Have you ever had to run to the store for diapers? Well for the first 20 months or so of our son’s life we used cloth diapers, so it was never for diapers that I ran to the store. At about that time he grew out of the cloth diapers we owned, we figured we would use disposable diapers until he was potty trained instead of making a large investment. Of course we were quite optimistic, and continue to be. It truly was not out of the question, for he was already learning things quickly and was sitting well on the thrown. Little did we know that 22 months later he would still not be potty trained which we attribute to his development of autism.
Now I keep a standing order of disposable diapers online so I save money, but this night we were too low before the next delivery, so I went out to Walmart. It was late evening and busy, but not crowded. I found myself walking through the section of Christmas items on sale, which was what we packed away earlier that day, since Epiphany had arrived. Around the corner was another aisle of toys that were on sale. I began to look for a toy on sale for my son. I thought I could find a bargain and surprise him. I must have taken ten minutes looking at all these fun toys that were on sale, but I could not find anything. I could find many items that were age appropriate, many items that were fun, but none seemed right.
I then remembered that there were still two wrapped presents under the tree that we took down that afternoon. They were both for our son, and it was not that he had an excessive number of presents. This three-year-old had really no interest in Santa, or the reindeer. He met that jolly man three times during Advent, was never scared, but also never interested. We learned he liked the lights, the tree, and the song “Jingle Bells” (it may help that Elmo utilizes the tune for all his songs). AJ’s stocking had a few presents, and that included his two favorites: chocolate peanut butter cups and a DVD with the Wonder Pets on it. After that he was done; the bubble machine was loud, the books were fine, the clothes fun for his parents, but the change of routine to rip paper off boxes was simply uninteresting to him; honestly he seem annoyed we kept showing him these wrapped items.
I should not have been so surprised, for 5 months earlier at his birthday party, his first present was a book he loved. He opened it, saw an open place on the couch, ran from my lap where he was the center of attention, and sat right down amongst his party guests to read his beloved book. We had to give up on him opening presents and had his “friends” open the gifts as he read his book.
Of course as a parent I am responsible to teach him, and have him taught. Of course there is the cliché that children teach us grown people, as well as Jesus telling adults to be like children. However, there is something unique a child (a person) with autism can teach all of us, especially the church.
I believe there is a theological anthropology which helps our understanding how the Divine works with us messy humans. An important part of this theological anthropology includes the theory of mimesis. This theory is based on the fact that humans are social beings and our individuality and desires are based on the desires of others. Even babies develop by mimicking their caregivers. “It is made concrete in the imitation, learning, and repetition which is what enables an infant to become a socialized human being” (Alison 28). However, as humans develop we are socialized through imitation and modeling, which is evident by the draw of a baby to the adult caregivers. “We all take such a draw, such a movement, for granted, though of course it isn’t automatic, as is evidenced by autistic children, who lack precisely the attraction, the draw the movement toward an adult” (Allison 27-28) I agree that my son proves that human beings are socially as well as biologically reared to adulthood, as we are struggling to teach and demonstrate the importance of the draw of socialization, especially communication. Mimetic Theory truly has great implication for our development of religion and our salvation through Jesus the Christ, who does not deny these desires, but wants us to model them after the perfect Divine:
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
However, our socialization is based on the mimetic relationship with other humans, and not inherently the Divine. The end result is violence. This violence can be direct, but often results in scapegoating that happens because humans desire the same object, position, etc. This violence is exactly what Jesus found Himself hung on a tree from, but is exactly what He saves us from. Our desires should line up with the new age opened by the Resurrection. However, we still have one foot in our world that our individuality is formed by the desires of others and often comes into conflict. This, though, brings up the issue of how a child with autism models someone that can avoid mimetic violence.
Walmart does sell basic items for life: fruit, vegetables, and coffee; yet much of the items depend on our desire to have items we do not truly need, but because we desire to be like others, we end up buying these items. Of course I am not immune, which was very evident when I kept searching for a toy for AJ. Now a lot of children have enough toys, or more toys than others, but for AJ it is that he does not fully participate in mimetic desire. He is also still young, but generally a boy approaching 3 ½ years will want toys and not just the box (and he doesn’t even want a box either). I watched all but one other child in his Headstart class (another boy on the spectrum), get excited and communicate their desires to a wonderful man dressed up like Santa. That time we did get a good picture of our son with Santa, for in his stocking was an apple. He was enamored at the apple, for he likes apples and he explored the smooth red surface as we snapped pictures, no idea he was the center of attention, nor was he going to sit with the man in the red suit.
AJ’s desires are not based as clearly on the reflection from others as a neurologically normal child. Let me be quite frank, it is difficult, heart wrenching, scary, sad, and wonderful. Wonderful, I write, because he makes us wonder about life. I realized that I had been sucked into needing to buy a toy, because my desire is influenced by others and I desire to be like others. That realization came from my son’s modeling of developing his identity with much less care of other’s desires. What a great lesson.
The work ahead of us is to keep some of the special and unique advantages of his thinking while encouraging socialization and communication. Honestly, I believe the best way is for those of us that are socialized to realize our desires can be based on the model Jesus suggests, which is the action of love, and that is the one desire my son has, and he has for every human being. He is consistent and perfect like the Divine parent. We all learn from our children; yet I believe those with the unique take on mimetic desire can teach us, as we teach them to communicate. My prayer is that I can teach AJ to communicate, and yet still keep the desire of love the first priority; for if we model Jesus’ love, will that not be the social normative?
Work Cited: Alison, James. The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes. New York: Crossroad, 1998