Building Bridges: Emily Colson on Raising Her Autistic Son
- Friday, April 08, 2011
Note: April is National Autism Awareness Month. In Emily Colson’s new book Dancing with Max, she chronicles the highs and the lows, the heartbreak and the joy, the magic and the mystery of sharing life with her autistic son Max, who was once called “unteachable” by purported “professionals.” I recently had the opportunity to talk to Emily about the journey that she and Max walk together, and how she learned to “throw out my ideas of what I thought life would be -- should be, and let joy fill up those brand new vacancies.”
As the daughter of Chuck Colson, Emily has seen first-hand the redemptive power of God’s love and how He often uses the darkest moments of our lives to showcase His glory and bless us beyond our imagination. But nothing in her life had prepared Emily for the greatest gift she has ever known, disguised as her greatest challenge—her son, Max.
Every parent understands that parenting is the hardest, yet most rewarding job any of us will ever have. But the parent of an autistic child faces a particularly unique and difficult trial—trying to communicate with someone whose awareness of the world doesn’t match their own. “What Max wants is for the world to make sense, to feel safe, and it doesn’t,” Emily says.
While autism manifests itself differently in every person, many share some common symptoms—difficulty with social interactions, communication skills, and obsessive or repetitive behaviors. It makes teaching even the basics of life, a hard-fought daily battle. Couple that with another common issue—sleep disorder, and you have a parent trying to fight those battles with insufficient rest, decreasing patience and faltering strength. “Max is not a burden; he’s my greatest gift,” Emily remembers thinking about those difficult early years. “I’m not about to give up. I’m just not sure I can keep going.”
So how did Emily find the strength to keep going through all the challenges? There were so many sleepless nights, tantrums, endless bureaucratic battles to secure the help and educational support that Max needed, and untold insensitive situations and people who just didn’t understand that Max was desperately trying to make sense of a world that confused, frightened and baffled him, in the only way he knew how—to cry, scream, and fight his way through it.
“I think it (strength), can only come from God. I get up every morning and say, ‘this is my last day alive, what am I going to do with it? Then I look for what God wants to do with it and what He wants to teach me and teach us. That helps me to stay focused. It gets me through and keeps me from catching the first plane bound for Tahiti! For me, it’s also trusting that God has a bigger plan than I can see. And I am so in love with Max -- that carries a lot of weight.”
Emily also pointed out how counter-productive it is to make comparisons between the life we have, and the life we thought we were going to lead, or the lives we see others leading. “Comparing lives is a laundry chute to self-pity. This may not be the life that I envisioned for myself, but it IS the life that God gave me. And I think that one reason God wants us to give thanks is so that we will focus instead on the things that we DO have so that we can see our gifts as part of the Body of Christ. It puts our eyes on Him, not on all our challenges. And when we are in that place, the view is always good. Gratitude is the great equalizer.”
In addition, Emily realizes that she is Max’s “stability -- his only barometer for reading the climate of the world around him” which, we discussed, is similar to the path we walk as Christians. If we fall apart when the world around us is crumbling and makes no sense, then what message are we sending to others about how stable and trustworthy we think God is? Just as we need to demonstrate our faith and trust in a positive outcome because of our relationship with God, so too does the parent of any child, but particularly the parent of a special-needs child. They rely on the adults in their world to be steadfast and strong in the face of adversity. Otherwise, what does that mean for them?
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