Elijah had not developed the same as other children; he was delayed. He was in his second year of special education, but we were told that it was likely he would catch up with the other children his age and things would work out just fine. However, it was difficult to connect with him and he had almost no communication skills.
Over time our anxieties increased. One day I was talking with a client who had a six-month-old baby in her arms. I connected with this infant through non-verbal interaction in a way that I couldn’t with my own four-year-old son. It was time to find out what was wrong with Elijah.
We took him to Primary Children’s hospital in Salt Lake City where he was diagnosed with Autism. We were devastated. We didn’t know if any of our dreams for him would come true. We spent long hours researching treatments.
We felt like ABA or Applied Behavior Analysis was his best hope for improvement. We contracted with a company called the Redwood Learning Center, built a classroom in our basement and spent tens of thousands of dollars on consulting and on tutors. Much of the day, every day, was spent one-on-one with Elijah, teaching appropriate behaviors and trying to minimize the negative behaviors. We videotaped many of the interactions. In addition, we had a camera in the classroom wired to a television in our kitchen so we could always see how things were going.
It was painful to watch. Elijah fought the tutors with adept skill. He pulled hair, punched, bit, and scratched his way through many of the sessions. We had wonderful young ladies working with Elijah, but we always wondered if they were going to come back after one more battle with him. Certainly Elijah made progress, but there were no major breakthroughs and no miracles.
We tried therapeutic horseback riding at a stable in Highland, Utah, called Courage Reins, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with disabilities. Elijah learned how to care for and ride horses. Wonderful and patient instructors and volunteers worked with Elijah to help improve his cognitive, social, and emotional growth.
We took Elijah to one of the leading neuropsychologists and tested him again. To improve his verbal and communication skills, we took him to speech therapy. We got a golden retriever that had been trained by Canine Companions and has been a faithful friend to Elijah through it all. Many parents of autistic children seek for answers through diet and bio-medical solutions. We researched many of these and experimented a little.
Occasionally, we see glimpses into Elijah’s soul and it makes it all worthwhile. He barely said a word until he was probably six or seven. For years we tried to prompt him to say his name when asked. We must have asked him a thousand times what his name was with no response. One day, I asked him again what his name was and was flabbergasted at his response. He said, “Pocahontas.” Of all the responses I expected, it wasn’t a four syllable word like Pocahontas. In the following months, Elijah would occasionally respond when we inquired about his name … always with some other name. It was a game to him and we got a peek into his sense of humor.
The funniest experience we ever had was when he and I were wrestling on the ground one day. He was on top of me and used a phrase he must have picked up from a cartoon. He said to me in a rough voice, “Say your prayers.” I laughed hardily and then proceeded to knock him off and get on top of him. I then said to Elijah the same thing, “Say your prayers.” All of a sudden he got this forlorn look in his eyes, put his hands together as if praying, closed his eyes and said, “Please Heavenly Father, bless this angry man.”
Elijah sometimes shows flashes of brilliance and at other times you wonder how he gets along at all. When he puts his clothes on himself he almost always puts his clothes on backwards, even the pants. It is an incomprehensible detail to him. He does not concern himself with labels. I won’t even go into the daily routine of scrubbing the toilet, walls, and floor just about every time he goes to the bathroom.
It would be inspiring to report that miracles have taken place and Elijah is doing really well, but that is not true. He is not better. In addition to autism and mild intellectual disability, he has recently been diagnosed with a mood disorder as well. He goes from being calm to uncontrollable anger or extreme sadness without anything setting him off. We have him back testing with specialists and psychiatrists and we are told his case is very complex.
Why do we have to endure these challenges? Could God heal him if he so desired? Without question, he could. Do we lack sufficient faith or perhaps God doesn’t love us as much as he loves others. Some parents have seen miracles with their autistic children. All fair questions. What would the Lord have us learn?
A few years ago, we went to a fireside and the speaker asked some of these same questions. He referred to the Book of Acts, Chapter 12. Herod the king put Peter and James into prison. Both were apostles. Both were members of Christ’s most inner circle. The circumstances and timing are the same. In verse two, James gets the sword and is martyred; but Peter, in verse seven, gets an angel. He is saved by the angel who assists him in escaping prison.
Why such a harsh contrast between the treatment of these two apostles? You have to ask the questions. Did Peter have more faith than James? Probably not; they were equals before the Lord. Then maybe the Lord loved Peter more than he loved James. When you think that through it doesn’t really seem likely. Then why did one get the sword and the other the angel? Perhaps that is just the way life is; sometimes we get the sword and sometimes we get the angel and there are no easy answers. But no matter the trial or burden, we can choose to yoke ourselves with the Savior and, by so choosing, our burden will be shared by Him who has infinite strength and who has suffered all.
There was a time when we felt like we got the sword with Elijah. The pain was sharp and the wound deep. But Elijah is innocent and pure before the Lord. We are better people because he is in our family. Our other children have always served him and we have had to sacrifice and humble ourselves because of the challenges. Have our lives been more difficult? Yes, without question. But do we live better lives because of him? Again, I would say yes, without question.
At a time when Elijah rarely spoke a word, a teacher asked each of the special needs students in the class what they were thankful for. Each took their turn … a favorite toy or a friend. When she came to Elijah, she asked him the same question. She paused for a few moments, but did not expect him to answer at all. He usually did not respond to any verbal prompt, but a small light burst from his soul and penetrated the invisible barrier.
He opened his mouth and said just one word. He said, “Love.”
We didn’t get the sword. We got the angel.