Many of both my believing and unbelieving friends have been sharing an article on Facebook entitled, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” That article has brought a lot of things to mind from my own parenting journey, of which I am still fairly early in the process (my boys are ages 6 and 8). I want to be clear that I am not addressing Adam Lanza himself, nor can I say much about the situation that mom faced in the article. But I did resonate with the mother’s sentiment, “I need help.” Because I too needed help early on with my child. I want to share the help I received in hopes of encouraging others in their journey with children who are not neurotypical.
Basically, as a new mom in a conservative church, I was totally unprepared for my son’s odd, unpredictable behavior which started to clearly manifest itself around year 2. Previous to that, he was behind in most developmental milestones, but we loved him and enjoyed him in so many ways. I was oblivious to what his slowness to sit up, crawl, walk, and talk might mean until we entered the world of playdates and preschool. If all the kids on a playdate were playing on a jungle gym or in a wading pool, my son was off trying to turn on and off the water spigot and hitting kids with a shovel when they came too close. Later, I learned that many kids with speech delays show their frustration through aggression with others. But I didn’t understand this at the time, and it was disturbing to watch my son act differently, and sometimes hurtfully, with his peers in nursery or playdates.
Preschool was excruciating. Kids younger than my son were talking in full sentences, singing during group time, and playing together reasonably well. My son was grunting, hitting, or running off. I remember watching in horror when my son threw sand in his preschool teacher’s eyes—just one of many similar moments that piled on to one another. My son looked normal, but his actions were unusual and often hurtful. What had I done wrong?
I felt guilt that I wasn’t disciplining my son properly or consistently. Surely, that was the problem – what could it be except that I wasn’t disciplining him enough. (At that point, my understanding of Christian parenting didn’t offer me any more than that one thought.) I ramped up the spankings because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do via Shepherding a Child’s Heart. I will tell you boldly that spanking made our problems worse, and it was a good day when I felt confident from Scripture that spanking is not required by God nor what God meant when He said to discipline our children.
Two things happened, one in a secular setting and the other in a Christian one, that blessed me and set me and my son on a better path. In our preschool, the teachers took me aside during a conference and encouraged me to have my son evaluated for learning disabilities. They encouraged me strongly in the value of early intervention for a child. At first, I felt threatened by their suggestion. No one wants to think that there might be something wrong developmentally with their child. But those teachers were loving and supportive, assuring me that it wasn’t anything I had done and that early intervention would make an incredible difference.
The other thing happened in my church. We started attending a new church when the boys were 1 and 3, and it was embarrassing to me to drop them off in nursery. I knew my child was unpredictable. And he did a number of negative things during nursery. But never once did I feel a hint of shame or condemnation from a single nursery worker. Instead, in front of me, they demonstrated consistent unconditional love and encouragement of me and my children. Their gracious love and care of my children in that season ministered to me in profound ways. It still does.
Those two settings, one a hippie preschool and the other a gospel-centered church, gave me the direction I needed. One set of directions encompassed God’s common grace to believers and unbelievers alike. After being evaluated by doctors and being recommended for pretty much every kind of therapy available, we decided to focus on speech therapy for my son. After just a few months with a speech therapist that specialized in autism, my son was learning to make eye contact and have two way conversations. By watching the speech therapist in action, I too was learning how to help his brain make this connection at home.
The other set of directions emphasized God’s unconditional, saving grace. I was encouraged to parent my children the way God parents His and to train my children by treating them the way I wanted them to treat others. I learned to apply the gospel deeply and intensely in my parenting, especially that my children’s sins have been fully paid for by Christ on the cross, and I needed to DISCIPLE them, not PUNISH them. All these things made a profound difference in me first of all, and now I see the benefits in my children as well.
In the last year or so, someone recommended to me the book, The Explosive Child, which has been another key piece of God’s common grace that has blessed our family in this journey. As I read it, it became clear that many kids have a delay in learning how to problem solve, and that definitely fit my child. When a problem or obstruction rises, he exploded with frustration. He only saw an unmovable concrete barrier. I learned a simple, but valuable, tool for helping him. In the moment of frustration, I could begin the process of addressing it most effectively with the words, “Hey, we can solve this problem.” I didn’t believe it was that simple until I tried it a few times. He’d look at me and blink, and I could see the wheels going in his head. “We can solve this problem? It’s not the end of the world? That never occurred to me.”
This is not to say that we never have such issues in our house anymore. My eldest still dislikes traditional learning environments and is not the most affirming Sunday School participant. Social situations are hard for him to read, and I can pretty much count on him saying something that seems at least odd if not downright rude in most any public situation we find ourselves. (Don’t ask about his baptism.) But when I tell people today about the problems we had with him as a preschooler, they seem confused. “Your boys seem pretty well-adjusted. I wouldn’t have guessed that.” Those words mean SO much to me now!
Through God’s common grace that has helped me understand and support my son in his developmental delays, I have felt better equipped to minister to my children God’s saving grace that meets them in their sin and transforms them in the image of Christ. If you too are in the journey with a child who is on the autism spectrum or in other ways not neurotypical, here are a few ideas that may be helpful.
1. Early intervention is a good thing. Don’t feel threatened by suggestions of others for intervention or help. Do your research and talk to a doctor you trust. Evaluate what they say and choose what you think will or will not work for your family. If I had followed every instruction suggested to me, we’d have been in various therapies for hours a week. I picked the thing that seemed most crucial and juggled what I could. I had a strong belief (and still do) that an overly stressed momma undoes any good from speech, occupational, or physical therapy. So I only did what I felt like I could handle.
2. Put on your own air mask first. Struggling children need emotionally stable parents. Do what you need to do to get your time first with God and then with those who encourage you in Christ. If most of your Christian interaction seems more obligation than inspiration, then cut back. Find real community with people you know who will minister God’s grace to you through their words so that you are fed and encouraged to endure for the long haul in patience with your kids.
3. It’s OK to change and grow! Don’t feel so beholden to an idea or technique that you can’t adjust when it’s clear that it’s not working or just a bad idea.
4. Persevere. Hosea gives us such a beautiful picture of a God who comes back again and again, who perseveres and pursues the heart of His people. Parent your child the way God parents His. Endure with your child. Don’t give up. And hope. There will be two steps forward and three incredibly discouraging steps back at times. Nevertheless, don’t give up. Remember your heavenly Father who promises to empower you in this assignment He’s called you to with a grace that exceeds our ability to comprehend.
If you have an older child and feel you missed some of the window for early intervention, I encourage you to persevere nonetheless. The Explosive Child is an intriguing book that seems helpful to parents of older children struggling similarly. May God bless and guide us all as we parent and disciple children of any age with various physical, emotional, or mental issues.
* Again, I do not mean this post to be about Adam Lanza’s specific situation. I know nothing of his particular circumstances or his parents. I offer no commentary about them in particular—only ideas that the original article to which I linked referred.