50 First Dates with My Autistic Son.

Last week, I put on my strict daddy face and stared down my daughter from across the table. “You’re nine years old today. This has gone on far enough. You must STOP growing!”

She grinned back at me and repeated the word “nine” at least seventy-four times. I slumped into a puddle of self pity and shut my ears.

It is a game we have played for years. When Jenna turned two, she traded her onesies for princess dresses, and I missed the good ole days. Not long after, the dresses were nixed for cowgirl jeans. Before I knew it, the whole thing spiraled out of control, and now I hardly recognize my little girl. She’s putting feathers in her hair, drinking mochas, writing grown up sounding stories and obsessing over Phil Mickelson (Yes, the golfer. I’m as puzzled by this as you are.)

So I tell her I want her to stop growing up. But I am lying.

Because as hard as it is to watch your kids grow older, it is infinitely harder to watch them stay the same age.

I should know. I have a six year old with Autism.

Jackson was diagnosed when he was three, but we knew something was wrong for a year before hand. He had been a normal boy, laughing and interacting with his sisters, learning new vocabulary and throwing it in whenever he had the chance.

Then he hit a wall. I cannot remember exactly when he regressed, but I remember that he stopped exploring. Stopped playing. Stopped looking us in the eyes. Everything he had learned about his world was gone.

Specialists have worked with him for the past three years. We enrolled him in a school with autism experts. We put him on a special gluten-free, casien-free diet. We bought him an iPad for the special education apps. And we have loved the cheese out of him every day.

In some ways he has improved. Unlike many autistic children, Jackson is very affectionate and good natured. He actually enjoys being with us–something we could not have said three years ago.

But in other ways he is still three.

He does not speak to us, except to ask to go outside, get a snack, or to play with our phones. These are usually two or three word sentences. Some days he remembers his words, but most days, he just pulls our hand to the thing he wants, and we have to remind him what to say.

“I… want… chips… please…”

How many times have we taught him that sentence? Hundreds. No exaggeration. He will learn it, and the next day, we have to teach it all over again. I feel like Adam Sandler with Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates!

The most frustrating aspect of this is that my wife and I are both skilled teachers. We thrive on boiling down difficult concepts into concrete ideas that are easy to absorb. Our son, for whatever reason, simply cannot absorb language. We’ve thrown everything we have at him, and very little seems to stick. The experts are just as baffled as we are, and there is no answer in sight.

Early on, the cycle of hope and disappointment nearly sidelined me as a dad. I had to let go of all my visions for the future, to clean the slate and start engaging my son with real love–the kind that is full of patience and empty of any performance requirements.

In short, I had to learn to love like my Father.

G.K. Chesterton wrote about God’s child-like ability to exalt in the monotonous. God makes the sun rise, and then, like a little boy being tossed into the air by his father, He says “do it again!” It seems the Creator does not get bored as easily as I do.

I get tired of the duplicate lessons that teach the same words over and over again. But in moments of more relaxed clarity, I smile to myself. Is it really so bad to have to teach my son to say “I want chips please”? After all, it is short and simple, and unlike more complex petitions with multiple subordinate clauses, it always earns a salty, delicious reward.

“I want chips please” is a perfectly good sentence, and I look forward to teaching it to my son again tomorrow.

My name is Jason Hague and I Am A Prodigal.

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Jason Hague is a pastor, teacher, and aspiring writer who is happiest when telling bible stories in cockeyed ways. He is currently penning the “Sons of Korah trilogy, a speculative epic set in the time of the Exodus. The first installment, “A War in the Skies” is set to be released in 2012. Follow him on Twitter or catch up with him on Facebook.

  • http://lifebeforethebucket.blogspot.com/ Adrian Waller

    Jason – the bravery of your soul shines through these words. Thanks so much for sharing your story with us. It’s really touched me in a special way.

    • haguejason

      Thanks Adrian. I don’t feel brave. To be honest, there are many days when I feel pretty weak and helpless. But God is good, and I love my son. That makes it easier.

  • http://twitter.com/LivingOneHanded Ryan Haack

    Thank you for sharing this, Jason. So powerful.

    • haguejason

      Thanks, Ryan. Glad you enjoyed it!

  • http://twitter.com/missionsgirl susie finney

    Good one Jason! A new way of looking at things. Praying for you guys.

    • haguejason

      Thanks, Susie!

  • Gail Sconza

    I just love your stories Jason, especially your Dad stories. You have a special way of putting a touch of humor in those things that are truly heart breaking. Joy in any circumstances!

    • haguejason

      Thanks, Gail. But you know, it’s getting less heartbreaking somehow…

  • Joseph Napoli

    I admire your humility and clarity in how you share. It helps all of us to better walk with you (pray for you and encourage you) in this gut-wrenching process. Through this, you either grow to be incredibly loving, patient, and kind, or incredibly cold. Thanks for choosing the former.

    • haguejason

      I’m sorry to say I put in a lot of time being “cold,” Joseph. Believe me. I’m thankful to be out of that.

  • Jenn Waldal

    Jason, your honesty is so powerful. Thank you for sharing. Each post you write gives clarity to what the day to day of autism really looks like.

    • haguejason

      Thanks, Jenn.

  • Joshua Rivas

    It is amazing how you are able to put into words so much of life’s mysteries, tragedies and joys and at the same time allow room for each of us to see ourselves in the story without feeling pigeonholed, patronized or left in denial. Thanks for writing, the worlds a little brighter with each line you type. J

    • haguejason

      You are too kind, sir…

  • Nakita

    This family is the Most Amazing picture of Love!

    • haguejason

      :)

  • Susan Crabb

    Good message Jason have you considered writing a book on your adventures with Jackson it could really help some families understanding with autism, you and Sarah are wonderful.

    • haguejason

      Thank you, Susan. Yes, the thought crosses my mind often, actually. We will see…

  • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

    What a great lesson, Jason! I love that you look forward to teaching him every day. It’s such a beautiful image of how Christ teaches us the same thing daily and we just can’t learn it.

    I hesitate to say anything because I know very little about Autism and I definitely don’t know anything about parenting a child with Autism but have you tried sign language? Here’s why I can’t stay silent: I’ve got a 20-year-old friend who’s Autistic and after a year (with no formal instruction, mostly watching conversations and asking questions), has picked up ASL and sometimes signs at a fourth-year level. Just a thought.

    • haguejason

      Funny you should mention that, Katie, because my wife is an ASL interpreter. So yes, we have used sign language often. Jackson hasn’t taken to sign language as well as we had hoped, but he still prefers to sign some words. I think he can see them in his mind easier than he can remember individual vocabulary. Such a mystery… Thanks for reading!

      • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

        Well, at least now he can choose between two languages (if he chooses to use language).

  • julia sepulveda

    This is just outstanding, Jason. I’m looking forward to reading your epic trilogy. How cool! So very proud of you. Blessings on you and your beautiful family. :)

    • haguejason

      Thank you, Julia. Blessings back to you :)

  • http://jasonandkelliwoodford.blogspot.com/ kelli woodford

    What a touching story! And what a beautiful picture of Divine love. Thank you, Jason.

    • haguejason

      Thank you so much, Kelli.

  • Dale S

    Beautiful, God bless you and your family.

  • Lisa Jane

    Thanks for sharing your story. I have 3 sons ( 20,13 & 7) with ASD.. My 7 yr old has many struggles with learning difficulties & we have am iPad too but the little fella wants to play the same game over & over every day! Would not change any of my (6) children for the World!God Bless

  • Josh & Hilary

    Read through this- im sure just a small portion of all the turmoil your families been through- thanks for sharing. *tears* of course. Love the Gilders

  • http://www.facebook.com/amy.clevidence Amy Clevidence

    Thank you for this post! My son is 16 and I’ve often said to myself, “I’m stuck in an Adam Sandler movie.” Our word/phrase of the day was “Monday….back to school Monday.” I heard it hundreds of times today. But you cannot just hear it…you have to acknowledge it or it gets louder and demanding. Exhausted, I needed to know I’m not alone tonight. Your blog was a great find…#1 in Google’s results for “50 First Dates” + Autism. Thank you for sharing your story. Your warmth and outpouring of love for your child reminds me that my heart is full (even though my ears are tired).