Sometimes, I’m thankful for autism.
On days like Tuesday, when Riley jumps in the van and puts her fingers on my shoulder, waiting. When I look back at her and she smiles, words tumbling out, words like these, words that cut me sharp but leave her pristine:
“Mom, today someone said a bad word at lunch. But he said he was sorry, though. And these two boys”—she rattled off names unfamiliar to me, names I’ve now mercifully forgotten—“these two boys said I was pretty.”
“Well, good. You are pretty.”
“Yea. …Then they said they didn’t like me like me or even like me.”
“What? What did they say?” In my gut, I feel it. That mother-ache. In my mind, I see these boys, hands cupped over their mouths, flicking their eyes at each other, laughing. Laughing at my daughter. It’s all twisted, the words repetitive, the first compliment sitting awkwardly against the insult like something broken, but I know what it means: We don’t like you at all.
“They said they didn’t like me like me or even like me.”
“What does that mean, Riley?” I am ready to jump out of the van and go find these boys. In some illogical, strong, primal part of myself, I am thinking, “I could lift every one of those boys in the air with one hand.”
She shrugs, giggles, her cheeks pink. “I don’t know.” Then she jumps back out of the van and skip-runs through the grass, beneath the sun, jumping up on her toes, unhindered and free. And this is when, sighing, sitting back against the seat, I feel thankful for autism. I see clearly: Riley simply delighted that these boys spoke to her; Riley unhurt, unstained by meanness. She doesn’t know what they meant. And to her, it doesn’t even matter.
It’s unsettling, the way I feel both relieved that she’s unscathed and afraid because she doesn’t know they tried to hurt her. What will happen in these next tender, volatile years, after all this becoming? How will I protect her, my fragile reed, from so much meanness?
Riley loves recklessly, offers friendship from her pure heart without expectation of anything in return. I love this about her. I learn from her–me trying to leave my self-absorption behind; me wanting to allow my life to truly be hidden with Christ; me asking the Spirit to pry my fingers loose from all my expectations in favor of His glory, seeking only that. I learn from her. But her nature also scares me.
Her lack of guile, the inability to read innuendo, the way she misses subtleties, all of these, autism’s challenges, make her uniquely capable of loving even the most difficult people. And I am thankful because sometimes autism saves her the heartbreak of rejection, the bruises of hurtful words. But I fear for her safety in this world, in this dry and weary land where darkness, selfishness, and poisonous dysfunction lurk, knowing that she, so much more like Christ than I, will love the darkest hearts while yet they remain in shadow, while yet they remain soiled by the vilest motives. Riley looks and never sees the things that make the rest of us shrink back, cautious. She looks and sees a person she can love, a shadowed but needy heart, and then she speaks, always the thing most needed, the words the rest of us are too protective to say. And she has no false motive, nothing hidden behind her smile. Her pure heart shines, God’s wealth, a jewel in His trove.
I’m thinking all this, begging Heaven to place a guard over her, “Please, please Father,” before Adam’s teacher comes to talk, before I see Riley’s teacher walk out the front door of the school and head purposefully in my direction.
“We had an ‘incident’ today,” she says significantly, leaning in the window, pushing raven hair back behind her ear.
“I think Riley just told me about that. She said someone said a bad word in the cafeteria, and then these boys said–”
Riley’s teacher smiled. “Well, I think Riley was most upset about the word stupid, but a couple of boys told Riley that they wanted to date her, and then they said, “Psych,” that they would never want to date her. It wasn’t just Riley they were saying it to, but the kids were upset particularly that the boys said it to Riley. It’s not okay anyway, but the kids, well, you just don’t mess with Riley.”
“Wow…that’s amazing. It’s great that the kids were upset, that they came to tell you.”
“Oh, they look out for Riley. They all love Riley.”
And just like that, I realize I’m on holy ground, that before the fragrance of my prayer has even dissipated, spreading Heavenward, God has already sent someone to tell me that He has commissioned a guard, has prepared in advance for her protection. Her classmates, her friends. They look out for Riley. It’s His way.
In scripture, I see it happen a thousand times. Before a prayer has finished, He answers, father running to child. Hezekiah, on the point of death, begging for more life, nothing but shadows falling about his bed, and before Isaiah’s feet reach the middle court the LORD has spoken, and the prophet must turn back. “I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you (2 Kings 20:5).” Abraham’s servant, weary from travel, dusty, nervous about finding a wife for Isaac, and before his prayer has finished, Rebekah walks up to him with a jar on her shoulder (Genesis 24:15). Peter in prison, everyone knowing He will die the martyr’s death, the ache settling in, and before they finish pleading, Peter knocks at the door (Acts 12). It’s God’s way. He is Father protective, Father running, Father loving. The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged (Deuteronomy 31:8).
Whenever I face the dark truth that we live in desert land, He meets me, coming in my direction before I make it to him, intent on my need, reaching for it, reminding me that He—the living, quenching water–is present and aware, that He counts the hairs on my head (Luke 12:7)—on Riley’s, that we are engraved on the palm of His hand (Isaiah 49:16).
David knew him this way too, for David sang,
The LORD is my light and my salvation—/whom shall I fear?/The LORD is the stronghold of my life–/of whom shall I be afraid (Psalm 27:1)?
And when the enemy held him captive, the tips of their swords pressed into his throat, these words echoed still:
When I am afraid,/I will trust in you./In God, whose word I praise,/in God I trust; I will not be afraid/what can mortal man do to me (Psalm 56:3,4)?
At night, I tell Kevin about this, relaying all the feelings, and he says, “These kids, they’re going with her to middle school, right?”
And they are.
Riley’s teacher sits down with some of the girls the next day and explains about Riley’s challenges, asking these friends to have open eyes and ears for Riley, to hear things she might not, to see the subtleties she misses. In the hallway, Riley’s teacher discovers that these girls have made a schedule. That want to be sure that all day Riley has someone. “It’s not necessary to go that far,” their teacher tells them. “Just be aware. Keep your eyes and ears open and look out for her.”
And I see now that I will not protect her at all, this beautiful, tender child. God Himself will protect her. He goes before her. He will be with her. He will never leave her.
She will never be out of His sight.
And once again, always, I know: I am not worthy of such grace. And oh, how I love Him, my Father running, always running to take me up.
Simmering in my slow cooker this week:
Christy @ShrinkingKitchen described this Slow-Cooker Honey-Sauced Chicken as “lick the plate good.” It really is that good! I served mine over brown rice, and we savored every bite. 202 calories per serving! So, set the cooker on low and breathe…:)