Marylu and I have some longtime Christian friends, a Christian couple from the Chicago area. We were often puzzled by the husband’s behavior patterns—and so was he—until he was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. After his diagnosis, he began attending an Asperger’s support group. His behavior improved; he now monitors his responses and reactions.
Asperger’s Syndrome is part of the Autism Spectrum. Autism varies from high-functioning to low functioning, and research is ongoing. But the question arises, “How should Christian parents bring up their autistic children?”
Dr. Laura Henrickson points the way in her 144 page book, Finding Your Child’s Way on the Autism Spectrum. Hendrickson is uniquely qualified to write such a book: she had been a practicing psychiatrist, believes in biblical counseling (with an emphasis on personal responsibility), and successfully raised her autistic son. She views autism as a type of personality—with both pros and cons. And she recognizes the contributions autistic people have and are making in society, referring often to autism’s chief contemporary spokesperson, Dr. Temple Grandin, who is one of many success stories.
The book addresses both spiritual and behavioral issues. Chapter titles include (but not limited to): “In His Way,” “Shepherding the Heart of Your Child,” “Stims, Rituals, and Obsessions,” and “Managing Emotions.”
The author shares her own experiences with her son (including a few mistakes), and how she developed better skills as her understanding grew. The book concludes with the text from her son’s valedictorian speech!
If I were to characterize her approach, I would say she is excels at balance. Her advice in the realm of discipline involves speaking calmly and slowly, making a distinction between a “melt down” and rebellion, exercising patience—but also firmness and consequences.
The author also advocates early intervention. Parents, therefore, should be on the lookout for signs that their little one might be on the spectrum. Infants may display autism by not making eye contact, being fascinated with shadows, and not being interested in people. Toddlers at two may not yet be speaking and have little interest in other children. Older children may lack social skills, be content alone when other kids are playing, become overly focused upon a single interest, flap their wrists (or other “stims”), and be upset at change.
Here is one sample quotation about social skills: “Not only does your child have difficulty reading the nonverbal signals of others, she also doesn’t learn very well by observing social interactions involving others. This is probably because she doesn’t understand what she’s seeing. She won’t pick up ‘unwritten rules’ unless you teach them explicitly to her. But the good news is that once spectrum kids understand these rules, most follow them diligently.”
Dr. Hendrickson suggest nudging your child toward social involvement, but doing so alertly and weighing each situation. She recognizes that some children do not want to be in social situations, but she insists they need to be:
Brighter spectrum kids may take refuge in arrogance, fantasizing that they don’t fit in because they are so superior. Some deliberately cultivate Mr. Spock’s or Lt. Data’s aloofness. These kids may claim that they don’t understand typical social interactions, and don’t need to … the Bible contests this claim. Christ calls us … to seek first His kingdom, not our own comfort or pride…He taught that our goal… is to serve others, rather than insisting upon being the one that is served (Matthew 20:25-28). We are called to adapt ourselves to others for love’s sake.
It is rare to find a book like this, one that views the Bible as both true and practical—yet, at the same time—does not take a simplistic approach to a complex challenge. If you suspect your child or a child you influence might be on the autism spectrum, I would recommend this book as a starting point and broad game plan.
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic but, during high school, Cicero (IL) Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute and served as pastor for many years at Highland Park Church, where he is now pastor emeritus. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.