Feeling Blue for Autism

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By: J.C. Mitchell


I recall sitting on the floor as three women from the state of Oklahoma observed and tested my son four years ago.  They came from the department of health because of our concerns about AJ’s development.  Not his physical development as his motor skills were average or even above average with jumping and running and climbing, but despite knowing his letters and many numbers by 20 months, he stopped using all the sign language and even the limited verbal language he had been using regularly.  I even recall him learning the sign for milk in a day and used it appropriately for a couple of weeks, when all the sudden he stopped using all his signs.  So I sat there and heard Mindi crying. I was confused, as I “played” with AJ.  I had not heard that one of the women suspected autism.  I did not hear it, I did not cry, but I have been on the verge of tears ever since.

I embraced the eventual diagnosis.  I am pretty certain that I and many of my family members are (or have been) on the spectrum, including a nephew who has done well with his therapies in Connecticut.  I embrace the diagnosis not simply because he is able to get the help he needs, but because it is part of who he is.  I do not believe he will ever be “cured” of his autism, nor would I desire that for, as with my learning disabilities, it is part of who I am.  But every night when I go to sleep, I am terrified I will die before he says I love you, whether it be on his iPad, or eventually with his own vocal cords (we know they work because of echolalia, the repetition of sounds and phrases which AJ masters, such as repeating television shows and songs).

So these potential tears come up often, but usually not out.  I am too busy working, advocating, and not-sleeping (mostly because of AJ getting up excited about school or occasionally I am worrying about AJ or work).  So I keep thinking I am sad, perhaps depressed. Then I read John 11 and actually did some Greek work (which I don’t do every week), but I was so interested in Jesus crying–because I feel I should, but I cannot do it.

First of all, the word used for Jesus weeping (dakruo) is not used anywhere else in the New Testament, even though John writes that Mary and the Jews were also weeping (klaio).  John is making it clear that Jesus’ tears are different than those mourning.  I often found solace in the fact that Jesus was moved to tears for his friend who died and/or that he was affected by the somber mourners.  Not unlike walking into a room of people laughing, I know I would be moved to laugh without knowing the punchline.  However, when you explore verse 33 you realize that the English translations/interpretations hint at compassion and sympathy, rather than anger and agitation which would be more accurate translations.[i]  So Jesus cries because he is agitated and angry, not sad and sympathetic.  This is freeing for me.

Lazarus is dead, but Jesus understands death is not the end.  However, Mary and the other mourners need to create meaning out of death just as we all do.  Jesus desires us to make meaning out of life, not death.  However, human society is based on the fear and understanding the meaning of death, because mortality defines life.  What is alive is not dead, but to Jesus what is alive does not die.  So Jesus is angry that these people are not living the resurrection now and put a rock between himself and his friend Lazarus.

Society generally wants my son is to be contained in a box.  Now that he is still young and cute, and possibly going to be “high-functioning” most people probably think I am overreacting, but I see it.  The concern is generally to control the autistic behavior; I especially see this with his older friends that have autism.  No longer as cute with large adult bodies, our school system keeps them essentially separate and controlled.  For those that are not “capable” of being in mainstream class, they are essentially doomed to a life in the tomb.

We know many “on the spectrum” who are not forced into the tomb, but it is because they actually got the resources they needed and/or they are not like my son and the older friends I wrote of above.  They are not the ones at risk for the “time-out rooms,” weighted clothes, restraints, and separate but equal classes and activities.  But because our human culture is based on life defined by mortality, all success is based on productivity and monetary value which we have a limited time (mortality) to prove.  This is why I have tears on the verge.

What I know about God is that success is not defined by death; it is in our ability to love one another.  So I am not sad my son has autism.  I am not sad there is a real possibility he will not move out of our home.  I am not sad he doesn’t say “I love you.”   I am agitated and angry we constantly define life by death.  I am agitated and angry we put the living in tombs.  I am agitated and angry we consider my perfect boy one of the “least of these.”

So like Jesus I weep, and call out to you to move the stone and unbind those we have bound, and we can do that by defining success via compassion and life through love, and look past our fear of death.




[i] New Interpreter’s Bible IX: 690

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About Rev. J.C. Mitchell

Pastor, Husband, Father, Theologian, & Motorcyclist. Reads Rene Girard to Baxter Black and everything in between. Theology of disability, non-violent atonement, & the open road are of great interest. Mimetic & Narrative Theories are two respective theories that work throughout his work. Strong dark roast coffee is a wonderful reality God gave us through dancing goats, which JC greatly appreciates. Will work for black licorice.

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