Did God make me with autism?
Mark Arnold, the Additional Needs Blogfather, helps us think through this question.
This question was recently asked by an eight-year-old autistic boy to his parents, and the question has been passed on to me for my thoughts on what to say in reply to him… The response that follows may not fit well with everyone, but then we are a diverse people so that is to be expected; so, here we go!
Made in God’s image?
Maybe a good starting point is to consider whether God makes all of us as we are… Are we all made by God, in his image, and what does that mean?
Starting at the very beginning, we see that God did indeed create people to be like him, in his image; “Then God said, “Let us make human beings so that they are like us…” So God created human beings in his own likeness. He created them to be like himself…” Genesis 1:26-27a (abridged)
Later in the Psalms, we see that God creates each of us individually; “You created the deepest parts of my being. You put me together inside my mother’s body.” Psalm 139:13 And that passage continues to tell us that it is good; “How you made me is amazing and wonderful. I praise you for that. What you have done is wonderful. I know that very well.” Psalm 139:14
So, we are indeed all made in God’s image, individually, perfectly, amazingly, wonderfully…
Does that include autistic children?
Yes; it includes everyone, including autistic children. God doesn’t make mistakes; he doesn’t screw up and make second rate people; the Bible passages we’ve read apply to everyone. It is because God makes each of us individually that there is such wonderful diversity in the world, even identical twins are ever so subtly different.
Autism is a neuro-diversity; a difference in the way that the brain works, in the way that it’s ‘wired’. An autistic person experiences and understands the world differently to a neuro-typical person (there is no such thing as ‘normal’, but there is such a thing as ‘typical’, having the characteristics of the majority).
So why can life be hard for autistic children?
Perhaps this is the ‘question beneath the question’ that the autistic child was trying to ask his parents. “If God made me this way, why is life sometimes hard for autistic children like me? Is God cruel to have made me this way?”
God isn’t cruel, but God also doesn’t promise any of us an easy life. He recognises, as we should, that we live in a fallen, broken world and that bad stuff happens. Autistic children can find it hard to be understood, and to understand themselves. They can be put through very difficult and frightening (and, ultimately, fruitless) ‘therapies’ to try to ‘cure’ them of Autism as if it is a disease to be eradicated. They can be bullied, abused, locked away in mental health referral units. None of this is from God; none of this is his will.
But he doesn’t stop these things from happening either; to do so would mean that we would all just be puppets, with no free will of our own to choose to do good or to do evil. However he does promise that we will never struggle alone, that he will always be with us; “Be strong and brave. Don’t be afraid… Don’t be terrified… The Lord your God will go with you. He will never leave you. He’ll never desert you.” Deuteronomy 31:6 (abridged)
And he also wants the very best life for us that we can live on this earth; a life following him and making the right choices; “I have come so they may have life. I want them to have it in the fullest possible way.” John 10:10a
What does this look like for an autistic child?
So, what does living life in the fullest possible way look like for an autistic child? Well as each of us, each child, is uniquely made then the answer to that question will be different for each one of us.
But perhaps what can bring together the experience of every child, whether they are autistic or not, is the love of God being lived out in their lives and in the lives of those that surround them. If an autistic child is loved and celebrated for who they are instead of them being forced to change into someone they are not; if an autistic child is included, welcomed, helped to belong; if an autistic child is given the tools and encouragement they need to engage with and explore the world in their own way, then they can perhaps live life in the fullest possible way.
Maybe what we need to think about, the question that we should ask ourselves, is what can we do to create an environment where everyone has life and life in all its fullness? What do we all need to do to enable everyone, each unique, individual, hand crafted, wonderfully made child of God, to thrive, to enjoy life, to be all that they can be?
Well we are left with the answer to that question in the scriptures too, because the answer is love; “Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not want what belongs to others. It does not brag. It is not proud. It does not dishonour other people. It does not look out for its own interests. It does not easily become angry. It does not keep track of other people’s wrongs. Love is not happy with evil. But it is full of joy when the truth is spoken. It always protects. It always trusts. It always hopes. It never gives up. Love never fails.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a
“Did God make me with Autism?” the eight-year-old boy asked. Yes, he did. He made you perfectly, he made you wonderfully. He knows things can be hard for you, and he is right there with you. He loves you, and he wants those around you to love you too. And he wants you to love him.