"Guardian Angel" (detail) by Cortona

“Guardian Angel” (detail) by Cortona

It is difficult to be a parent today, especially if you have a child or children with special needs. The days are emotional roller coaster rides often filled with frustration and only fleeting glimpses of progress. These families often push the pause button on their old lives as the focus becomes all about therapists, adaptive learning, fighting with schools for support, medication regimens, special diets, etc., etc. The expenses are astronomical and sacrifices are made which other families would never understand. Each day is a battle for survival, which requires fully engaged mothers, fathers and often siblings to pitch in and make it work. This effort can sometimes be physically exhausting. The emotional toll on the parents and “typical” children in this kind of family can be dramatic and is often overlooked in the pursuit of mere survival. The social isolation which often occurs almost becomes a blessing as the family grows weary of explaining about their child to friends and neighbors and they retreat in an unhealthy way into the safe cocoon of their homes where the uncomfortable looks and questions can’t reach them.

But, these children are also a great blessing and a gift from God if the choice is made to see them in this light. Once the family finally learns to measure progress in different ways, a positive report from school or when a new plateau is conquered with the physical therapist might be causes for a celebration.  Sometimes the speech therapist and her encouraging comments about new words being pronounced correctly or an improvement in a social exchange feed the parents morsels of hope that maybe, some day, their child will be able to function in a world that often appears frustrating, alien and even hostile to them.  When the family learns to accept this unique gift from God and stops hoping and praying for a more perfect version of what God gave them, hearts are permanently changed and love flows more freely.

How do I know all of this? Why do I seem to have an insider’s viewpoint? I live in a family much like the one I described in this post. My oldest son is 18 and he has high-functioning autism. There are days when he will ask us a hundred or more questions about our favorite movies, favorite foods or try to entice us into several rounds of his favorite board games. Our daily focus on helping him to lead an independent life and take care of himself doesn’t always go as we hoped and we sometimes fear for the worst when he reaches adulthood in a few years.  All of this is compounded by the fact that he has an extremely difficult time making friends.

How do we cope?  My wife and I pray a lot. We pray for acceptance. We pray for patience and peace. We pray for the Lord to help us be stronger parents and to help us with burdens which seem too great at times. We pray for his future and the future of our other teenage son.  We support and love each other and work hard at having a good marriage and honoring our vocation as parents.  We remember to be thankful for the great school he attends and the wonderful people at our parish who have embraced him, loved him and helped him find ways to be a part of parish life.  We remind ourselves that God is a loving Father who has great plans for our son which we may not yet fully understand.

I recall almost exactly a year ago the First Day of Advent.  It was a very special day. Our oldest son is very connected to our Catholic faith and he especially enjoys Advent and Christmas. He understands Jesus is coming into the world and he wants to be ready. He loves gift giving and spent his last dime on a present for my wife that he helped me wrap and place under our tree. We listened to Christmas music as we decorated our tree with him standing apart and listening to his own music as usual. That was OK. He just liked the moment and being with the rest of the family. Later that evening after dinner, he was bursting with excitement as he said a blessing over our Advent wreath and read the Gospel passage for the First Week of Advent.

That night as we finished our prayers and he crawled into his bed, he smiled at me and said, “I love Advent and Christmas Dad. This is my favorite time of the year.”

My son may struggle with autism, but in that moment all I saw was a child who has blessed my life in countless ways and given me much more than I have ever given him.  When he smiled at me he looked like an angel sent from Heaven…an angel sent to remind me that our Lord is coming and I must be ready with a joy-filled heart like that of my son.

Thank you, my dear son, for teaching me another powerful lesson. Thank you God for the gift of this child and choosing me to be his father.

Editor’s Note: Would you like to learn more about Randy Hain’s newest books?  Check out this insightful EWTN Bookmark TV interview with Randy Hain with host Doug Keck where he discusses his newest book Special Children, Blessed Fathers: Encouragement for Fathers of Children with Special Needs (Foreword by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput) and his exciting sixth book, Joyful Witness: How to Be an Extraordinary Catholic (Servant Books)  You can find all seven of Randy’s books at Amazon.com and at local Catholic bookstores.  Link to EWTN Bookmark interview here.

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