Sunday, December 18, 2016

Good and Perfect Gifts

This week I read an interesting essay written by another mother of an adult son with autism. [To read this essay, please click here.] Entitled “Prayer Power,” Kathy Bolduc’s blog entry describes the importance of constantly praying for our children, even when our prayers appear to go unanswered. She writes, “I don’t know about you, but I pray and pray for my son, Joel, who has autism. Many times I do not see specific answers to those prayers.” She goes on to describe the struggles of trying to find ways to make her son more independent through day programs and jobs, praying that he can live a “happy and fulfilled life.” While she admits, “I realize that my prayers will not always be answered in the way that I think they should be. God knows the bigger picture,” she believes Satan is often to blame. She states, “And I also realize that Satan has more than a toe-hold in this world…He will try to block my prayers whenever possible.” While I completely agree about the need to pray for our children constantly, I don’t give Satan the credit she does. Moreover, the longer I live, the more I don’t believe that prayers go unanswered.

Five years ago when Alex was so consumed with anxiety that he could not cope with the smallest of changes, we prayed for ways to help make him better. When every day was a struggle to keep him safe because his adrenaline rushes made him aggressive and out of control, throwing and breaking objects, as well as attacking us verbally and physically, we prayed for peace in our home. When we could not find any professionals who seemed to know what was causing our sweet and docile son to turn into an angry young man, we prayed for God to show us the way. We didn’t get answers right away, but we held onto our faith and kept praying anyway because we didn’t know what else to do.

Things had to get so bad and so out of control that we were willing to turn over our son to the only place where he could receive the care he desperately needed: a locked psychiatric ward of a hospital forty minutes away from home. After we had exhausted all of the local resources and had not found answers, we were exhausted physically and emotionally, and we knew this was the only way to save our son. God led us down this path, and even though it was heartbreaking, this hospitalization was the first step in Alex’s healing. There, we found professionals who understood that hormonal surges of the late teens and early twenties had ramped up Alex’s anxiety to where he could not function. Moreover, the Prozac he had been taking for nearly ten years to help his OCD was no longer effective, making his anxiety even worse. After several weeks of trying various medications, they were able to come up with a combination that kept his anxiety under control so that his behavior was under control. Moreover, they helped us navigate the state bureaucracy to get Alex the support services he needed in record time. God knew what we needed and how to get there; He answered our prayers in unexpected ways.

Through the teachings of Pastor Joel Osteen and my experiences in life, I have learned that God answers prayers in a variety of ways. While we would like for Him to say “Yes” immediately, that is not always in our best interests. Sometimes He says “No,” knowing that His ways are better than ours, closing doors that we keep trying to open. In our life with autism, I have learned that God often makes me wait before answering prayers, developing my patience and my faith and my trust in Him. Sometimes, waiting is necessary to prepare us for the next step; God knows better than I do about when I’m really ready to handle something new. Furthermore, I don’t give Satan credence, as Kathy Bolduc does, in my prayer conversations with God. I firmly believe that God hears my prayers and makes the decisions as to how to answer them—yes/no/not yet––without any interference from anyone. Even through the darkest days, God was beside us, guiding us with His knowledge, grace, and love toward the light we now see clearly.

On Friday, Alex turned twenty-five. In the past, I have felt a little wistful on his birthdays, wishing that he were further along in his development of language and social skills and concerned about his lack of independence. This year, I felt none of that disappointment. In fact, I told his therapist the other day that twenty-four had been my favorite age of his because he has been such a joy this past year. Since he has overcome so many issues, learned to manage his anxiety successfully and been able to enjoy a variety of activities, he has lived a more typical life. Most importantly, he is happy and healthy. Before going through the fire with Alex, I might have bowed to superstition and crossed my fingers and knocked on wood that this peaceful, contented life would continue. However, I have faith that God is only going to make things better. Certainly, we still have obstacles and potential setbacks ahead, but I know that God has great plans for Alex, even though I don’t know exactly what they are.

As I was putting Alex to bed the night of his birthday, after a day of presents he liked, a delicious meal at a nice restaurant, a visit with his beloved grandparents, good wishes from family and friends, and his favorite gluten-free and dairy free birthday cake, I asked him what he liked best about his birthday. I honestly thought he’d tell me the shrimp he’d had for dinner, since he’d rated his meal at “one hundred percent.” However, after a quick reflection on the day, he smiled and said, “Everything!” I thought nothing was better than that until last night when Ed asked him the same question, and he responded again with the same answer. Trying to give me credit for arranging the details of a seemingly perfect birthday, Ed asked Alex who had made his birthday so special. Without a moment’s hesitation, Alex replied, “God!” Only too happy to give proper credit and glory to God, I’m not only thankful for the wisdom and faith He has given my precious son but also for always answering our prayers in ways that only He knows best, those “good and perfect gifts…from above.”

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” James 1:17

Sunday, December 11, 2016

To Be a Friend

“…and everyone would have a friend and right would always win and love would never end: this is my grown-up Christmas list.”––Linda Thompson, “My Grown-up Christmas List”

“What does Alex want for Christmas this year?’ asked one of my colleague friends this week. As I explained that he has not given me any ideas but seems to trust my gift selection judgment, I was pleased that she had asked about him. However, I was not surprised by her interest because she has known him all of his life and has always shown genuine affection toward him. When he was little, she would let him sit in her lap and type on her computer. In addition, she would have him check the large calendar on the wall made up of number tags placed on hooks to make sure the days and dates were accurate, knowing his love for calendars and his eye for detail. Her daughter has the same birthday as Alex, so she and I always remember to pass along birthday wishes. Over the years, she and I have shared concerns and celebrated milestones, and I have appreciated that she never fails to ask about Alex and how he is doing.

Later in the week another colleague friend and I compared notes about how our adult sons are doing. She remarked of her son, “This isn’t the life I would have chosen for him, but he’s happy, and that’s what’s important.” I understood completely because I could say the same thing about Alex. She, too, has known Alex all of his life and has taken a keen interest in him, always asking how he is doing and celebrating his progress with me. Moreover, she is one of the most faithful readers of my blog who often writes kind and thoughtful comments in response to my posts. Not only does she cheer for Alex, but she also cheers for me. That friendship is precious to me.

Recently, another colleague friend who also faithfully reads my blog told me, “When I grow up, I want to be Alex.” She went on to explain how pleased she is now that he is able to do fun activities, such as going to concerts and basketball games, because he has improved so much. As we often talk about our adult children who are nearly the same age, we find a great deal of common ground, despite the impact autism has on Alex’s life. In addition, she has passed along her compassion to her children, who also take an interest in Alex. In fact, her sweet son sent back gifts (a commemorative lanyard, a Dale Earnhardt, Jr. model car, and an autograph from the winner of the race) from last year’s NASCAR’s Brickyard 500, knowing that Alex is a huge NASCAR fan. Her enthusiasm for Alex’s accomplishments makes me thankful to have her as a friend.

Along with these three special women, I have been blessed with other people in my life who have been loyal and true friends, consistently taking interest in Alex. One of my male colleague friends who has now retired used to ask about Alex’s current interests with, “What’s Alex into these days?” Another now retired male colleague endeared himself to me by his sincere and consistent interest in Alex, always asking me to say hello to Alex for him. Because autism impairs Alex’s social skills and hinders making friends on his own, I am grateful for my friends who treat Alex as their friend, too.

On the other hand, I have some people whom I consider friends who rarely if ever ask about Alex, even when we have long conversations about their children. I would think that the natural inclination after telling about their kids would be to ask, “How’s Alex?” To be honest, this oversight hurts my feelings, even if it is unintentional. Maybe they think that talking about an adult with autism is uncomfortable, like talking about someone who has passed away. I suppose they could be so busy with their own lives that they don’t have time for mine. Perhaps now that he’s an adult, people just don’t know what to say or ask. However, simply asking, “How’s Alex?” would be more than enough for me.

On Fridays, Alex’s behavioral therapist and I take him out in the community so that he can practice the social skills and language skills he has been learning. One of our favorite places to go is the nearby Burger King, where the employees are especially friendly and kind to us. Two of the ladies have taken a special interest in him, and now he is on a first-name basis with them. Alex is to Burger King what the character Norm was to the television show Cheers. When he walks in the door, they call out his name, which delights not only him, but also his therapist and me, too. He rewards their kindness with a big smile, says hello to them by name, and then tries to control his excitement at seeing them by leaning forward and putting his hands between his knees as he shudders with joy. I have to think that his obvious enthusiasm in seeing them makes their day.

Last Friday, the two Burger King ladies whom Alex considers his friends gave him a beautiful Cubs World Series commemorative ornament they had especially made for him and personalized with his name on it, knowing that he is a huge Cubs fan. While Alex isn’t always able to express his feelings easily, I think they could see how tickled he was by their thoughtful gift. Of course, as his mother, I was quite touched by their kindness. That ornament now holds a place of honor on our Christmas tree and will always remind us in future years of two women who saw the good in Alex and reached out to him in friendship. Their kindness will be remembered, especially by Alex, who every night in his prayers requests: “God bless Tammy and Cassie.” Indeed, God bless those who bless our lives with kindness.

“A friend loves at all times…” Proverbs 17:17

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Surprising Gifts

Yesterday, an autism mom friend shared an interesting article on Facebook that caught my attention. Entitled “Top 10 Traits of Individuals with Autism Which Get Overlooked,” this blog essay explains unique gifts people with autism sometimes possess. [To read this article, please click here.] A common saying regarding individual differences among people with autism goes, “You’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”; however, certain traits appear to be common in many people with autism. This particular article highlights some rare talents that many people with autism seem to share. As I read through the list, five of them immediately resonated with me because they describe some of Alex’s unique gifts perfectly.

“People with autism have exceptional long-term memory.” This trait highlights the ability to remember details from many years ago and the aptitude for rote learning and recollection of facts. If Alex hears or sees a particular year, he will often tell us something he remembers specifically from that time, even if it seems rather insignificant, such as having a cold on that date. He often reminds us of the date of the Super Bowl Sunday when he was little and threw up seven times. (I, on the other hand, chose to block out the memory of that day!) As I play Jeopardy with Alex every weekday, I’m amazed by the specific facts he can recall, especially about history, geography, and science. When I ask him how he knows this information, he can tell me his source of facts, such as a particular book, website, or television show. Apparently, he can visualize these details in his mind and rapidly retrieve them from his memory, which amazes me. Also, he always remembers everyone in the family’s birth date, which helps me send birthday cards on time every year.

“People with autism excel at auditory and visual tasks.” Besides his ability to visualize details from his memory, Alex also has exceptional auditory memory. He would be a whiz at the old game show Name That Tune because he can recognize familiar songs after only hearing a few of the opening notes. In addition, he can tell us the name of the group or singer of the song. Because of his eclectic taste in music, he seems to have a large music library stored in his head. We are also discovering that he knows many song lyrics as he has recently begun singing aloud.

“People with autism demonstrate impressive math skills.” I would go a step beyond and say that Alex has savant math skills. His ability to calculate math problems mentally with accuracy and speed is nothing short of astonishing. Unlike the character of Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, however, Alex can use his math skills in practical ways and has an awareness of how much things cost, probably because he watches The Price Is Right every day and follows the stock market faithfully. In addition, he pays attention to gas prices, noting their rise or fall. When we are driving in the car, he will tell us whether the gas prices have gone up or down since previous day, and he informs us of the difference in prices between gas stations as we drive along. For example, he will say, “Gas is two cents cheaper at Luke Oil than at Family Express.” This requires him to notice the prices on the gas signs, remember the exact amounts, compare/contrast the prices, calculate the difference, and communicate to us his observations. He saves us from having to check the Gas Buddy website, and we find his enthusiasm about sharing his data endearing. Again, his keen memory serves him well because he can not only see numbers in his mind to solve problems, but he can also easily recall over one thousand digits of pi, picturing the sequence of numbers as clearly as if he were reading them off the page.

“People with autism have an eye for detail.” Alex is amazingly perceptive, especially when it comes to his beloved numbers. For example, whenever our car thermometer registers the outdoor temperature as 63 degrees, he’ll excitedly tell us, “Sixty-three! That’s like Mommy’s, Aunt Tammy’s, Aunt Kim’s, Aunt Babs’, and Aunt Pat’s height in inches!” (Yes, he has several female relatives who are all the same height.) He also notes when the car clock registers the same number in minutes as the temperature, such as when it’s 5:43 and 43 degrees. He’ll enthusiastically share this information and exclaim, “That’s rare!” (However, it’s not as rare as one might think because this phenomenon seems to happen at least once a week.)

Alex also has an eye for errors, which makes him an excellent proofreader. At basketball games, he often tells us when the scoreboard is wrong, yet he patiently waits for the mistakes to be corrected. He brings us books that have typos and asks us to fix the misspelled words or missing punctuation, showing that he inherited his English teacher parents’ bent for precision in writing. Last week, he brought me one of his NASCAR books and indignantly told me that it was incorrect about what year Michael Waltrip won the Daytona 500. Alex was right; the book was wrong. Last night as we were watching Music Choice on television that features songs from particular decades along with quick facts flashed on the screen about the artists, he suddenly said, “There’s an apostrophe missing.” Not seeing the error at first glance, I asked him to show me where. He pointed to the screen and explained, “Didn’t needs an apostrophe.” By golly, he was right; they had forgotten to put the apostrophe in that word. Not only am I impressed with his precision and ability to notice small details, but I’m also pretty proud as the one who taught him grammar that he knows the rules so well.

“People with autism are non-judgmental.” Alex doesn’t seem to notice people’s appearance; therefore, he does not judge people based on the color of their skin or their size, although he is impressed by very tall people. Perhaps because his eye contact is not very good, he pays more attention to people’s voices. More important to Alex than how people look is how they act, and he seems to be intuitive about people, recognizing and appreciating those who are kind to him. He seems to see past the exterior and focus on the interior––the good hearts he can easily recognize.

Despite the difficulties autism has imposed on Alex’s life, he has been blessed with special gifts that allow him to see the world in unique ways. As his speech has improved over time so that he can convey his thoughts, we have been able to glimpse how his mind works and how he perceives the extraordinary in ordinary occurrences. Moreover, we have been able to share his enthusiasm for everyday life and the joy he finds in unexpected places.

“It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have.” I Corinthians 12:11