The other day, a friend of mine, who is also a mother of an autistic child, asked the question, "When should my son get baptized?" I've been thinking about this and other related questions a lot these days. Specifically, I am wondering, "What does spiritual growth and connection with God look like for a neuro-atypical person like Joshua?"
My son, Joshua would fall on the lower to middle functioning levels of the autism spectrum. He definitely has an additional diagnosis of "intellectual disability" or, what used to be called, "mental retardation". Josh generally only communicates about his immediate specific needs ("Want toast" or "Want music" etc.) and even this has been a big area of growth that we've fought hard for. He will not/ cannot respond verbally to the question, "How was your day" or "What did you do today?" Josh does not seem to function on the level of reflecting about his experience as a person (or at least in a way that can be accessed by other people). He understands tangible explanations like "First we are going to go potty then we will go for a ride in the car." but there is no way that he is going to understand anything close to "Jesus died for your sins" or "You can trust God to give you peace in your heart". Not even close.
So a verbal, conceptual link to God is out of the question for this kid. Unfortunately, this wipes out a lot of how I have come to know God and the spiritual life. Both of Joshua's parents are English majors who have spent a heck of a lot of our lives teaching the Bible and conversing with people about our personal spiritual journeys. If talking and concepts are out, then how am I to understand how God is going to reach this child?
Does Josh have a spiritual journey too? Does he have choices that he will make to chose God? Is there a witness in his world that speaks to Josh of the love, grandeur, wonder, mystery and delightfulness of God? I'm pretty sure that the answer is "yes" but I'm at a loss to imagine how that works. Maybe it has to do with a showerhead. It certainly is the thing in this world that reflects the most awe, reverence, and beauty for Josh.
One area where I have wondered if I've sensed the presence of God in Josh's life is during our bedtime prayers. Mostly, it is a pretty rote endeavor where I say, "Dear" and Josh says, "Jesus". I then say, "Thank you for..." and Josh says, "Showers" (or something that he likes or sometimes it's just nonsense). Then I say, "We pray for. . ." It's at that point that he surprises me. Often, Josh will "pray for" or speak out the names of people in his life, often people that I have not talked about in a while. Sometimes it's his old teacher or a caregiver or the names of his sisters. I do not prompt him. He just says their names. Maybe I'm imagining it but I feel like it's the one moment where I have a window into who Josh cares about. It feels like a moment where Josh connects with people and God that I can see and feel.
Another place where I feel the presence of God in Joshua's life is during musical worship at our church. Joshua goes to a Sunday school class for part of the time with an aide every week. However, most weeks he comes into "adult church" for the second half of the service, which is when the musical worship happens. Josh is always into it. Mostly, I think that it's because he opens up to the music (I guess that's true for a lot of us who are not autistic) but when I hold him, I feel like there is an element of his really wanting to worship as well. Josh is into the musical worship time in way that seems different from how he is into music at other times in his life. He even tries to "sing" along sometimes (which is sometimes disruptive and has to be managed).
I have a book called Autism and the God Connection that explores these questions, though not necessarily from a Christian point of view. It has some interesting points and stories but I think that the question of Joshua and the spiritual journey is one that I, as a mother, will have to "ponder in my heart" for a long time. As the person who has the most up close seat to the drama of Joshua's life, what will I come to see about how God reaches this amazing and precious person? I think that this is a parable that I will have for my whole life.