Raising A Boy With Autism Presents An Unexpected Lesson In Courage And Control

Posted: August 08, 2000

An old joke: "If you want to give God a really good laugh, tell Him your plans."

The way I figure it, I must have the Almighty rolling on the floor by now. See, I've never been short of plans. I planned to have my last child off to college in a few short years. After which, I planned to travel, planned to play, planned to walk around the house in boxer shorts whenever the mood struck.

I didn't plan to be raising a little boy with autism.

He's not even my child. Rather, he's the 4-going-on-5-year-old son of my 23-year-old stepdaughter. She, in turn, is my life's great heartbreak, an unstable young woman financially and emotionally incapable of raising her child. And since she won't identify the father, guess who has custody?

Then, about a year ago, the other shoe falls - we learn that our grandson is autistic. I've been struggling with it ever since. Whining, really. It's not fair, I moan. Don't I have a say in what happens in my own life?

I had plans, God!

Stop it, laughs God, hammering the floor, You're killing me!

I've gradually come to believe there must be a larger point to this. Lessons to be learned. In struggling with God and autism, I struggle with myself. My selfishness. My lack of faith.

Maybe you've read the serenity prayer. It says: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

So easy to say. But it's hard to be serene when the steering wheel of your life has been yanked from your hands.

Autism, the dictionary says, is an "abnormal introversion and egocentricity." In other words, the autistic person lives alone in a world of his own. His ability to interact, to even acknowledge others, is limited. There's no known cure, though, thankfully, my grandson's case has been characterized as mild.

Even so, he can carry on only fragmentary conversations. Sometimes, you'd swear he's just ignoring you. He finds it hard to follow simple instructions. He's still in diapers.

There's no way of knowing to what degree those things will change. No way of knowing if he'll someday be capable of living on his own.

He's a happy little boy, though, and right now, that's all that matters. He sings the "Power Rangers" theme song. He loves Chicken McNuggets and broccoli - pronounced "brocky." He beams when he shows "Paw-Paw" drawings he made in school. He learns new things all the time.

And he teaches, too. Indeed, though he has no way of knowing, Paw-Paw is his No. 1 student.

An autistic child demands patience - a virtue, the cliche says. To which I used to respond: "Yes, but it's not one of mine."

But an autistic person perceives the world differently. Where you see the forest, he sees a tree. And then another tree next to that. And another tree next to that. A hundred individual trees, each exerting its own pull upon his attention. So you're walking over some landscaping rocks and suddenly he pulls up short because he has spotted this one rock out of the thousands and it fascinates him. What can you do?

Simple. You stop and admire the rock. You take a few more steps, then stop and admire another rock. And next time, you keep to the sidewalk.

The lesson is patience, but not only that. It's also surrender. It's learning to release something that was never really in your hands anyway - meaning control of your own destiny. And it's faith, too.

That line in the serenity prayer - the one about having the courage to change the things you can - resonates differently with me now than it did before he came. Because it turns out that one of those things I must be brave enough to change is me.

I think it will make me a better person. But the process is not easy. It's hard to accept that sometimes, you just have to surrender the wheel and see where it takes you. And that when God is laughing, you might as well start laughing, too.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is leonardpitts@mindspring.com

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