A Meltdown Met With Compassion

A few days ago, I dropped my autistic son off for therapy. He was in the midst of a minor meltdown the continued outside the car(meltdowns are not uncommon in the world of autism) and it was enough to draw attention. A gentleman standing by his vehicle glanced in my direction. I ignored it like I usually do. So, I took J inside and we said our usual goodbyes.

As I returned to my car, the glancing gentleman approached me, gave me his business card and began crying. He put his arm around me and said, “Call me sometime, I have an 18-year-old with autism. Bless you.” He got in his vehicle and left.

I misjudged the man’s glance. His gesture was the kind of compassion the moment called for.

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Autism Stepdad in Training

I’m ten months into learning how to be a stepfather to twin 8 year old boys- one of whom is diagnosed with Autism and apraxia. Together they bring bring all the joys and challenges that come with parenting any child.  But when special needs are in the mix there’s a completely different dynamic at play.

In short, my stepson with Autism and apraxia processes the senses differently than I do.  Further, he requires an assistive device to communicate, as he cannot form consonant or vowel sounds in the way most people do.  This requires an added dose of love and patience.  And I can tell you it’s a lot easier to offer than one might think. By the way, we often call him J Bird, in addition to his real name.

No doubt I will have plenty to write about over the years.  But here are just a few of the things I’ve learned in the past few months.

  • Affirmation of love and safety comes before any form of correction.
  • All that push back over the word “retard” is for a reason.  Outside a musical composition it’s never used in a positive manner.  I’ve dropped it from my vocabulary.
  • Bursts of anger or frustration are more about wanting to be understood than “there’s something wrong with that child.”
  • A child with Autism, particularly one with a twin brother, is just as protective of his sibling as any other would be- and he has his way of letting you no….”that’s my brother your scolding!”
  • “Naked as a J Bird” moments may happen at anytime.  We’re working on this one.
  • If J Bird is outside and it’s in his hand there’s a high probability it will end up in the pool.  I’ve seen it all: hot dogs, bicycle locks, rocks, bowls of pretzels, the popsicle he just asked me for, his cup of juice that’s now adding a nice color to the water, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll suddenly see his swimsuit at the bottom (see previous bullet point).
  • Moments of affection from  J Bird without prompting are golden.
  • I’ve learned to ignore the stares from others who just don’t understand.
  • Use handicap parking when necessary without apology.  The same holds true for the disability pass at Six Flags Over Texas.  A forthcoming post on this issue is in the works.
  • When J Bird invites you to join him on the trampoline you gladly accept. It’s one of his favorite things to do.

Like I said, I’m only 10 months into this.  I’ve learned to  expect. . .well, the unexpected.  There’s more to come for sure.  My hope in writing about this journey is to bring awareness, neutralize the judgments, and deepen the compassion toward a growing segment of the population that is . . .well, a unique piece of the puzzle that makes up all of us.  So, if you’re still reading I hope you’ll return for more.

Brent Woodall Foundation Walkabout for Autism 2014.
J Bird and me. Brent Wooodall Foundation’s Walkabout for Autism, 2014.

Why I’m Not Giving Up Beer for Lent

My Twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with updates from friends and acquaintances announcing what they are doing for Lent. Some are using it as a time of sacrifice, while others are being moved to action. 

Curiously, I meet more and more folks who are drawn to the season of Lent; some aren’t even Christian. Maybe it’s the appeal of a designated time for self-reflection. Christian or not, it is appropriate to enter the next few weeks with an awareness of Lent’s significance to the Christian faith.

The season observes the roughly forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted by the “evil one” and immersed in self-examination. We have limited testimony to Jesus’s words and thoughts. But his was a journey that helped refine his identify and purpose for this world.

Jesus emerged from his wilderness wandering transformed; he was ready to challenge oppressive paradigms, reach out to the the poor, and offer grace and forgiveness to those labeled “unclean” by others. He taught people how to pray and what people should really be praying for: daily food, justice, and forgiveness. He refused to take part in violence. He refused to give in to conventional forms of power and greed- and he had sharp words for those who did. He radicalized what it meant to be a neighbor. His embrace of the “other” was wide and his love for the unloveable deep. He ate meals with the unwanted. He didn’t even put up a fight when he was falsely accused, convicted and given the death penalty. This was the life he modeled.

Lent, particularly for Christians, is a spiritual journey to the foot of the cross. It begins with the acknowledgement of our mortality: our limited time. The hope is that the journey is a transformative one: that we each come out on the other side changed, renewed, and ready to respond to the one who beacons, “Follow me.”

Whatever your reason for choosing to observe Lent, I hope you made a commitment that will challenge and transform your inner being. May that transformation result in a greater self- awareness and a deeper sense of compassion and justice.

Oh, right, you started reading this because you wanted to know why I’m not giving up beer for Lent. That’s easy: St. Patrick’s Day. I’m parting with red meat instead.  There are a couple of other commitments but those are between me and God.

Cheers!

A Different Kind of Christmas

The Christian liturgical year ended appropriately with Matthew 25. In this passage known as the “Judgment of the Nations” Jesus declares the criteria for separating the sheep from the goats. Curiously (or not), they have nothing to do with whom one marries, the music one listens to, the company one keeps, or the dogma one subscribes to. Instead, they have everything to do with how we (collectively) treat the homeless, the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick, the thirsty, and the stranger.

For Christians these words are timely as the Advent and Christmas seasons begin November 27. These are challenging times for the Christian community. I would submit that the words of Matthew 25 gain relevance when the church (collectively) moves to distinguish itself from the consumer orgy that commences the day after Thanksgiving, culturally known as “Black Friday.” This doesn’t mean gift giving must cease.

There is great joy in the act of selecting, giving, and receiving of gifts. Even so, it impossible to deny that the hijacking of Christmas by the consumer mentality has cheapened the gift in the manger. We have purchased unwanted gifts, re-gifted, swapped gifts cards, and, in many cases, increased our debt in the name of what? It certainly isn’t in the name of the Gospel, Christmas, or Christianity. We are called to be something different.

Thankfully, hope has emerged in recent history through alternative gift giving. Fair trade gifts can be purchased through organizations like Ten Thousand Villages or local, fair trade, gift shops like From the Ends of the Earth in Dallas, Texas. I have found the folks at Advent Conspiracy to be particularly inspirational. Committed to building clean water wells, Advent Conspiracy has challenged Christians to view Advent and Christmas as a time to embrace their call to be justice oriented people (their video posted below).

The “holiday season” as it is celebrated in our culture through gift buying, parties and beautiful decor throughout cities everywhere is a wonderful time to celebrate the relationships in our lives. And there’s nothing that says a Christian shouldn’t participate. Yes, engage in the joy of gift exchange. Just don’t buy so many! The Advent/Christmas cycle reminds us that the gift in the manager calls us to a different kind of life. A life that is simpler. A life that celebrates generosity over consumption. A life that engages in acts of justice, love, and compassion.

So, find a local church offering an “Alternative Gift Market.” Host a “Wine to Water” party and help fund a clean water well. Buy a beehive from Heifer International to increase the pollination of the crops in an impoverished village.

Whatever you choose make it a Christmas that embraces the call of the Christ-child to engage this world justly, compassionately and mercifully.

Have a joyful and meaningful season!