Hearing is Believing; Listening to Autism

By: J.C. Mitchell


It is impossible to be in someone else’s head, yet many people try.  People ponder motive and intention as if they can truly know what one is thinking.  It is often a cause of conflict between people and groups, because the perceived intention or motive is a reality to one, and all parties contribute to the confusion and delay, as they would say on the Island of Sodor, where Thomas the Tank Engine resides; bet you didn’t expect me to go there, but that is my point: people assume more than listen. 

All of this gets complicated for those on the Autism Spectrum, and thus I was intrigued by Jessi Cash’s Blog Post, “When I Overheard a Conversation Between My Son With Autism and His Brother”.  She was privileged to overhearing one son ask her other son, “…what is it like being you?” and the resulting conversation was very interesting and helpful.  So much so I will wait till you read it to go on….

Now you know why I referred to Thomas.   I would love to ask this question to my son; however, he is still struggling with communication.  Currently my son’s communication is limited to grunts, hand pulling, and his communication device, with an occasional verbal word; most, however, are a result of parroting or echolalia (scripting).  So if I asked my son such a complex question I would not at this time engage in an answer that would provide such insights, like that gleaned from the conversation recorded above.  

Nonetheless, yesterday as I was driving the car and searching for a radio station, I stopped on a song, for lack of anything better, and stayed on this unknown song.  It was in French, and sure enough I had stumbled on a French Canadian Channel.  The song was simply the opening for a talk show, and I kept on the channel since I was only minutes from home.  Having studied French in high school, and was even president of the French Language Club, I know some of the language.  I can usually understand simple conversations, and I will proudly tell you that I often confused those who are francophones when I worked at Les Trois Petits Chochons, but I couldn’t keep up the charade beyond basic orders and issues, and had to admit I was not fluent. 

So I listened to the conversation on the radio, and at times I knew what they were talking about; the weather, and a movie, but overall it was all a foreign language to me.   I could simply note when they were excited or reflective, but not what the subject was.  That is when I realized that this must be similar to what my son experiences.  He understands what we are saying in specific contexts and specific words, most of the same words I know in French (yes, no, ball, animals, colors, etc). 

I share this simple observation, because for that 10 minutes of listening to the program, I realized how frustrating it must be to hear the conversation, but not understand it, I too found myself wanting to the change the channel, but that is not possible for him.  He certainly understands more than he communicates, and this epiphany of empathy is essential for us all to attempt, even knowing the answer to “what is it like being you?” 

Looking for a Little Respect

“Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval?  Or am I trying to please people?  If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

I will ask for “the grace that I may be received under His standard, first, in the most perfect spiritual poverty, and should it so please His Divine Majesty to choose me, also in actual poverty; secondly in bearing reproaches and offenses, thus imitating Him more perfectly, provided only I can suffer them without sin on part of any other person or displeasure to His Divine Majesty” (St. Ignatius Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius).

The inexorable pull of modern life in America is toward respectability.  One way or another, people live their lives in ways calculated to bring them honor in the context of the people or ideals they themselves honor.  If I think that hitting home runs, for instance, is a task worthy of respect, then I practice hitting in such a way as to increase my chances of hitting home runs.  If I think sewing is a demonstration of a certain kind of honorable expertise, I will practice sewing in ways that people who sew well will respect.  If I think making money is a way of earning the respect of those whom I respect, then I will work to make the kind of money that people whom I respect will respect.

Everybody knows it.  I try to write and preach in ways in which people whom I think write and preach well would approve.  Who's immune?  And that is, perhaps, how it should be.  Whether it's carpentry or microbiology, making free throws or cleaning fish, building the space shuttle or rebuilding a carburetor, people, we hope, care about practicing their craft with the requisite skill and integrity.  We assume that when the surgeon picks up the knife or the attorney redrafts the will or the USDA inspector checks the ground beef that not only do they know how to do their work, but that they understand the importance of doing it well.  We want them to care about meeting standards, about finding respect among their colleagues.  We care about the fact that they seek to impress the people who taught them their craft.  Given the choice between the overachiever and the apathetic slacker, if it’s my teeth about to be drilled, I want the overachiever every time.

All of which, of course, applies to Christians.  Ideally, we strive to practice our faith with integrity.  We seek to walk the walk faithfully.  We crave the honor of the ones we find honorable.  Ultimately, we desire to be pleasing to the one who was pleased to give up his life in dishonor for us.

And therein lies the rub, doesn’t it?  Christians are no different in wanting to live in ways that bring approval.  But the approval we ultimately seek cannot be provided by other human beings.  In fact, Paul says that if he had cared anything about human approval he would have sought another line of work.  Being who God calls us to be often leaves us honored in ways that the world has no way of finding respectable.  And that is because the Christian life finds respectability precisely at the point where the world finds failure.  We are honored by a God who finds honor in places the world would never think to look, like, oh, say . . . crosses.

While the rest of the world desperately seeks the honor this world provides (money, fame, glory, education, a big-screen T.V.), Christians seek the honor provided by the one who forsook the honor sought by the world in order to find the honor bestowed only by God.

St. Ignatius tells us to pray not only for spiritual poverty (Matt. 5:3), but, if it be God’s will, for actual poverty.  He tells us to pray to bear “reproaches and offenses,” rather than to pray for the world’s approval.  Why?  Because the call of the Christian life is the call to the imitation of Christ, who bore reproaches and offenses.  Humiliation, apparently, is the name of the path he took on his way to saving the world.

Only in a group of folks as weird as Christians would this reverse logic make any kind of sense.

If respect is what it’s about, I guess in the end it all depends on whose respect you really want.