A Gracious Apology

Sorry in the Sand

A couple of days ago, I posted about an online article that appeared on a Catholic website, which I felt portrayed autism in a hurtful and inaccurate way. I mentioned that I had contacted the author and asked him to either reword his piece or remove it altogether. I also promised that I would keep you all informed.

Well, guess what? He got back to me, and in very good time. His first message was part self-defense and part apology for any way I felt hurt by his words. He was gracious in his words, but unwilling to make any concessions. His message came late in the evening, and I was too tired to formulate a response that would help him see the effect his words were having on the autism community. So I went to bed a little disappointed, but ready to continue the discussion the next day.

When I woke up, I was greeted by another e-mail in which he said that after sleeping on it, he had decided to take down his article after all. Sadly, he was hampered by the fact that another site had picked up his piece, and he no longer had control over where it was going. So he came up with another solution—one that really touched my heart. He attached the following note to the beginning of his article:

AUTHOR NOTE:  In an attempt to address a serious problem I feel impacts the Church, I attempted to use autism as a metaphor.  I made a sincere effort to do so sensitively, based upon my understanding of the disorder. Since then, it has come to my attention that many people have been offended by my characterization of autism and my use of it in this context.  It was never my intention to offend any parent of a child with autism or any person with autism.  I have nothing but the deepest respect for the many people I know personally who live tremendously admirable lives in the face of the challenges autism spectrum can present.  Unfortunately, circumstances prevent me from simply removing this post (which I would have preferred to do to avoid unintentionally spreading any ignorance about autism), but I would like anyone who reads this to know that I am sincerely sorry for any offense I have given and that no disrespect was intended by my original article.  For those who would like the best information on how people with special needs can be welcomed in the Church and supported in their faith development I encourage readers to visit and support the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.  I thank you for your understanding.

What a kind gesture! He could have let the whole thing go and just move on. But he chose to speak honestly and humbly, acknowledging the hurt he had caused. I was quick to reply and thank him for what he wrote—and for listening to my concerns in the first place.

See what happens when you advocate for your loved ones? It wasn’t easy for me to write to this fellow; I was putting myself out there in a way I don’t normally do. At least not to strangers. But I knew I had to do something. I’m just grateful that he was reasonable and open-hearted enough to listen. But even if he wasn’t, it still would have been worth it. Some things are too important to remain silent about.

The Unfortunate Theory of “Spiritual Autism”

Buzz & Woody Broad Brushstrokes

So this was fun—not. Last Thursday, a Catholic blogger named Gregory Popcak posted an article titled “Spiritual Autism and the Catholic-Evangelical Divide.” In his article, Popcak describes people on the autism spectrum in the following way:

Their brains tend to see people the same way they see objects. They aren’t good at picking up or even appreciating the need for emotions and emotional cues.  In fact, the emotional demands of relationships often feel intimidating. Because of this struggle with the relational dimension of their experience, they tend to become fixated on curious hobbies and obsess over minute details.

Needless to say, I was offended by this characterization, and I found it to be demeaning of people on the autism spectrum. My children definitely do not look at Katie and me as objects. They may struggle with relationships, but not for the reasons Popcak states. If anything, the “Intense World Theory“ explains their struggles much better than the “Robot” theory he is espousing. The same goes for the many other autistic people I have come to know. They know the difference between a person and a thing, and they know how to treat people like people. Again, they may have some struggles in knowing how to relate or in regulating their emotions—causing them to shut down or retreat into their shells—but it’s not for a lack of trying.

What’s worse, Popcak uses the term “spiritual autism” to describe a certain deficiency in some Catholics’ spiritual lives—that they favor ritual and routine over relationship and interaction. That may well be the case for some, but it’s unfortunate that Popcak links this spiritual “deficit” to autism. It gives the impression that autistics aren’t capable of religious sentiment or spiritual experience. Again, it may be challenging, but it’s not impossible. (As an aside, I’m not a fan of his theological premise either. It sounds as if he is setting ritual in opposition to relationship, which isn’t wholly the case. But that’s for another time and another place.)

Yesterday, I wrote Popcak an e-mail stating my objections and asking him to either reword or remove his piece. I also posted a brief comment objecting to the article on his Facebook page. We’ll see if and how he responds. I’ll keep you posted. In the mean time, feel free to post your own comments on his page if you want. Just be sure to keep it civil and short. I don’t want to start a hate campaign against the fellow. He’s just misinformed, and a sloppy writer. He should know better than to paint with such broad—and harsh—brushstrokes.

“I’ll Miss the Kick-Ass Bitch”


The following depiction of a homeless woman with mental illness was posted by my brother on Facebook a couple of days ago. It was so moving that I thought I’d share it with all of you.

A bit of background: My brother is an attorney in the public defender’s office in the suburbs of Baltimore. He acts as legal counsel for those who cannot afford their own lawyer. A good portion of his clientele are drug offenders. Many of them are homeless. Many also suffer from mental illness. And he’s there to make sure they get the legal counsel that is their constitutional right. It’s a job he has had for decades, and he relishes it. Anyway, here’s his story. I dare you to read it and not be moved.

“I Need Help!”

A long-time client of mine who became a dear friend was killed in a hit and run homicide. She was chronically mentally ill. Her illness eventually forced her mother to put her out. She kept coming back to see mom. After a few days, things would get out of hand. Her mother, understandably, had to get a protective order to keep my friend away.

She was on disability, but that paid only enough for her to rent a room in someone’s house. That always ended badly. The police were called. She went from one shelter to another. Again, it would work out for a while, then she would run out of her meds or lose them or have them stolen. She’d be asked to leave. They would eventually ban her because of her behavior. No medication always led to bad things. So my friend would eventually end up homeless. Alone. It was hard for her to be around people. But when everything was under control, strangers liked her. She had a genuine and open smile.

Not too long ago, I was visiting a client who was housed in the same unit as my friend was. She had to be locked in her cell because she had acted up. I heard her screaming louder than anyone could bear to hear, “I need help.” It went on for so long that I had to cut my visit short.

The last time I saw her, in a holding cell just before she was released, she told me that all she wanted to do was hug her mother. Just once. Now, my mother isn’t here to hug. I can’t imagine knowing that mom is not far, but she genuinely needs the law to keep her daughter away. Only one hug.

She died alone. The coward who hit her just kept on going. She was homeless. She was disposable. She was invisible. She was so funny that tears would literally stream down my cheeks when she got on a roll. She told me that when I needed help, the kick-ass bitch (her) would straighten things out. She was a human being. She was my friend. She was a human being.

She died alone on the street.

She was killed early last Monday morning. I found out about it Tuesday afternoon. Wednesday morning, it hit me like a cyclone. Spun me around. I remembered that a friend always says Mass on Wednesdays near my office. I met him in the parking lot, sobbing. He asked the people there to pray for her. They are a small group of retired nuns. Some in their eighties, a few over ninety. They will pray for her. I will pray for her. I’ll miss the kick-ass bitch.

Homeless, Hopeless, Helpless.

It is a sad fact that many people with mental illness end up like this woman—homeless, hopeless, and helpless. Disposable, as my brother said. So many end up in prison because they have nowhere else to go. In fact, there are those who purposely commit crimes so that they will at least have a shot at food and shelter. That’s how low they have fallen. That’s how much society has failed them.

I have written before about my children having comorbid conditions along with their autism: OCD, anxiety, and the like. These are mental illnesses, plain and simple. The only difference between them and this woman is demographics. I make a decent living. Katie and I are able to provide a stable, loving home environment where they can grow and thrive. We make sure that they receive the medical and psychological care they need so that they have a good chance of living independent, self-sufficient lives. Of course, none of this is a sure-fire guarantee, but the odds are significantly better.

Many, many people are not so lucky. They are the forgotten, the ignored, the abused, the ragged people living on the margins. Thank God for people like my brother—true advocates and servants who are committing themselves to helping these people as much as possible!

Survey Opportunity

So a few days ago, I received a note on this blog alerting me to a study being done at Fordham University concerning the effects of spirituality on autism parents. It looks like a really good opportunity parents to help researchers understand one of the most  underreported aspect of many their lives. So I’m posting the note here, and encouraging everyone to participate. Note that it is concerned with how “spiritual variables may contribute to or detract from growth.” So this is meant to look at the topic objectively, and not ideologically.

So take a look at the note, and follow the link for the study. Let’s try to help the researchers get as full a picture as possible. Thanks!

Hello. My name is Elizabeth Tobin. I am a graduate assistant for Dr. Mary Beth Werdel, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Fordham University in New York. We are conducting an anonymous study to explore spirituality as a coping resource for parents raising a child with an autism spectrum disorder.

The goal of the study is to increase our understanding of the ways spiritual variables may contribute to or detract from growth following the potentially stressful life experiences of raising a child with an autism spectrum disorder. It will take approximately 20 minutes to complete the survey.

I wonder if you could help us find parents by posting a link to the research study on your blog? We would be very grateful for any help you could provide.
If you have any questions about the project you may contact Mary Beth Werdel at mwerdel@fordham.edu

Survey link:

Words from the Unwise


So this bit of news has been making the rounds the past couple of days among autism and other special-needs parents. It seems that in two unrelated incidents, a police resource officer in a Kentucky grade school put an eight-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl in handcuffs in order to restrain them—cuffing them around their biceps because their small hands would slip through the cuffs. Both students have ADHD, and the girl also had a history of some kind of trauma.

The school was aware of the children’s diagnoses, as was the police officer who cuffed them. Both students had been removed from their classrooms because of disruptive behavior, and when the principal was unable to contain the situations, the officer took over, employing the handcuffs. (Note: watch the video at the top of the article at your own risk. It’s very disturbing.)

According to the report, the girl was especially upset by the situation, to the point of needing psychiatric treatment in a hospital. Understandably, both sets of parents are suing the officer involved.

This is a very sad story, especially in a time when attention has already been focused on police officers abusing their power and mistreating people who live on the margins. These incidents may not rise to the level of Freddie Gray or Michael Brown, but they come pretty darned close.

I don’t want to say much about the incidents—I don’t like stating the obvious or dwelling on people’s stupidity. But I do want to look at the article that described the situation. Actually, not the article (although it does have a couple of really embarrassing typos), but the utterly irresponsible headline that was assigned to it:

Lawsuit: Officer handcuffed mentally disabled kids as punishment.

Disabled? Mentally? What does that even mean? The report only talks about ADHD and some unspecified trauma. It’s not as if the kids had been lobotomized or anything. There’s nothing in the report that indicated the students were “disabled” in the sense that most people understand that term.

It doesn’t take a genius to see how this terminology places a kind of perception filter over the whole story.

“Oh, the kids must have been truly and deeply disturbed.”

“I can understand why the principal let the officer shackle the children.”

“These are mentally disabled kids—it’s not as if they were ‘normal’ kids. I guess it’s okay.”

It may not seem like a huge deal—just a matter of poor wording. But in this time when the Americans with Disabilities Act is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, we don’t need to be going backwards. Remember, it was the ADA that ushered in the era of person-centered language. So we talk about a man with schizophrenia rather than calling him a schizophrenic. We talk about a woman who can’t walk instead of calling her a cripple. And we talk about a child with ADHD rather than calling him mentally disabled. Or at the very worst, we call him a child with a disability.

It shouldn’t be rocket science at this point in our history, and yet here we are. We’re still using hurtful, discriminatory words. Words that justify abuse, fear, and marginalization.

ADHD Hall of Fame.

But that’s not all. Terms like “mentally disabled” give the impression that the kids are slow learners or are academic underachievers. It puts them in a category of “less than,” when there is absolutely no evidence in the article that this is the case. For all we know, these kids could be total freaking geniuses who happen to have ADHD. It’s not uncommon, after all for this combination to occur.

Here, for instance, is a list of some well-known, very successful people who also have ADHD:

  • Virgin Airlines CEO Richard Branson
  • Quarterback Terry Bradshaw
  • Musician Justin Timberlake
  • Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Katherine Ellison
  • Comedian Whoopi Goldberg
  • Actress Michelle Rodriguez

Would you call any of them “mentally disabled”?

Words from the Unwise.

It’s possible that the editor who created this headline thought the article would get more views if he or she used a provocative title. Or maybe the editor was trying to allude to the recent police brutality stories. But it was a very poor choice of words. It’s deeply offensive, and it did a huge disservice, both to the story and more important, to the kids.

But hey, I guess we’re making some progress. At least the headline didn’t call the kids retarded.

A Fortunate Slip of the Lip

Fourth Doctor Gobsmacked

Note: This post originally appeared as a guest post on the awesome “Confessions of an Asperger’s Mom page. Many thanks to Karen for inviting me to share my story with her readers. You should definitely check out her blog, as well as her Facebook page. She has a lot of wisdom to share.

I could have sworn he was downstairs. Really. I wouldn’t have said what I did if I knew he was in his bedroom—well within earshot. As Katie and I were going up the stairs this afternoon, I was recounting how this kid (#4, nine years old) had taken such good care of his younger brother (#6, six years old) at the neighborhood pool. If I had known he was in his bedroom, at the top of the stairs, changing out of his bathing suit, I would not have said, out loud:

“And [this kid], our autistic son, did really well today. So much for the old myth about empathy!”

“Dad? What does ‘autistic’ mean?”

My heart sank. It was probably the first time he ever heard himself described as autistic.

It’s not that I was hiding it from him. I had been wanting to tell him for some time now. I just didn’t know how to do it. And I didn’t want to manufacture some Hallmark moment where there would be this big reveal and a whole new understanding. I wanted it to be natural and, well, right. (Plus, I was also a little chicken.)

No Good Opportunity.

You see, he’s one of six, and they’re all autistic. His two older brothers and older sister already know about their diagnoses—and they found out more or less by accident as well. At least, it didn’t happen on my terms and in a way that I wanted it to. (Insert chicken squawks here.)

So autism is pretty much the lay of the land in our family, and that means he doesn’t really stick out at home enough to wonder why he’s different. All the kids present a pretty consistent profile of being on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum, so he’s got a built-in tribe of autistics to relate to.

He also manages to blend in pretty well with his peers at school—at least so far. He’s only in fourth grade, too which means that his classmates are too busy running around on the play ground to pay much attention to his quirks or language glitches. Plus, he works hard to try to fit in. It’s not perfect, and it can lead him to come home tired, moody, and explosive. But it works.

So there didn’t seem to be any need to explain autism to him. (Squawk!!)

Stumbling into The Talk.

Anyway, there I was, completely unprepared for the talk. But there was no getting around it; I had to answer his question.

I brought him into our room along with Katie, and asked him, “What did you hear me say?”

“You said I was autistic and I have empathy.”

“That’s right. Do you know what empathy means?” (I was stalling for time.)


“It means that you care about how other people feel. It means that you can feel their feelings, and you want to help people who feel bad. That’s a really good thing, and I’m so glad you are like that.”

“Okay. What about autistic?”

I hesitated, not sure exactly what to say. Then Katie stepped in and saved me. “It means you think outside of the box.”

O merciful intervention! I knew that this kid thinks too literally to grasp metaphors like that. But that was a good thing; it gave me something concrete to react to. I didn’t have to come up with a complete explanation out of nowhere. The talk was happening all by itself.

Autism Is. . .

So I told him that “outside of the box” means that God made his brain a little different than most other kids’ brains. I talked about the cool gifts this brain gives him, like his laser focus on math and cooking and singing. He’s got some real talents there. Then I talked about challenges like how he can have a hard time putting words together or how he sometimes struggles understanding when someone’s talking to him. I hit on a couple of others, like emotional regulation and his need to jump around and get giddy sometimes. Then came the Big Finish.

“So there’s something a little different about you. That doesn’t make you weird. Just different. Autism isn’t a disease or a sickness. It just makes you special. Got it?”


“Any questions?”

“No. Can I go type on the computer now?”

“Sure thing. Knock yourself out.”

No Drama.

And that was that. No fuss. No drama. No nothing. None of the baggage that the world gives to the word autism. None of the baggage that I can give it, either. Just another word to help him describe himself.

In a way, I’m glad that it happened like this. I didn’t have time to worry about developing the perfect speech. I didn’t have the luxury of turning it into a thing, which might risk emphasizing the difference more than I wanted. I didn’t have enough of a chance to screw it up, either.

I also liked the way it became just another thing that happened today. Mind you, I’m not sure how much of it he really grasped. But I didn’t want to push. It doesn’t really matter anyway. We began a conversation today that will unfold and deepen over time.

No Big Deal.

So there you have it. My son found out that he is autistic, and he’s doing just fine. An inopportune-but-opportune moment presented itself, and we did our best with it.

It may not sound like the best approach, but there’s something really appealing and “normal” about things like this happening within the natural flow of everyday life. It helps the kids see that it’s not a big deal. It’s one facet of who they are, and it has no bearing on how much we love them or how much dignity or value they have—in our eyes or in God’s eyes.

That’s four down, two to go. I think I’m getting the hang of this thing. So bring it on!

No Rules, New Rules, One Rule


So last night, the Fourth of July, held a minor victory as our oldest kid did pretty well facing his fear of fireworks. All the kids did pretty well, in fact, with each one showing a little more improvement in the sensory processing realm. Plus, they got to stay up later than usual. Mind you, we didn’t go anywhere for fireworks. We’re just talking about the small-time crackers and roman candles that some folks in the neighborhood set off. Still, progress is progress.

Anyway, this morning we ended up paying for the late night and the extra stimulation. As we were trying to get everyone ready for Mass, we were presented with two very strong tantrum-melt downs from two different kids, one stubbornly tired kid who could barely keep his eyes open, and another one exceedingly anxious about the her siblings’ potentially bad behavior in church.

We tried to roll with it. We really did. But after a while we realized that Mass just wasn’t going to work. It was too risky. So we played hooky. Sort of. Rather than go to our local church, which is only a half-mile away, we loaded everyone in the van and drove twenty miles to Mount St. Mary’s University–my alma mater of a Catholic college.

A Mini Pilgrimage.

The van is a safe zone. Each of them can enter their own world, whether by staring out the windows or by putting on their head phones and listening to music or by taking a quick nap. It’s one way to help them press the reset button, and that’s pretty much what happened. By the time we arrived, they were doing better. Not great, but better.

We spent about an hour there, walking the nearly empty campus and visiting the Grotto, which is a replica of the shrine to the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, France. We ended with a visit to the grotto chapel, where I had the kids sit as quietly as possible for as long as possible (5 minutes) and told them to try to pray. Then we read the Gospel reading they would have heard if they had gone to Mass, I said a few words about it, and we left. Nothing big. Nothing dramatic. And no other people around.

The kids did pretty well overall. We did have to deal with some sensory issues and low-level anxiety. And our toe-walker started to complain about pain in his legs from all the uphill walking. But I was glad that they got the message that Sunday is more than just another day. It’s still the Sabbath. It’s still the day that we honor God as a family. They saw that the alternative to missing Mass isn’t a free pass to video games.

A New Rule Book.

I don’t like skipping Mass. I really enjoy the closeness to God that I feel there. And for the most part, I can see how it helps the kids. But as far as I could see, there really wasn’t an alternative.

This is one thing that I’ve learned again and again as an autism parent: you have to learn to live by a different set of rules. It seems that everything we do—from church services to school, to recreation to family gatherings—we do differently. And there are times that we have to throw out even our modified rule book. But that’s okay. Because the only rule that really matters is this: Love and accept your kids where they’re at, and they’ll be more likely to follow where you want to lead them.