By Katie Corrigan
I’ll never forget that day. It was sunny and bright, unusual for the typical gray and rainy Tacoma, Washington region. The blooms of cherry blossom trees were beginning to emerge, boasting their beauty without apology. It was perfect. Life was in an exceptionally sweet rhythm.
As I walked through the front door of my dear friends home, she greeted me in her usual bubbly manner, but I sensed a heaviness in her eyes. They were full of something I hadn’t seen in her before…trepidation.
“How’s your day?’ She innocently but cautiously asked through an expression I couldn’t define. “It’s great! Work is going great, I’ve got all bases covered for my event on Friday, taking on some new projects and the SUN IS OUT! What could be better?”
“How is Carter?” I paused. Looked at her, and again, was perplexed at her tone. “He’s good. Only a few meltdowns this week so far, so that’s progress!” I couldn’t discern where her inquiry was originating, nor the emotion that fueled her intensity about my 2 and half year old son.
Pause… again, silence.
Tears started to flow down her cheeks. As she covered her face with both hands, she sunk into the nearest chair and began to weep, violently.
Stunned, I lunged toward her, and wrapped my arms around her. She was shaking and couldn’t formulate words beyond her sobbing. “Jess, what’s wrong?” I was so alarmed that I couldn’t help but repeat the question over and over. After a few moments, she settled, pulled herself back from me and with a look that could be equated to giving someone the news that their loved one was diagnosed with cancer, spoke the words that still reverberate even today.
“I think you need to have Carter tested… for Autism.”
I stared at her. I could barely break my gaze as she began to list all of the different “warning” signs she had observed in my child. His lack of eye contact, solid focus on trains-and ONLY trains, the stacking of objects lined in rows, his reclusive and isolated nature when in social situations with other children.
I felt like I had been slapped halfway across the room.
Composing herself, she stopped her reasoning and looked at me again. With the same trepidation as previously picked up on, she said, “I’m so sorry Katie. I didn’t know how to bring it up. I know he’s your first and these things seem like personality traits, but I’ve seen this over and over. If you can get him diagnosed there’s early intervention methods that can help him succeed in socialization”.
Diagnosed? Early Intervention? Socialization? She might as well have dropped the F-bomb. Those words felt like curse words launched as an assault on my sweet, tenderhearted, focused little boy. I was disillusioned, confused and hurt.
Now it was my turn for the tears. I wept. Hard. It was a blow that I had no way of expecting or preparing for. I had never really even heard of Autism, and the only thing I knew of it previously was that it meant “Special Needs”. In my ignorant, small-minded attitude, I had originally labeled special needs as: Abnormal, Different, Incomplete.. like there was something “wrong”.
That day, I left her house broken. Not because of anger, because God knows, and I knew, my friend deeply cared about both of us and wanted the best for Carter. Yet in one moment, my entire worldview changed as a parent.
“Special Needs Mom” was now my label. I grieved. Nearly every night leading up to the doctors appointment and many days following the diagnosis I woke up weeping. Mourning the death of a dream, a hope and a future for my precious child. All the longing for a “normal” childhood in ashes. As the months went on, I began to see where the disorder had made its mark on my child.
Isolation is the enemy’s playground. And special needs parents are all too familiar with this pain. Because of the nature of my sons condition, I would regularly feel the shame of not being included or invited on playdates with other moms and their children because Carter would never engage. So I isolated. I hid in a dark pit of shame and self-pity of not being understood. I wondered if he would ever wear a halloween costume (which he adamantly and violently refused due to sensory issues) or attend his high school prom. He would regularly melt down, screaming and wailing in the grocery store or at my work where I served as an associate Pastor at our home church.
As I prayed and prayed every day and night that God would heal him, help him become the child I wanted him to be, I heard a very still, small voice one night. “Katie, you need stop projecting your own imagined lack of self-worth onto your child. There is no shame in who I’ve created him to be. He is MINE. I have written and ordained every day of his life in my book before he was a thought in your mind. I have a hope and future planned for him that far exceeds your expectations”.
Again, with the weeping. But not of hopelessness this time. It was relief. Relief that my son would not be defined by labels that culture put on him or limits that try to restrain him. That God would not allow any arrow or attack from the enemy to prosper against the beautiful story already written for Carter. Following that moment, the scripture, Isaiah 61:3 was whispered into my heart:
“And provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes…”
Beauty instead of ashes. Joy instead of mourning. Hope over despair.
The question of whether or not my son would ever live a “normal” life no longer needed to be answered. There was a hope and future for him separate of his limitations or labels. Where the ashes of my dreams as a parent once piled one on top of the other with every painful exclusion and public meltdown, God wanted to restore with beauty. And he did.
Eventually, Carter started initiating conversations with us, making eye contact, asking questions, and playing with schoolmates (all firsts). But not without surrender on my part or struggle on all sides. But God…
Today, he’s regularly invited to birthday parties, play dates, and is everyone’s resident “best friend” in his class at school. And 2 months ago, he made his own public decision to follow Jesus and be baptized! ALL ON HIS OWN!
To any special needs mothers, I would share two encouragements that are crucial to raising our own little world-changers:
- Sweetness in Surrender
Surrendering our plans, our will, our emotions and our insecurities to a grace that is always present and all-encompassing, renders a sweetness in our soul beyond compare. When we allow our pain to be repurposed into the palm of our Almighty God, we are graced and empowered to fulfill the mandate to raise that child into the man or woman God has destined them to become.
Matt 11:28-30 “….Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
There is a unique grace and anointing on your life to parent the brilliance and challenge associated with a special needs child. You have access to a power beyond yourself to rise up and speak life and abundance over your child. God knit that child together in your womb and has a plan and a purpose no matter what limitation they face. Access the power of the Holy Spirit to help you parent. Walk in the unforced rhythms of the grace that is on you.
Sweetness in the Struggle
You are not alone. There is a temptation to believe the lie that our lives will lack the fulfillment and joy that “normal” families have. No grocery store trips without meltdowns, no prom, no Disneyland trips without over-stimulation, no spontaneous outings out of routine… LIES. I have found that the sweetness actually lies in the struggle, when surrender has preceded it. The sweetness is found in the celebration of moments that most would deem insignificant, but are monumental for you (having a comprehensive conversation, sleeping in his own bed, initiating play with a fellow classmate). Celebrate the “kisses from heaven” meant to show you the beauty replacing ashes.
Katie is a mother to two beautiful children, Carter and Kennedy. She is the co-lead Pastor alongside her husband, Todd, of Trinity Church San Diego in Poway, CA. Together, they are called to build the local church and are committed to building and encouraging the community of individuals and families with special needs. Katie enjoys long walks on the beach (seriously), mentoring women, and lives off hot Americanos no matter the weather. Check her out on Instagram and Facebook!