| By Kristen West McGuire

My autistic heart

The reality hit me like a brick wall. Devastated, I cried at every Mass for a month. My child was not just difficult, not just strong-willed, but autistic.

The pain was not for his autism; the diagnosis was actually a relief, for now my husband and I could begin to help our son. No, my tears were for the many times I had demanded, sometimes in anger, more than my sweet son could give to me.

How many times had I yelled at him, “Listen up!?” He did not know how to answer and might not have even understood my instructions. How many times had I dragged him to parties and events that panicked him? He was overwhelmed by so much stimulation. How many times had I complained about having to cook the same breakfast, day after day, because that was all he would eat? But he was comforted by routine and consistency.

We were in shock, and even my stern Marine husband cried when he realized that our son actually wanted to please us, and we had often punished him instead. Truly, we had been ignorant of how to help him.

God obviously had many lessons to teach us.

Processing sensory input differently

Autism can be described as a wiring difference in the brain. Sensory input can be difficult to modulate even for a typically developing child. When the processing of that input overwhelms, many children withdraw into behaviors and habits that help them cope. Persons with neurodivergent processing simply experience the world differently.

Truly, the brain is an amazing organ! Verbal and nonverbal communication, social skills, imitation and motor skills rely on processing input from multiple body parts — balance, hearing, sight, verbal feedback and proprioception (awareness of one’s body in space). Developmental delays often include behavior problems due to miscommunication and misunderstandings that arise from sensory issues.

Our son is fortunate — his differences were relatively mild. And, amazingly, he taught himself to read and write before he could speak or even process speech reliably (this is called hyperlexia.) At the time of his diagnosis, he had withdrawn from his siblings and his daily tantrums left us all bewildered and exhausted.

Once I stopped crying and learned from trained therapists, wonder and awe filled my heart. Our son had been working so hard every day. As his communication skills grew, the tantrums decreased and new insight into his sensory differences emerged. His confidence soared and his true personality came to light.

An “autistic” heart

God humbled us — now we know that when a child has a tantrum, it’s one way of communication in response to being overwhelmed. Christ, through my son, helped me open my heart anew to the virtues of charity and patience. And I am still unpacking those lessons decades later.

It strikes me that my heart actually may be “autistic.” My love “sensors” are blocked by my judgments about others. And in context, the magnitude of the evils I see just stop me in my tracks. There are so many terrible things happening — war, school shootings, sexual abuse, drug addiction, abortion and on and on. Overwhelmed by the sin and sorrow, I am tempted to withdraw.

Yet, I know God calls us to stand up and love those who do evil, to proclaim release to the captives, to turn the other cheek and boldly proclaim Good News. Sometimes, we might be called to gently teach those in need of repentance. How can Christians process God’s love effectively?

Charity is a family affair

Charity had to become a family charism — our unique way of life. We try not to make snap judgments, though it still happens. Now, we seek out differences and look for alternative understandings in tense situations. We emphasize to our children how God loves us as individuals. He knows exactly what our hearts need and infuses our lives with the graces we need to endure.

The endless rounds of therapy in the years after the autism diagnosis were hard. There were bad days and bouts of momentary depression, juxtaposed with huge gains and hope for the future. It was wonderful to see this young man blossom — perhaps even more so because he overcame many challenges. He grew up and graduated from college.

Journeying together, we discovered that we would always have to work hard to overcome our differences. Isn’t it the case that everyone has to work hard to create the Kingdom? This is the work of salvation. “… work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work” (Phil 2:12-13).

We yearn to create a safe space, a home where all belong and we do our best to make it so. Sometimes, we succeed for a few moments or even a few years. But the work of making this fallen world right is a long-term project. We can expect, as Christians, to be misunderstood and even to misunderstand ourselves.

God, teach us to process love

It is no surprise that Mass inspired my tears over our son’s differences. Coping with autism reinforced the sacrificial aspect of the incarnation to me — Jesus’ body becomes reality on the altar at every Mass. The sacrifices and challenges of motherhood seemed overwhelming, but Jesus walked the Via Dolorosa before me. My sorrow turned to joy, just as Jesus promised (Jn 16:21-22). In Mass, our individual sacrifices are united with the sacrifice of Christ for the salvation of the entire world.

Jesus, in the act of consecration, takes up for us again all that is less than holy in our lives. He renews our ability to love through the sacrament with his body and blood. My “autistic” heart, and perhaps yours, is perfect and acceptable to God because of Christ Jesus.

We all have parts of our lives in need of healing. The good news — the Gospel — is that God will bring forth goodness and mercy from our pain and sin if we humbly ask for his help. Only he can give us the strength to love like Jesus.

O Lord, heal my “autistic” heart and fill the world with your love and compassion. Amen.

Kristen West McGuire is an editor and author on women's issues, spirituality and motherhood. She and husband Daniel moved to the lowcountry in 2020. They have eight children and three grandchildren. Visit kristenwestmcguire.com.