This is the first year that Adam has been able to tell me what he wants for Christmas. Just a few weeks ago, I stood in the kitchen wrapping my arms around my nine year old son, who laughed but squirmed with discomfort. I kissed him on the cheek and smiled into bright blue eyes that always seem to twinkle with just a bit of mischief. I thought of Riley’s multi-paged list, complete with notations about where to shop for each thing, push-pinned to the bulletin board in my office. And I tried, this year all new.
“Adam, what would you like for Christmas?”
He smiled back, searching my eyes, trying. “Presents.”
I inhaled slowly, almost a sigh, thinking this year would be no different than last year, when “presents” seemed to be the only answer he could manage. Last year, when I had prodded, “Yes, but what do you want inside the presents? When you open them,” gesturing to the inside of something with my hand, drawing pictures, writing down the words, he had only grinned harder and repeated, “Presents!”
I expected this as I stood there trying again, my hand swiping the air up and then in. “But you’ll open your presents, and then inside…what?” I held my hands flat, palms up, empty in front of him, willing him to fill them with words.
He stood there, working, trying, stuck for so long. I’ve learned to wait.
Finally, his mouth started moving before the word came out. “Math.”
I smiled. The answer was appropriate. Math is Adam’s favorite thing. “You want more math workbooks for Christmas?”
Again, the thinking, the effort. “Ball.”
Adam has this ball my dad got him from Brookstone—clear, filled with glitter floating in fluid. It lights up when Adam bounces it, and he stands there flapping his hands, the excitement that cannot come out in words coming out through his fingers.
“You do love that ball. You want another one?”
But Adam had finished. He smiled at me and sidled away, his famously silent way of begging out of further effort.
Then a few days later, he brought me a bookend he’d made in Bible class, short pieces of wood glued together and decorated. He handed me the bookend and a pair of scissors.
“Cut, please,” he said, pointing to the places where the wood had been glued together.
“Cut? Why do you want me to cut this?”
“Blocks? You want me to separate this into blocks?”
“Why? What do you want to do?”
“Adam, I’m sorry. Cutting this won’t work. Do you want me to get you some blocks for Christmas? So you can build things?”
“Yes!” He flapped, pleased that we understood each other. My son speaks a different language, and we’re never sure we know it exactly.
I asked Adam’s teacher about the blocks, knowing that the interest had probably developed at school. The idea that Adam wished to play at something new thrilled me.
His teacher explained that she had structured building sets for the kids to use during free time. In the classroom, she showed me. In plastic bins, she puts just enough blocks to build something specific, figurines, and a step-by-step flip book, complete with pictures, about how to build and what to do with the figurines. In one bin: penguins, a laminated blue pond cut out of construction paper, the blocks to build a bridge. Step by step, they build the bridge, and then the flip book shows them how to take the penguins and plunge them into the pond from the top. Another bin: the three little pigs and the big, bad wolf, blocks to build the pigs a house, instructions that show what to do all the way to having the wolf huff, and puff, and blow that house down. I imagined Adam laughing wildly, standing on tip toes, flapping his arms over the pile of blocks all knocked over.
Autistic children have difficulty imagining, imprisoned by the literal, the concrete, the bombardment of real sensory stimuli. Adam loves to act out the pictures in his communication notebook, inspired by the images and the words that label them. It’s the closest he ever comes to the joy of pretend. I could see why he liked the structured building kits. They unlocked a door, showed him how to play. Every child loves to play.
We looked to Adam, who sat nearby half building an Elmo out of Legos (following the images in a flip book), half watching us. “Adam, would you like some of these at home, for Christmas?” His teacher asked.
“Yes!” He answered immediately, giddy, laughter escaping his lips.
I am elated. And now I have blocks, figurines (Cars 2 and Toy Story 3), a few simple Lego kits, plastic bins with lids stacked neatly in my office. I have closed the door to the kids, for elfing.
And all this has me thinking about how far Adam has come from the days when he said nothing; to the days when he came to me only in crisis, when he needed something; to the days when he only said scripted, memorized, listed things; to these days, when he works so hard trying to communicate something genuine.
And lately, I’ve been asking God to help me imagine all that He can do with a truly surrendered life. I recognize that God and I often speak a different language–His heavenly, mine earthbound, my eyes on the dirt.
In the early days, when my faith sprouted new, I came to Him only to plead over something I thought I needed, my view of relationship so awkward. God lived in a distant palace, a tiny little wizard with a monstrous persona, a gold-bricked road standing between us. Eventually, I made lists, as though He might not realize everything I wanted if I forgot to mention it. I even made notes for Him about the how. Most days, my prayers were scripted, memorized, listing, listing, listing, one request after another. Sometimes I would vary the order, break up a few rote phrases, just so that it wasn’t exactly the same. I showed no imagination, imprisoned by my limited view, the details bombarding my now.
But He persisted with me, content that I had come to Him, that I spoke, even if it hardly qualified as conversation. This I understand. I know Adam will always say, “I am happy,” when I ask how He’s doing, but I still ask just to hear him speak.
Gradually, I learned to talk to God, to share relationship. First, I talked as though He were my friend, then as a child to her Dad, then with the intimate deep knowledge of passion.
I think of this at night when I listen to my daughters praying. It is sometimes the chatter of divine friendship, sometimes the recognition of another father, a Holy one. I remember the days when Zoe repeated the same phrases, scripted, empty, and I remember the day when I asked her what she’d think if every time we talked I said the same thing over and over.
“I think I’d wonder if you really saw me, if you really wanted to talk.” I remember her sheepish, understanding grin. “That would be boring.”
“So talk to Him,” I said that night, smiling with the recollection of my own Spirit-training in relationship.
These days, I search for still deeper communication with the lover of my soul. All these miles of glittering streets I walk with YHWH, Elohim, my Adonai, swinging my arms, I ask Him to teach me to imagine, to teach me how to play the kingdom way, right beside Him. Step by step, He shows, opening my eyes to see in images, details, moments. I simply do not have the ability to conjure the miraculous, the holy, the only-by-His-power, the things beyond all I ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). I ask for a step-by-step guide, the Holy Spirit redeeming my eyes.
I’ve said it before: I am spiritually autistic.
And I am so thankful for the patience of a faithful God, who loves me enough to do the hard-work teaching of an awkward child who tries, standing before Him stuck. He teaches me daily to speak in the
heavenly tongue, word by precious word, my eyes trained on His face.