Monday, October 19, 2015

9 Things I've Learned From Jonah's Autism Diagnosis

This month marks two years since Jonah was diagnosed with autism. Some days, I almost forget that he is labeled as autistic, and other days, life gets so ridiculous that I wonder if we all aren't somewhere on the spectrum.

But I have learned so much about life, about faith, and about myself over these past two years. In sharing some of these lessons, I pray that you will be able to use what I've  learned and apply it to your own family when life gets difficult.

1. God is good.
God's nature is goodness. The Bible tells us to "give thanks to the Lord, for He is good" (Psalm 136.1) and to "taste and see that the Lord is good." (Psalm 34:8) Because God is gracious, He can not be mean-spirited toward us. It goes against His very nature. He may allow hard things to occur in our lives or in the lives of our friends and family, but He uses those things to draw us closer to Him, not to punish us. Sometimes we just need to trust in the Lord and remind ourselves that whatever is going on in our lives, whatever diagnosis we get, God is kind-hearted and He is able to work it all together for His good and glory.

2. God has a plan.
When we first received our assignment to move to Valdosta, we expected to live here for two years at the most. We had other plans for "after Valdosta." (I'm sure God was laughing about those other plans...) Fifteen months after moving here, Jonah was diagnosed with autism and we began receiving behavior therapy. A few months after that, he began receiving Occupational Therapy services. He was also enrolled in a special needs preschool program with an amazing teacher. When we found out that we wouldn't be moving after our two year stint, and would actually be staying a total of five years, we were astonished. It had never occurred to us that we would be in Valdosta for that length of time, but Peter and I realized what a blessing it actually was. We were able to keep Jonah enrolled in all of the therapies and schools that he needed in order to be successful. We wouldn't have to move and start over from scratch with new therapists. We knew that, even though we had made all these great plans in our heads of where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do, God had the ultimate plan. He knows what is best for our family, and staying here in Valdosta a little bit longer than expected is exactly what Jonah needs.

3. You can overcome your doubts, struggles, and anger at God.
I have mentioned this before, but when Jonah was first diagnosed with autism, Peter struggled a lot with anger towards God. He just couldn't understand why the Lord would "punish" us by allowing one of our children to be labeled with this disability. Especially Jonah. I mean, we had been so faithful to heed God's call of adoption on our lives, and now He was throwing this diagnosis at us? It was a hard pill for Peter to swallow.

I can understand where he is coming from. It's easy to experience disappointment and anger when things don't go your way. When life doesn't turn out exactly how you expect it to. But this is what I know. We can either choose to believe in God or we can choose to believe God. Some of you may not see the difference, but in reality, there is a huge distinction. Lots of people believe in God. They believe there is a God somewhere out there in the universe. Even the devil knows God exists. But when we choose to actually believe God and trust Him with our children, with our time, with our talents, and with our hurts, this is where true faith shines through.

God never told us that our lives would be perfect and he doesn't expect us to always have unwavering faith. What He wants from us is a relationship. He wants us to come to Him with our doubts and our worries so that He can take those from us. If you are struggling today with insecurities or frustrations toward the Lord, seek Him. Talk to Him. Tell Him how you feel. He can take it. And He will bear the burden for you if you choose to let go. His strength is perfect.

4. I am stronger than I think I am.
Here's the thing. I can be strong when I have to be. When my kids are watching to see if I'm going to freak out or crumble, I can be strong in front of them. But there are times, and I feel sure it's the case for pretty much everyone, that my strength is gone. Times when I need to have a good cry. Those times are going to come and it is okay. Sometimes when life hands you lemons, you need to take a minute and spit out the seeds: lose control for a second, cry your eyes out, go outside and scream at the top of your lungs. And when you're finished, take a deep breath and start again.

When Jonah was two and I was dealing with all his behavior issues, I was also dealing with Vivi's sleepless nights and colicky personality. She wouldn't sleep so then I didn't sleep either. It was a very long and difficult season. But guess what? I made it through. And you know what's really amazing? I can hardly remember that time in our lives. (Maybe it was so traumatic that I subconsciously blocked it out...)

But what I learned is that I can do hard things. I can survive on no sleep and still manage to get Jonah to all of his therapies and fight for the things that he needs. I can be physically and emotionally exhausted and still manage to help Brienne with her homework and shuttle her to places she needs to be. I am stronger than I think I am. And I bet you are too. As moms, we just do what we have to do. We take care of our little people because that's our job. So when life gets stressful and you begin to feel overwhelmed, take a deep breath and remember: You Are Stronger Than You Think You Are.

5. Autism is not a death sentence
Far from it. I have friends who have been given diagnoses which resulted in death for their children. Autism is not one of those diagnoses. To be honest, it did feel like a death sentence at first. We had to mourn some of our goals for Jonah's future. But what we are learning as a family is that he is now able to do pretty much anything that anyone else can do. God has been so faithful in connecting us with great therapists who love Jonah and who are helping him become a productive member of society. And God has been faithful to heal Jonah of so many behaviors. He is even playing soccer this year, which is amazing considering that we weren't sure team sports would ever be a possibility for him. I have learned to look at Jonah's strengths and be thankful for what he can do.

6. "Normal" is different for everybody.
I remember a time, about a year ago, when we were still dealing with some really tough issues with Jonah. I was sitting in bed one night, praying and crying out to God because I just wanted Jonah to be normal. I struggled with that for a while because, as a mom, I desperately wanted things to come easily for him. I wanted him to be able to have quality friendships and to be successful in the classroom. But God opened my heart to the possibility that "normal" is relative. What one person thinks is normal can be completely the opposite of normal for another person. And not only is "normal" different for everyone, but we can create a new type of normal for our family. This might look like making extra preparations before going somewhere new, or teaching Jonah to transition between different activities appropriately. It doesn't mean that what we are doing is wrong or bad or abnormal; it just means that our definition of normal has changed a bit.

7. The best (and worst) in people will be revealed.
Autism is a tricky thing. The spectrum is so broad that honestly, no two diagnoses look the same. One child may be on the lower end of the spectrum and may not be able to speak or make eye contact, while another person on the higher end of the spectrum may look like a pretty typical child. It is really weird. I remember working as a Speech/Language Pathologist and having several students who had been diagnosed with autism. Their parents often felt very isolated because many of their friends and family didn't know how to deal with their children.

I have learned that it is my responsibility to set the expectations for my friends. If they know the triggers that may set Jonah off, then they will begin to feel more comfortable around him. And honestly, most people want to help. They want to exhibit kindness to our family. But we, as parents, must demonstrate how to interact with Jonah. We must teach others how to treat him, which in turn shows others how to treat us as a family.

Now, I have also experienced the opposite of this. Some people will just avoid us. People who have been our friends for years. It may be because they are uncomfortable or they just don't know how to act around Jonah. Through this, I've learned that I can't control how others perceive me and my family. But I've also learned not to judge people's reactions to our family. It may be that they just don't know how to deal with Jonah's inattention or his emotional outbursts. And it's okay for these friends to feel that way because let's be honest - sometimes I don't know how to deal with it either.

My advice to you (and to myself, for that matter) is to choose friends who will love you and your family through the difficult times. But be sure to give them grace when they don't know what to do because all of us are prone to make mistakes every once in a while. Be full of grace and mercy towards those around you who are trying to love you well.

8. God provides exactly what you need.
So often we get bogged down in the details of parenthood. All the stresses and frustrations that come along with discipline and carpools and trying to come up with a meal plan and laundry and blah blah blah. It can be extremely overwhelming. But I have discovered that God does actually provide the encouragement that I need at the exact moment when I need it. Philippians 4:19 says that God will supply all our needs. And here's the good thing about this. Not only does this mean that the Lord provides for our physical needs (things like shelter and food and water), but He also provides for our spiritual and emotional needs. Isn't that such an amazing promise? The God of the universe actually cares about the details of my emotional health.

Here are some ways that I have seen God's provision.

     *As I memorize Scripture, He leads me to verses that I will need before I even know that I need
     them. The Holy Spirit prepares me for situations in advance so that I am better prepared to handle
     *After several rough weeks at church, a kind life group leader mentions how well-behaved and
     compliant Jonah is becoming in class.
     *In a recent IEP meeting, teachers at Jonah's school mentioned how very intelligent Jonah is and
     what a pleasure it is to work with and teach him.

Sometimes we just need a little encouragement to know that what we are doing is working. I am thankful that the Lord provides that encouragement along the way, just when I need it the most.

9. Love shines through.
Sometimes I am overwhelmed with such an immense love for my Savior because He has given me such good gifts in my children.  I pray that I am instilling this same love into their little lives each and every day. Some days are hard but the struggles are definitely worth it.

One night I was sitting by Jonah's bed, going through the nightly ritual of story and prayer time, when Jonah reached up and began tracing my face with his hand. I was overcome with such pure joy and adoration for this child that I could hardly hold back the tears. He leaned over and said this to me:

"I always wanted you to be my mom. I love you."

Tears are streaming down my face even now as I think about that statement. The Lord knew what He was doing when He knit Jonah together in his birthmother's body. He knew what He was doing when Jonah was placed in my arms the day after he was born. He knew what He was doing when Jonah was diagnosed with autism.

And sweet mom, when you are struggling, remember that the Lord knows what He is doing. He is good and has a plan for  your family. He will provide what you need. Let go of your fears and give your worries to the Lord. He is strong. And He loves you.


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