Archives For Parenting

Autistic Considerations

August 22, 2013 — 13 Comments

Bill & Barbara ChristopherMost of us have a friend, loved one, or acquaintance affected by autism. I’m not sure if this would have been accurate a generation ago.

And I’m not merely referring to the lack of proper diagnosis of the problem. There are numerous reports that its frequency is increasing.

Autism is not necessarily debilitating. In minor cases it’s barely noticeable. Like many problems, its severity is manifested across a wide spectrum.

I have autism on my mind now, as the new school year approaches and my wife sets up her special education classroom. She’s excited about the return of her precious kids. It’s wonderful how so many of them make amazing process both in academics and social abilities.

The return of school, however, is not the primary reason for my current thoughts. I’m writing an article I hope to submit to an Autism magazine, inspired by a recent interview I conducted.

I was privileged to speak at length with the father of a severely autistic son who will be known to many readers of Mere Inkling. William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H, has been a prominent spokesman for autism concerns for many years. (A link to the article appears below.)

Along with his wife Barbara, Christopher wrote a book entitled Mixed Blessings. It recounted their early struggles providing Ned with everything he needed to make his life as full as it could possibly be. Due to their diligence and deep love for their son, Ned continues to enjoy his active life today.

They embody the noble type of earnest love C.S. Lewis describes in The Four Loves. There he says that true love is gift-love, not seeking increased dependence on itself, but liberating the beloved to become as independent as they possibly can.

The maternal instinct . . . is a Gift-love, but one that needs to give; therefore needs to be needed. But the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift. We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching.

Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say “They need me no longer” should be our reward. But the instinct, simply in its own nature, has no power to fulfil this law.

The instinct desires the good of its object, but not simply; only the good it can itself give. A much higher love—a love which desires the good of the object as such, from whatever source that good comes—must step in and help or tame the instinct before it can make the abdication.

This despite the counsel of one early specialist who advised them that since Ned was adopted they should just take him and trade him in for a child who wasn’t defective. Yes, someone really said that to them.

If I end up publishing the article, I’ll mention it again for those who might be interested in reading it. In the meantime, the extensive interview appears in the current issue of a journal I edit for military chaplains, called Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

When we look at a list of autistic traits, it’s normal to recognize some of them in ourselves. That shouldn’t surprise us, since most of these traits are completely “normal” in various degrees.

It is a commonplace practice to perform posthumous diagnoses of well known figures, based upon detailed descriptions of their behaviors. In that vein, I found online lists that included the following personages as possibly autistic: Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, Stanley Kubrick, Lewis Carroll, and Hans Christian Andersen.

Oh, and there’s another name I discovered in one article. The writer suggested that C.S. Lewis’ social preferences suggest that he too suffered the mild version of autism, typically called “Asperger’s Syndrome.”

I don’t intend to discuss that now, but I wanted to share a fascinating concept I encountered while researching for this column. In Autism, Art and Children: The Stories We Draw, I read the following about imaginary worlds like Narnia and Middle Earth:

It is this element of world building that forms a bridge between the impersonal character of research and clinical observations and the individual young artists with autism in whom our interest especially lies.

Sacks (1995) points out the importance of fantasy worlds to some individuals with autism . . . this predilection for alternate worlds is frequently encountered in many high-functioning people with autism . . . such high-functioning individuals with autism “describe a great fondness for, almost an addiction to, alternative worlds, imaginary worlds such as those of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, or worlds they imagine themselves.”

Illustrating such world-building activities by an entire family (two parents and their son), all of whom have autism, Sacks remarks, “They have spent years constructing an imaginary world with its own landscapes and geography (endlessly mapped and drawn), its own languages, currency, laws, and customs—a world in which fantasy and rigidity play equal parts.”

This creative activity is of particular interest, for many of the children we have met have individual fantasies in alternative worlds that play major roles in their lives and activities.

I find this analysis captivating. I am utterly fascinated by the construction of imaginary settings. That’s one reason I love the alternate history genre, as it combines the familiar with elements that have transformed them into something inherently different.

I must confess I’ve occupied many an idle hour imaging new worlds. I’ve even invested a fair amount of time in world-building myself—for an alternative history for which I still compile notes and ideas, despite the fact it’s unlikely to ever be written. I don’t attribute this to autism, but it serves as another example of just how much all of us have in common.

The fact is none of us is perfectly healthy—physically, emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually. We are who we are. We can strive to improve many aspects of our lives (and the wellbeing of others), but attaining perfection is impossible in this life.

In the meantime, we can be grateful for wonderful people like Barbara and Bill Christopher, who have courageously shared their own journey to aid us in ours. Their willingness to forsake their rightful shield of privacy and step out into the glare of the public—for our benefit—reveals both their love for their children and their generosity towards strangers.

_____

The wonderful photograph at the top of the column features Bill and Barbara Christopher. Barbara had a guest role as a nurse in “Dear Mildred,” during which the two of them sang a duet.

The interview with Bill Christopher can be downloaded for free in the current issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, which is available here.

Discipline or Abuse?

August 13, 2013 — 31 Comments

beltDiscipline is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a necessary thing, if you understand it in terms of correction or protection (its true purposes).

Sadly, the very word has been contaminated by its association with something diametrically opposed to discipline—abuse. It is extremely common for abusers to try to hide their crimes under the once untainted label of discipline.

Here is biblical wisdom: “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11-12).

And, a testimony from the Psalmist that discipline’s role is to protect. “Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O Lord, and whom you teach out of your law, to give him rest from days of trouble, until a pit is dug for the wicked” (Psalm 94:12-13).

C.S. Lewis elaborates on this truth in “A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost.’”

Discipline, while the world is yet unfallen, exists for the sake of what seems its very opposite—for freedom, almost for extravagance. The pattern deep hidden in the dance, hidden so deep that shallow spectators cannot see it, alone gives beauty to the wild, free gestures that fill it, just as the decasyllabic norm gives beauty to all the licences and variations of the poet’s verse. The happy soul is, like a planet, a wandering star; yet in that very wandering (as astronomy teaches) invariable; she is eccentric beyond all predicting, yet equable in her eccentricity.

It is precisely because of this, the genuinely noble and affectionate character of genuine discipline that I was so deeply repulsed (and moved) by the following story. It comes from the fine journal, First Things.

A friend who corresponds with prisoners on death row sends one prisoner’s poem describing the horrific abuse he endured as a child. He tells her that most of the men on death row with him suffered that kind of abuse. The poem, titled “Spare the Rod” and addressed to his father, begins with the story of his sister’s beatings, and continues:

Then came a son to intercede,

a five-year-old you caused to bleed;

he would not flee your spit and roar,

you smashed his face into the floor.

And those were just the better years.

It ends:

What shall you find at heaven’s gate?

What shall be a father’s fate

who reveled in his children’s screams

who haunts them still in all their dreams?

You took your children meek and mild,

and beat them feral, stomped them wild.

You’ve now moved on to spar with God,

Who spares the child and breaks the rod.

Reading to Children

August 5, 2013 — 10 Comments

grandparent readingAs a father whose military service required extended separations from my children, I wish technology had been about three decades more advanced than it was while I was in uniform.

As a grandfather who has most of his grandkids living hours away, I’m grateful to be alive during an era when we can still nurture close relationships despite geographic separation.

There are many wonderful ways to keep in touch across the miles. And, a new program adds a wonderful touch to the time proven joy of reading to our children. It’s called Kindoma, and more about it momentarily.

It’s a little known secret that there are few—very few—activities children love more than reading with a loved one. It’s not just about the book, it’s also about relationships and bonding.

C.S. Lewis had an interesting relationship with children. As a bachelor academic, he was not around them all that much. And when he wrote The Abolition of Man in 1943—before becoming a step-father—Lewis confessed “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children . . . I recognize this as a defect in myself—just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind.”

Eight years earlier, at the modest age of thirty-seven, he wrote to a good friend, “I theoretically hold that one ought to like children, but am shy with them in practice.” Lewis isn’t alone in possessing this unfortunate trait, which from my observation [political incorrectness alert] is more common among men than women. Of course, in our increasingly equalitarian culture it does seem that character flaw is becoming a bit more gender-balanced.

Then there is the fact that many of us who dearly love our young progeny, enjoy the children of our friends, and hold genuine compassion for young ones suffering in any variety of miserable conditions . . . do not particularly seek out the company of children. From my personal perspective, I feel like I “expend” all of my (admittedly finite) kid-patience with my own kin and the offspring of my friends. I don’t have a surplus left after spending a significant amount of time with the (precious) little ones.

And, like Lewis, “I recognize this as a defect in myself.”

At the same time as I admire teachers who can pour themselves into little ones, and I am absolutely dumbfounded by people who prefer working with young teenagers, I recognize that the world works well when some of us are better equipped to work with adults also . . . so the entire spectrum of learners is served.

Recognizing our own prejudices is a prerequisite to suppressing or evicting them. Lewis, of course, was extremely concerned about children and their upbringing, particularly their education.

Returning to the subject of how to nurture relationships with children through the intercontinental reading of books, technology has made the miraculous possible.

Kindoma is novel in the sense that it allows you to read the book together (either the child or the adult can be the actual “reader”) while you actually turn the pages of the etext together! So you get the genuine experience of reading together.

The creator of the program holds a PhD in Computer Science. So he’s not merely an idea guy (like me) who comes up with a slew of amazing concepts but doesn’t have the scientific skill to make them reality.

The program is currently available for ipod and ipad. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before it is ported to other operating systems. Since I still use “regular” desk and lap-top computers, I haven’t experimented with it myself. The app itself is free. I’m unsure about their revenue stream, whether it will come from ads, or purchase of access to a specific library, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

The brief link below offers an introduction to the tool. I hope that you will use it if applicable to your situation, and pass it on to others you know who might benefit from it. (In the meantime, I’m thinking about approaching my wife about us making that ipad purchase I’ve been pondering.)

Thanksgiving is a very special holiday. In truth, it’s a “holy-day” for all those who offer their thanks to a benevolent God.

Like all holidays, it can be good or bad, depending on the way it is perceived by each individual, and the unique circumstances in which they find themselves. Most of us are thankful, for example, for our loving families. And, even if we can’t be together at these special times, we draw warmth and strength from their love. Tragically, others have been victimized by those who should have protected them, and “family” in their eyes is not something to be thankful for at all.

I was not a perfect son. I strove to be a better father. And, now that I’m blessed with seven grandchildren, I’m trying to be the best grandfather I can be

Many years ago, shortly after having our first child, I gave myself a Father’s Day gift. (That’s not a typo. I purchased for myself a modest plaque with a priceless message.) It reads: “the greatest gift a man can ever give his children is to love their mother.”

I displayed this proverb in my office through the years, as a reminder to myself and others of this profound truth. It’s easy to love one’s spouse as a newlywed in the hot flush of youth. It’s also easy, I’m learning, to love my wife in the snug and warm autumn of life. For many, however, the trials and tribulations that are a natural part of all relationships appear insurmountable. Between the newlywed and maturelywed days, it’s not all easy. While our hormones still surge and familiarity breeds corrosive contempt, we may take for granted the person we once vowed to cherish above all others.

The desire to be a decent father greatly amplifies the importance of being a devoted husband. Knowing this made my reading of a recent article quite painful. I had known for years that President John F. Kennedy was rather promiscuous. Yet a recent article in The Atlantic reveals just how debauched the man was. The article, if you have the stomach for it, praises the strength of his wife Jackie, and is available online here.

It describes just a few of his disease spawning liaisons, and noted that he often traveled with one of his so-called secretaries, should there be “any trouble scaring up local talent.” One imagines the dirtiness felt by the Secret Service agents tasked with protecting him during his sordid escapades in the White House pool. The saddest tale for me was his deflowering of a sophomore intern from Wheaton “right there on his wife’s bed.” I won’t sully you with any more accounts.

When I read the article, it nearly made me sick. He was a vile husband. I recalled the numerous famous pictures of him playing with his children—the doting father, one would think. Yet, in reality, just because he was such a malignant husband, he was also an appalling father. To mistreat his wife so badly, was to dishonor his children as well.

The image that came to me as I looked again at the pictures of Kennedy’s glorious Camelot brought to mind Jesus’ words about whitewashed sepulchers “which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:26-28, ESV). The verse which follows could be JFK’s epitaph: “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

A More Godly Alternative

C.S. Lewis experienced neither the normal, nor ideal, form of fatherhood. While he loved and respected his own father, theirs was not a close relationship. And then, at the end of his life, the death of his beloved Joy caused him to transition from the already tentative role of stepfather into the fullest demands of single parenthood. Lewis loved his two sons. He was the best father he knew how to be.

Despite being ill equipped, he did the honorable and right thing—he could do no other. He provided for all the physical needs of his sons, and did his best to meet their emotional needs as well. In Lenten Lands, his son Douglas Gresham describes how painful it was to be at The Kilns following his mother’s passing.

In cowardice and self-pity, I deserted the home and the two men whose company and loving support had for so long been all that had preserved my sanity. When at home from school, I was rarely at home. I know now that I could have done far more than I did to help both Jack and Warnie to bear the burdens which were their lot, but with the blind selfishness which is characteristic of egocentric teen-aged boys, I was too wrapped up in myself to spare time for others.

Strangely, Jack and I had, through these difficult years, become very close, and I think that he understood quite well the reasons for my reluctance to be a part of The Kilns at that time. At first, after Mother’s death, with almost unbelievably naïve complacency, I never doubted that The Kilns and Jack would always be there for as long as I needed them. Then, when it began to dawn on me that there was an increasing likelihood of Jack being snatched away, and with him The Kilns, I reacted by rejecting The Kilns entirely and by not daring to love Jack any more than I already irrevocably did.

For his part, Lewis comprehended just how important understanding fatherhood was. In his tribute George MacDonald: An Anthology, he says this about his mentor:

An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central.

Lewis concurred with MacDonald that “Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe.” And, if this is indeed true, our emulation of it in this life possesses even more importance than I ever imagined.