08/12/2013 12:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Autism and Faith for a Future


Growing up in a Southern home, church life was an integral part of my upbringing. Every Sunday, we would load up and travel to a different tiny country church in another county that couldn't afford a preacher. My father filled in on this traveling preacher circuit, bringing the message to small central Georgia communities.

We were in church every time the doors opened. Our home, steeped in a faith, created a strong foundation I had no idea I would need so desperately as an adult with a home of my own.

A faith that was shattered to smithereens in April, 1998 when my son, Liam, was diagnosed with autism.

I moved quickly through the stages of grief straight to anger with a quick hop over to bargaining. One late night in the kitchen, I screamed at God until I was exhausted. Words worthy of lightning bolts from the sky. I fell to the floor crying so hard I could hardly breathe.

Lying there, I vacillated between still cursing Him and begging for His help. Falling asleep, I muttered, "Just tell me what to do. I will do it. Tell me where to go and I will. You can have him. I will turn him over to You because I cannot do this, but You have got to give me my boy back."

In June of 1997 at 17 months, Liam suddenly lost the ability to speak. He stopped making eye contact. He could no longer communicate in any way. He couldn't point to juice if he wanted to drink it. He would not sleep. He screamed tortured in pain all day long.

Once diagnosed with autism 10 months later and receiving the therapies he needed, he started to improve bit by bit.

With every small goal met, my faith returned and grew stronger but our life was incredibly complicated so church took a back burner. My soul and my spirit were starving to death and finally broken in April, 2002 following my brother's sudden death and a painful divorce in rapid succession.

A friend sensing my gas tank was totally empty encouraged me to go back to church.

Every Sunday after that, I wrestled a screaming Liam into the car and dragged the kids to church. I considered it a victorious Sunday if Liam didn't stand up and strip off his clothes, scream and pull my hair or grab handfuls of cash out of the offering plate.

I put up with people's stares and shameful whispers. I graciously accepted their unsolicited advice on parenting children. I politely nodded when they explained to me that I should not spare the rod or my spoiled child would remain spoiled.

There is only so much of that you can take, though. Politely.

One morning, a man repeatedly scolded Liam loudly as we left church. This time I did not ignore it. Nor was I polite. Right there in front of 300 people in God's house I laid the cards on the table and called it as I saw it. I called him an asshole. At the top of my lungs. 10 times in a row. I believe I set a record in our church foyer that Sunday.

That afternoon I got a call from a pastoral staff member asking what they could do to make our experience at church a little better to accommodate Liam so everyone could worship. I suggested they preach a sermon on how Jesus healed the sick and the disabled, explain what compassion is and, because the sting of that man's words was still so fresh, teach our congregation to not act like assholes when you are supposed to be Christians while he was at it.

He told me they would. Then he said to bring Liam to church every Sunday and sit right down front. We were welcome. They would make sure everyone knew it no matter what happened.

Eventually, by the time he was 10, he was able to attend Sunday School without me blocking the door to the classroom so he wouldn't escape undetected. As I sat downstairs listening to the sermons, I thought "How will I ever be able to teach Liam about something as abstract as God, or faith, or love, or peace? How will I be able to instill these things in him so that he can draw on faith in hard times?"

Around 12 years old, thanks to Dreamworks, Liam developed a strong interest in Moses. We spent time studying the plagues, the Ten Commandments and what it was like to wander in the desert for 40 years. One spring night at dinner two years later, we were discussing Passover for the millionth time when I realized how much he was processing everything. He looked me straight in the eye and said, "I'm glad I wasn't alive in Moses's day because I'm the first born son. Mom! The Angel of Death would have killed me."

Every night for the next three weeks, we brushed red food coloring and water above our front door until he felt like he could make it through the night without it.

Concrete Bible stories resonated with him. He was slowly starting to grasp some of the concepts of our religion, learning about the Bible heroes in both testaments. He fully participated in church singing and bowed his head in prayer. He sat still during the sermon and explained what he learned sometimes on the way home.

Fast forward to today. He is 17 now and started high school last year. When he told me he joined a Club 220 at school, I got a lump in my throat. Club 220 is Christian club that meets by the flagpole each Wednesday with a small devotional followed by pizza. I'm not kidding myself. I know access to pizza is the hook, but he retained their lessons, jumping in the car to tell me about them in the afternoon.

Somehow, I had poured a foundation that was starting to set.

Our church believes in immersion baptism to become a Christian. Although Liam was baptized as a baby boy, I explained to him that I believed we did that more as a dedication to raise him as a Christian, hoping one day he would make his own religious decision.

That day came this past January when Liam leaned over in Church and whispered, "If I get baptized, will they let me wear my swim suit so my Sunday clothes don't get wet and messed up?" I patted his knee and said, "Yes! Let's ask Pastor Mike right after Church."

Pastor Mike confirmed that swim suits can indeed be worn and gave us a quick tour of the baptism room so that Liam would feel comfortable.

Liam was baptized on Sunday, April 28 and our church took the time to celebrate his baptism at all three services as part of their Relentless series. Fifteen years ago almost to that day, Liam was diagnosed. I was told he would never talk again and would likely require institutionalization. His doctor tried to steal away his hope and his future. But God has a hope and future for each and every one of us -- and a plan for our future -- regardless of our abilities.

As he went down into the water, I thought God is good. He didn't shoot me with lightning that night all those years ago and send me straight to hell for everything I yelled but instead He rained down mercy. He gave me the strength to walk through fire a thousand times over. He helped me find blessings in a barren wasteland and keep my eyes fixed on them instead of all the disparity around me. He gave me spirit of peace in a Category 5 storm.

It has taken years, but our struggling, dying family is now healing. Forgiveness has washed over us and though scars remain from the battlefield, our collective faith has made us whole. Liam still struggles with autism but he is a new creation in more ways than one.

And now I will finally have something good to remember every April.