Four years ago, I walked into the office of my therapist. I sat down on her couch with my wife and I took a long, deep breath and slowly exhaled, waiting for some answers to my 36-year-long question. After what seemed like a lifetime, she grabbed her clip board and glanced over the multiple assessments we had completed in the weeks prior. She then looked up at me and uttered the three words that I had both worried about and wanted to hear: “Autism Spectrum Disorder” (ASD).
Even as young as seven years old, I noticed the differences between me and other children my age. It felt as though the entire world was in on a joke that I just did not understand. I was a quiet and intelligent child. But I had a difficult time understanding people, and people had an equally difficult time understanding me.
Every struggle that I had socially or educationally was the result of my lack of strength – or at least that’s what I believed. Even in the midst of obvious struggles, I was often characterized as weak, weird or just plain wrong. I was bullied by my peers, by teachers, and on occasion by other parents because I seemed strange, stoic, and sometimes rude or arrogant. So I became afraid.
What developed was a frightened child who created a phony image because I desperately needed to survive a world that my brain wasn’t built for and a society that thought I was strange.
My grades began to plummet, because while I didn’t always know what to do, I learned what I should not do if I wanted to fit in. Don’t be smart. Mask your intelligence. Pretend to be someone else. Nod and smile. Be “normal.” This was how I survived until I got to high school, when it stopped working. My freshman year of high school I was kicked out for not going to class. If you had asked me why, I wouldn’t have been able to explain, but it was simply too much for my fragile young mind to manage.
I knew my strategy had to change. I had exhausted the energy needed to continue my façade of fitting in. At age 14, I turned to drugs and alcohol, a strategy that seemed effective at the time. The drugs and alcohol altered my mind just enough to help me behave like a “people person” and meet the unreasonable expectations the world placed on me. The problem was that it led me down a road that dead-ends at the corner of lonely and lost.
Thankfully, I survived, and I am doing well today. I have a great family and a career I love, but decades later I find myself searching for more ways to use my story, my experiences and my past to point other young autistic boys and girls in the right direction. I can’t change my past, but perhaps I can help change someone’s path.
Being human in church
I studied Criminal Justice at Concordia University Wisconsin, where I met and married my wife Isabella. Soon after I felt that God was calling me into ministry. But I was still so socially awkward; what could God do with someone like me? Eventually I decided to pursue my calling, but the road to becoming a pastor was very difficult. I don’t fit the stereotypical image of a pastor. The church can be unnecessarily hard on people who are different, and while I love the church, I am also aware there are not many churches that could accept the fact that their pastor is on the autism spectrum. The church I pastor now is extraordinary in accepting the real me, the pastor that God was calling me to be.
Facing life with a disability of any kind can be a daunting task, which is why as a Christian I depend heavily on the faith community to assist me in my very public journey of processing the complexities of life as an autistic pastor, father and husband.
My life with autism isn’t going to necessarily look like the life of the other people you know with autism. Every autistic person is as uniquely impacted by autism. Social anxiety and sensory processing issues are a large part of my experience. Autism’s impact on my life is almost always invisible to the world. It presents in silent, suggestive and sometimes subtle ways.
One of my favorite passages in the Bible helped me to learn an incredible truth about my life and about disability. The Apostle Paul shares with his church in 2 Corinthians that he had an issue that caused him to struggle greatly and yet it did not stop him from reaching his potential and pursuing his calling.
Over the last four years I have been learning more about autism and, more importantly, about myself. At times the journey into the past has been perplexing. Other times the journey has been painful. Getting a diagnosis of ASD has actually helped strengthen my faith and my relationship with God. I have learned that it is OK to be human.
I have been able to share my story of diagnosis as an adult – struggling with sensory processing issues, depression and social anxiety – and with each opportunity that I am given to share, my prayer is that the words of Paul would become a reality in my life as it did in his. His words ignited in me a passion for serving others, and for speaking words of hope and encouragement for those who also walk this path.
“Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12: 8-10).
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