My oldest son recently received a diagnosis confirming that he has several special needs, including autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, sensory processing disorder, and dysgraphia (which is a learning disability that impacts the ability to write). Preliminary testing also indicates that he is gifted and talented, making him twice exceptional. As one might expect, our family of six has faced challenges incorporating new routines, new medications, and treatments into our household.
We are a homeschooling family, and he has lessons to teach me as I work to incorporate occupational therapy, brain integration exercises, and nutritional changes into our daily routine. These lessons are certainly beneficial to me, and it occurred to me that others may benefit from this experience as well. I have found books written by adults with similar diagnoses, parents of other special needs children, and subject matter experts while investigating my own child’s needs. There’s good material to be found, but the most encouraging by far is God’s Word.
High-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum often have narrow, obsessive interests and may have trouble discussing other subjects. One of his favorite possessions is a much loved and battered (though relatively new) animal encyclopedia. He can recount numerous details about virtually any given animal, such as its habitat, diet, and identifying features, and even stumps volunteers at the local zoo. Animals are his favorite topic and he will talk incessantly about them, especially his favorites like the axolotl, regardless of visible disinterest on the part of his listener.
A first lesson that every Christian should learn from autistic children is that a focused interest on one subject can actually be a good thing! If every Christian focused her attention, attraction, and activity on doing God’s will more people would be drawn to Christianity. In Deuteronomy 6:5 we are admonished, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” This sentiment is echoed in three of the four Gospel accounts (Mat. 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). The idea is to love God with every fiber of our being. In fact, Christ cited this passage as the greatest command of all. The second, like unto it, is to love your neighbor as yourself (Mat. 22:39). If we truly love our neighbors, we will preach the Gospel to them (Mark 16:15). If we spent as much time speaking of Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross as my son spends on the subject of animals, we would certainly be fulfilling this commission. Boldly proclaiming God’s Word and living its precepts before others glorifies God (1 Pet. 2:11-12)!
My son struggles to process the world around him. Everything we do, no matter how simple, requires sensory feedback to our nervous systems. Children with sensory processing disorder have either a hypo-reactive nervous system with a decreased response to sensory information or a hyper-reactive nervous system that inhibits their abilities both to tune out sensory input and generate proper output. Most people are familiar with the first five senses: touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste. We actually have a few other, lesser known senses necessary for sensory processing. Two examples are the proprioceptive and vestibular sense, which helps the mind understand where the body is in time and space. My son manifests sensory-processing issues in several ways, including avoidance of sensory stimulation with clothing (irritating tags in shirts, a need for elastic waistbands in pants, etc.), aversion to loud noises, and poor motor skills, both fine and gross.
Another lesson to be taken from these children is that an inability to process certain sensory input can actually be a good thing! We should have an absolute intolerance to sin in our own lives. While our compassion and love for others exposes us to the ways of the world, we must not partake in such. Avoiding sin in this world is impossible, but we ought to be striving ourselves to have sober, righteous, godly lives (Tit. 2:12; Pro. 2:20) and help bear one another’s burdens (Col. 3:13).
My child has to work harder in his interactions with other people and practice appropriate behavior. We struggle with severe meltdowns, which unwitting bystanders often mistakenly attribute to a lack of discipline. We have to gently remind him about eye contact, personal space, showing interest in others, and sensitivity to others’ feelings, and to remind him that others may use sarcasm or other figurative expressions that he doesn’t grasp. This boy loves people, but often doesn’t know how to appropriately interact with them. He is the most at ease with his family, younger children, and the elderly, all of whom tend to be more understanding and forgiving of his less acceptable behaviors.
Therein is another lesson for Christians: we should never cease working on our relationships with other people. Our speech is to be graceful and seasoned with salt (Col. 4:6). Evil company corrupts good habits (1 Cor. 15:33). We are to be lights in the world (Php. 2:15). We are to think on things that are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, praiseworthy, and of good report (Php. 4:8). We must bear the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). We are to show true love to the world around us (I Corinthians 13). These are but a few of the behaviors we should cultivate and employ in our relationships with others.
Routine is particularly important in our household as we have another child with sensory processing disorder and dietary problems. We have daily exercises designed to help my son cross the midline of his brain. We work on fine and gross motor skills and undertake writing exercises to address his dysgraphia. He takes medications and supplements with all three meals. Amongst all these needs, we must maintain a general routine in our home for the other children and ensure that no one’s needs go unmet.
Thus, a final lesson is that routine is valuable and should entail spiritual priorities. Christians should spend dedicated time in prayer praising God, giving thanks for His many blessings, confessing sins and asking forgiveness, and praying for the needs of self and others. We should pray for our nation and its leaders, our local community, the church and its elders, needs of our brethren, the needs of co-workers and classmates, and evangelistic efforts. Christians must also dedicate time for Bible study, as we cannot know God’s will without spending copious time in the Scriptures. Other important considerations for allocation of our time include fellowship with brethren, “couple time” with our spouses, and family time with our children. Such vital aspects of life should be part of our routine, not afterthoughts, and other less valuable demands upon our time may need to be declined at times.
Christians can learn many things from children, and the unique qualities of special needs children offer insights that might otherwise be less apparent. Look around your congregation, neighborhood, and even your own home for these lessons that life offers and remember to give your fellow mother the benefit of the doubt the next time you observe her working with a challenging child!
By Brandi Beavers
Brandi is married to her best friend Jonathan. They have four children ranging in age from two to nine and reside in Memphis, Tennessee. She enjoys spending time with her family, reading, homeschooling her children, and crafting. She loves ladies’ Bible classes and is encouraged by time spent in study with sisters in Christ. She also enjoys teaching children’s Bible classes at the congregation in Mississippi where they currently worship.