson wrote on this subject. We interviewed Emily and her father, Chuck Colson, a couple of months ago and we’ve got copies of the book Dancing With Max in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center as well, along with the CD audio of that interview, if you’d like to get that and pass it along to someone you know.
Again, find out more when you go online at FailyLifeToday.com or when you call us toll-free at 1-800-FLToday, 1-800, “F” as in family, “”L” as in life, and then the word “TODAY.” When you get in touch with us if you have any questions about these resources we can get those answered for you or we can get the order out to you.
I know for a lot of listeners you hear a story like this and the question that keeps coming back is “Why does allow things like this to happen if He is good, if He is all powerful? What is His purpose in all of this?” Our friend Randy Alcorn wrote a very helpful booklet, 64 pages. It’s actually an except from a larger book on the subject of the goodness of God. This booklet is called “If God is Good, Why Do We Hurt?”
Because this is such a challenging issue for so many folks, we want to make that booklet available at no cost to anybody who requests if from us. All you have to do is go online at FamilyLifeToday.com and ask for a copy or call 1-800FLToday to request a copy. Because we’re making these available at no cost we’re asking you to limit it to one per caller or one per household please. But we’d love to get a copy of this book to you.
If you’re new to FamilyLife Today it’s very easy to request a copy. All you have to do is go online, FamilyLifeToday.com, and the information that you need will be right there. Or just call us, 1-800, “F” as in family, “L” is in life, and then the word “TODAY” and we’ve arrange to have a copy of Randy Alcorn’s book, “If God is Good, Why Do We Hurt?” sent to you.
We want to encourage you to be back with us tomorrow. We’re going to find out about some of the curveballs that Dr. Laura Hendrickson has had to face along the way as she has raised an autistic son to adulthood. We’ll get an update on how Eric is doing. That’s on tomorrow’s program. I hope you can be here for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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