John 9: Jesus Heals a Man Born Blind
1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life."
Eric does not drink water. In fact, Eric’s family has finally resorted to allowing him 12-14 cans of root beer a day in order to meet the most basic needs of water consumption for a 6 foot, 18 year old boy. Thad spends at least 5 minutes every day meticulously preparing for the swimming pool, putting on his secondhand trunks with care and flapping his hands wildly as he approaches the ramp and railing. Today is like every other: Thad will spend his 45 minutes of allotted pool time running around the edges of the pool, refusing to immerse himself and simultaneously refusing to change back into street clothes. If one listens closely enough, one can hear Thad having entire conversations in hurried mumbles beneath his breath, entire movie scripts, specifically “Toy Story” –each scene and soliloquy delivered with an iconic southern accent to a remarkably small audience. Molly has hated organized sports for years-she speaks to herself angrily as the kickball rolls to a stop inches from her immobile feet. Her teammates’ verbal encouragement puts her into the world her parents are all too familiar with-eyes glazed over, mouth hanging open slightly, fists clenched tightly enough to turn her knuckles a creamy white.
All of these individuals share one common trait. They are clinically diagnosed as autistic.
In discussing autism, it is perhaps best to use the definition provided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act.
“Autism is a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age 3, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences (in Cohen, Spencer 2006).
This definition provides a simple framework from which many other disorders are diagnosed. Autism falls with a range of disorders on the “Autism Spectrum”: a description of neurological disorders affecting social behavior, all the way from Schizophrenia to Aspberger’s Syndrome.
Our society has developed a recent and rather overwhelming fascination with this range of disorders, more specifically, a fascination with the diagnosed individuals themselves. The craze began with journalistic endeavors to describe and understand the steady rise in diagnosis and identification of children as young as 6 months. This quickly led to a global debate on its causes and possible treatments.
Many foregone and valid questions still remain. The question I will focus is in some ways, more foundational than many of the scientific inquiries raised in recent years. How do we respond to a disorder that is incurable, and appears to overwhelmingly limit genuine human interaction and inhibit what is considered to be a quality existence in our Judeo-Christian, American society?
Let us begin by warranting the fears and confusion many people face when working alongside individuals with autism. As described in the above sketches, the one universal factor in autism is a seeming disregard for the immediate world, or more aptly a strong desire to refuse communication with it. We naturally raise eyebrows and feel pity; we cannot help feeling sorry for those clinically shown to avoid phrases like “I love you,” physical touch, appropriate nutrition, and appropriate relationships with their peers and families. Again, here lies the crux of our crisis as Christians considerate of both scientific discovery and consistent advances in behavioral management. What is the appropriate response to individuals who seem to lack vital elements of what we consider a full Christian life?
The Biblical reference above raises several questions not easily answered by reassuring hermeneutics or five-point sermons on how to treat individuals with “special needs.
It does, however, present a Biblical context in which Jesus heals a person who would be considered sub-human and entirely pitiful in the eyes of his historical society. Yet Jesus also makes clear that there is no sin inherent in the blind man’s disability, and that his healing is simply a demonstration of God’s power, not a removal of sin. Why then, we wonder, has God failed to heal or demonstrate his power in frustrating cases like Eric’s? There is no documented “cure” for autism itself; even the most intense modifications seem to gain minimal changes in symptoms presented. The question becomes what lengths we should go to minimize, eliminate or “heal” the behaviors and symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorders.
It appears God has left us with either a) a terrible burden of discovering and curing the disorder itself, or b) a terrible burden of watching individuals live out what we determine to be inadequate lives of isolation and abnormality. I would suggest neither are ‘end all’ solutions, that while scientific inquiries are a legitimate pursuit, we are more immediately faced with the humbling realization that, like all other mental abnormalities and illnesses, we are left to live alongside these people in loving response to the Creation God has made. Perhaps the most fascinating issue when encountering this question is, again, our consideration of what makes a life inherently human and valuable? If a person cannot seemingly fulfill the Biblical mandates of relationship, love, devotion and immediate concern for our neighbor, than to what life has God seemingly sentenced these individuals and their families?
And what about Eric? At seventeen, Eric has yet to make any utterances translatable into common English, and would be attending the most prestigious university according to his ACT scores were it not for his self-harming and daily violent outbursts. What is our response to this seemingly overwhelming injustice?
In my humble opinion, we must begin by denying the assumptions that those with autism experience life at a lesser level of quality or enjoyment than that of the general population. We must realize our presuppositions and cultural biases and be willing to understand that this disability, in God’s eyes, is no different from those physical disabilities more easily dismissed as God’s work of glory and power in a world that values physical strength to complete the tasks that we determine as crucial. I would suggest that the most appropriate response to these individuals is one of loving acceptance and a commitment to discover and walk alongside the struggles that they and their families daily face.
I am compelled to believe that God desires nothing above our faithful obedience to stewardship and reconciliation mandates, treating Eric with mercy and forgiveness while working within acceptable educational and psychological frameworks to allow him a fulfilling and demanding life of discovery, creativity, and authentic human interaction. Even the most thorough catalogues of examples do not do justice to autism, one of the most complex disorders in the medical field.
Neither can we, unless we first abandon our assumptions regarding language, expression, and the necessity of tangible instances of love and affection.
I am no theologian, and am on the brink of diving headfirst into a career of educating children of all disability labels-but I am pained by the obsession our society demonstrates in converting these individuals into our own idols of perfect human Creation. More devastating still is the Christian response of fear, separation, and dismissal of those who we cannot reconcile as medical mysteries nor humans overwhelmed by a state of sin or demonic possession. I am confident that years will pass when autism is not on the cover of Time, Newsweek and Popular Science. I am confident that treatment for symptoms and medication schedules will become more regulated and readily accepted by educators and parents alike, but I am devastated by the continuing myth and magic surrounding the autism dialogue in film, books, and popular television.
Education, advocacy and role playing are an appropriate first step in our understanding of how best to interact with individuals with autism. The brink of our interactions with the autism dialogue (both scientific and personal) is the point at which we are willing to trust God’s design and honor the individuals’ awe-inspiring abilities and talents, especially when those abilities and talents fail to meet our standards of efficiency, social norms, and the American dream. Let we, as Christians, refuse the temptation to worship science or our cultural ideals, and rather be the first to ask and attempt to answer the holistic, ethical and scientific questions necessary for honoring individuals with autism in the way Jesus has modeled–and made a way for us to imitate with grace and faith.