Coming to Terms with Your Beliefs
About the Guest
Laura prayed that her baby boy would become a great man someday. Would his diagnosis of autism at the age of three kill her dreams for him, or did God still have a plan? Today Dr. Laura Hendrickson talks about her son Eric’s, early years and the event that eventually led her to seek help for her precious son.
Laura prayed that her baby boy would become a great man someday.
Coming to Terms with Your Beliefs
Bob: Almost two decades ago Dr. Laura Hendrickson left her practice as a medical doctor to stay home and spend her time full-time with her son Eric who had been diagnosed with severe autism. One of the issues she had to wrestle with in that process was: “Had she done something wrong,” or “Had God made some kind of mistake?”
Laura: If we believe that God created Eric the way He did with intention and purpose, then we also have to believe that there is a purpose for even the things that maybe we don’t understand right now. Nobody understood why Dumbo had to trip over those ears, but it was perfectly obvious in retrospect. Similarly, I believe that even in our very challenged children, there is the seed of something that is going to be a gift that God can use.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, February 16th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey; and I'm Bob Lepine. We are going to talk today to a medical doctor—a mom who has walked a very difficult path—raising a son who is severely autistic.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. If there are special-needs situations in any family, there are challenges that go along with that. We are going to focus on this week on a particular special-needs situation that a lot of families are finding themselves dealing with.
Dennis: You are exactly right, Bob. To deal with this special subject, we have Dr. Laura
Bob: There you go!
Dennis: Dr. Laura Hendrickson joining us on …
Bob: The other Dr. Laura, who listens often...
Bob: Is going, “Wait! I don’t remember being on their program.”
Dennis: Yeah. There you go! I just want to make sure our listeners were listening today. That is really good. Laura, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Laura: Thank you—Dennis.
Dennis: Laura is a trained psychiatrist. She is a speaker at women’s retreats and events around the country, and an author of a number of books, and the mother of an adult son. She has written a book called Finding Your Child’s Way on the Autism Spectrum.
Laura, you speak of autism having a spectrum.
Laura: That is right. There are three basic problems that are present in all children who have the autism spectrum diagnosis, in varying degrees. They may have difficulty with communication that may go all the way from not speaking at all—which was the way my son began his life—to not very noticeable at all.
They are going to have difficulties with cognition—that is, understanding the world around them. That can vary from severe, again, to very mild; but there is always some of that present.
Then there are difficulties understanding people in particular. That is what many people think of when they think of autism. On the autism spectrum, even those who are very mildly affected will typically have some difficulty understanding people.
Dennis: Laura, I don’t want to get too heavy right off the start, but you are a trained physician—psychiatrist. I want you to pull back from that as a mom and as a student of the Bible. What do you think God is up to when we have children who struggle with autism?
You have struggled with this for more than two decades with your son and seen great victories. You are going to hear a great story here that this young man Eric—I mean right now, it is really cool. He is on his way back from China, having been there for how long?
Laura: Six weeks.
Dennis: Six weeks...
Bob: Independently, right?
Laura: All by himself.
Dennis: It really is a great story. That doesn’t happen in all cases, as you have just said. In the more extreme cases, that is not going to happen at all; but what do you think God is up to when He allows a child to be born to a couple who struggles with this?
Laura: Actually, before Eric was conceived,I had difficulty conceiving because I was an older mother. I prayed, “Give me a son, Lord; and all the days of his life, he will serve you,”—Hannah’s prayer. I immediately became pregnant and carried that pregnancy. I had had several miscarriages.
Naturally, I thought my son was going to be some sort of great man—some sort of missionary or pastor who would glorify God in the usual ways that we think of when we think of God glorifying Himself; but you know, the Bible tells us that God has created all of us—those with special needs and those without them to glorify Him. People with difficulties glorify Him in ways that may be difficult for us to understand, but we have to believe that that is so.
Many times we are taught that autism happens as a kind of developmental accident as though God didn’t have anything to do with that. Scripture doesn’t allow us to believe that, does it? Psalm 139 tells us that God knit us together in our mother’s womb. It also says that He planned out all of our days, right from the beginning.
Right as soon as Eric was diagnosed, I had a terrible theological problem: “What, indeed, is God up to?” That has been the journey that the Lord has had me on for—now, nearly 22 years, wondering, “How is God going to glorify Himself out of this circumstance?” As a result, my whole definition of what God’s glory is and how He is glorified really underwent a tremendous change.
Bob: Help me understand how autism is seen in the medical community. It is not a disease. Is it a disorder? Is it brain-related? What do we know about it?
Laura: The medical community sees it as a disorder of brain development. In other words, something went wrong in development. I think that probably some people have autism genes. My older brother, in retrospect—he is no longer with us. He passed away some years ago; but I believe he had Asperger’s syndrome. The genes were present.
Doctors tend to view autism as something wrong with the brain. On one level, that is true. The autism-spectrum brain does not operate as efficiently as other people’s brains. That is what causes a lot of the trouble.
On another level, is it really true that there is something wrong with the brain of an autism-spectrum person that needs to be fixed? Very often, the way doctors talk— make it sound as though that is exactly what it is—that the child has deficits. Those deficits need to be, what they call, remediated so that the child can have a life just like everybody else’s. I bought into that, too, when Eric was young; but as I have gotten older and older and met more and more people on the autism spectrum, I have become more and more convinced—particularly understanding God’s sovereignty—that God intended this. God caused my child to be born with a different brain.
I am not going to say, “abnormal” because what is “normal”? God has created a full spectrum of all kinds of individual behaviors. God created my son different. That doesn’t mean I sit back and say, “Oh, well, he is different; and he can’t help it.” No. I believe that God put things into his life for a purpose. My job as a parent is to try and draw those things out of him.
When I say, “This is not acceptable, and this needs to be fixed.” What am I saying about God’s work?
Dennis: And what are you saying about the person who is born with the disorder in their brain? You are saying what the Scripture teach us—is that person—your son Eric—from the very beginning—was created in the image of God, had value, worth, dignity, and that, “Yes, he could be used by God for a plan that God has for his life.”
I want to go back all the way to the beginning to a song that you used to sing to Eric. It was—I am not remembering this song. You don’t know this...
Bob: I know the one you are talking about...
Dennis: You know what, I was about to get there, Bob! I was going to tell Laura, “She doesn’t know this about you, but Bob could probably sing this song right now.”
Bob: You can fly; you can fly! You can fly—right? Is that the one?
Bob: That’s not it? Oh, no! I thought I had it!
Dennis: This is a great moment.
Laura: That is Peter Pan.
Bob: Oh, it is Peter Pan!
Laura: That is Peter Pan, but the song we have in mind is when Dumbo’s mother cradled him and someone sang in the background, “Baby Mine.” The baby was being made fun of because he was different. Dumbo was born with those great big enormous ears. People made fun of him. She sang, “Don’t you cry. You are beautiful. You are precious just the way you are.”
Dennis: You used to sing that to your son, not knowing that some day he would have his own limitation?
Laura: Dumbo experience. It is a long story how Eric got interested in Dumbo. Then I became interested in Dumbo. Suffice it to say, that I began to see Dumbo as a kind of metaphor for Eric’s life.
Dumbo was born with those great big ears. As a result of having those great big ears, he tripped all the time; and people laughed at him. His mother was heartbroken and angry at the people who were cruel to him. That is another whole story because I have been there, too.
Ultimately, Dumbo discovered that he was able to fly—that those ears that got in his way when he was trying to walk because he tripped on them actually made perfect wings. He was born to fly. Eric was still very young when I began to think of Eric in the same way and began asking the Lord to show me how things that looked like unmitigated disasters in Eric’s life could somehow turn out to be the seeds for some kind of flying of its own.
In other words, if we believe that God created Eric the way He did with intention and purpose, then we also have to believe that there is a purpose for even the things that maybe we don’t understand right now. Nobody understood why Dumbo had to trip over those ears, but it was perfectly obvious in retrospect. Similarly, I believe that even in our very challenged children, there is the seed of something that is going to be a gift that God can use.
Bob: How old was Eric when you first started to wonder, “Is there something that is not right here?”
Dennis: Is that even the right way to ask that question because you already said, “He is different than what we would consider to be ‘normal.’”
Bob: When I said, “not right,” I mean is....
Laura: That is exactly what I thought! I looked at him, and I said, “That baby is not right!” They put him in my arms for the first time. There was something that was not like other brand-new newborn babies. Remember, I am a doctor; I know what newborn babies look like. My first thought was that he had autism. Of course, I spent the next two years trying to talk myself out of it.
Dennis: Until you went to the beach one day.
Laura: Yes. Yes. The Beach—Dog Beach. When Eric was still very small, my husband and I thought it would be lovely for Eric to have a dog because we live two blocks away from a particular part of the beach in the San Diego area called Dog Beach where dogs were allowed off the leash. They could swim in the water. We visualized Eric playing in the surf with his very own puppy—isn’t that lovely and special?
Well, it didn’t work out quite like that. Eric in his first—almost two years of life—tolerated being brought down to the water. Once he was old enough to begin expressing displeasure about being there, he wasn’t happy to be there anymore. On the other hand, the dog, Coco, absolutely had to swim every day. Life was just not worth living. She nagged; she hassled; she whined.
So we went down to the beach to swim. Eric—that one day—started struggling and fighting to get out of my arms. I was carrying him because of the deep sand. It is a very wide beach—it is hard to get down. He fought his way out of my arms. I put him down on the sand. I did what moms always do. I said, “Okay, you stay there if you want to. I’m going to the water.”
Usually, you get about ten feet away from a two-year-old; and he is going to run back to his mother. Eric didn’t. Ten feet—20 feet—30 feet—He is still sitting on the sand, and he is as happy as a clam. Meanwhile, the dog is whining because she is afraid to go into the water if she can’t see me. I am standing there thinking, “This is nuts. I have a dog that can’t bear to go into the water if she can’t see me and a child who is fine with me being a vast distance away from me. Something is wrong.”
Dennis: So the next day you found yourself in a doctor’s office.
Laura: Yes. I was prepared to hear language disorder—that is another kind of diagnosis for kids who have not acquired language.
Bob: When the doctor says, “We think Eric is autistic...”
Laura: No. He said, “He has autism.”
Laura: Yes. Then he took out the DSM—at the time it was III—DSM III—the psychiatric bible—and showed me all the criteria and explained to me how Eric met each one. It was so obvious as he showed it to me. There was no question about whether he had made a mistake or whether he was right. I knew he was right. How could I have not known?
Dennis: Your shoulders are slumping right now.
Dennis: That occurred over 20 years ago. You are re-living that moment. What was it like as a mom to hear that word?
Laura: It was like death! This was 20 years ago. It was before anyone I knew had heard anything about treatment. I had seen one child with autism in my medical training, but that was it! It was still believed to be a very rare disorder, and it was viewed to be completely hopeless. If Eric had a language disorder, he would probably speak one day; but if he had autism, he would probably never speak.
In talking with the doctor, that was just what he told me. He said, “Yes. He is almost three. He does not have language yet. He probably won’t speak. I can see that he is functioning in the retarded level. That probably won’t change either.”
So I went home and cried out before the Lord, “Why?! He was going to glorify You.” Of course, here is this inadequate understanding of what is required by God’s glory. I thought, “How can it be that God answered my prayer? Two weeks after I prayed that prayer, I was pregnant with Eric. I miscarried before. I miscarried after. Eric was the child of promise.” I felt like Abraham when God told him to sacrifice Isaac. “How can this be?”
Of course, I didn’t stay there long because we are people of faith. We want to trust God. So I started right in on myself instead. “I am bad. I did it to him.” I was in a car accident when I was eight weeks’ pregnant. I went without pain medicine for a week before I finally agreed to take something that the doctor said wouldn’t hurt the baby; but, “Was he wrong? If so, it was my fault and I did it.”
I thought about all the parenting choices that I made. We will sometimes do that because taking the blame for it ourselves feels safer than grappling with God—where God’s Word says He is good and that all He does is good. He brings good things out of it; and yet, this doesn’t look good. So, someone must be bad here. It must be me.
Dennis: I was going to ask you, “At what point did you question whether it was God who perhaps was bad? Did you ever get angry with Him and question what He was up to?”
Laura: No. I didn’t. I think the way I figured it out was to get mad at myself—blame myself—and try not to think too hard about God. Initially, it was, “God, why?”
I didn’t really want an answer to that because my understanding of God at that time wasn’t big enough to see Him as someone who could—yes, God causes all things to work together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose—but not something this bad. I couldn’t imagine how God would bring glory out of that. I just didn’t think about it.
Dennis: What you are modeling for us here is really a process of how a human being absorbs bad news or that which we would perceive as negative news.
Laura: It was terrible news!
Dennis: It is the death of hope.
Dennis: A young lady who miscarried a number of times—now is finally a mother—and now you are hearing the words, “Autistic.”
Laura: He was my only child, too, because I wasn’t able to conceive again.
Dennis: I know the rest of the story because I have been in your book; but I think the challenge for anyone who has received news they weren’t expecting to hear is, “What are you going to believe about God?”
It is interesting you pretty much believed the right thing about God. You turned on yourself at that moment. The real challenge is, I think, to go to the Scriptures and to not just rehearse or recite Romans 8:28...
Laura: That didn’t work.
Dennis: “That all things work together for good to those who love God and to those who are called according to His purpose,” but to believe the truth about who God is and to say, “Okay, God. I may not like this journey. In fact, I don’t like this journey that I am embarking on; but let’s go. Let’s begin a journey of faith together.”
I know—because we spent a little time before we came in here; and, Bob, you were part of the discussion before we came into the studio. Twenty years later, the understanding of who God is and what God is up to—it’s like you had just a little snapshot of who God was back then, but now there is a Technicolor story in your heart and mind that reminds us of the truth of who God is.
Bob: But you start on that path years ago; and you go, “This is not the path I would choose. It is not the path I even want to be on.” Yet, in the midst of it, God says, “I am with you. I am going to show you things that you wouldn’t see otherwise.” That doesn’t make it easier necessarily, but it does give you a perspective that others don’t get.
Dennis: And, Bob, in those moments when we do get news we weren’t expecting, I think it is really important to be with those who have been there ahead of you and have experienced it, and have a perspective, as you say, that they can share. That really is what Laura has done in her book.
Bob: Yes. I am just sitting here thinking about the conversation you and I had a couple of months ago with Emily Colson and with her dad Chuck Colson—very similar story to what Laura has shared with us here today. We do have copies of Laura’s book Finding Your Child’s Way on the Autism Spectrum in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center, along with Emily Colson’s book Dancing with Max.
I want to encourage our listeners, if you have an autistic child or you know someone who has an autistic child, get them a copy of one or both of these books and share them with them. I think you are absolutely right. The perspective that comes from hearing someone else’s story can be a great source of encouragement. You can find out about Dr. Laura Hendrickson’s book when you go online to FamilyLifeToday.com. That is FamilyLifeToday.com. You will also find out information about the book Dancing with Max by Emily Colson.
Again, the website—FamilyLifeToday.com; or if it is easier, call us toll-free at 1-800-FLTODAY—1-800-F as in “Family,” L as in “Life,” and then the word TODAY. We can make arrangements to have either or both of these books sent to you.
We hear stories like Dr. Hendrickson has shared with us today. I know for a lot of people, the central question of, “How can we understand the goodness of God and the omnipotence of God when things like this happen in our world?” That question has been addressed very wisely and compassionately by our friend, Randy Alcorn, in a booklet called “If God Is Good, Why Do We Hurt?” I know for a lot of our listeners, that is a question they wrestle with on a regular basis; or they know someone who is wrestling with that question.
We would like to send you a copy of Randy Alcorn’s 64-page mini-book called “If God Is Good, Why Do We Hurt?” All you have to do is request it from us. You can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to request it or call 1-800-FLTODAY. Because we are making these available at no cost to you, we are asking that you limit it to one per caller or one per household, please. If you would like a copy of the book, either go online at FamilyLifeToday.com or call 1-800-FLTODAY to request it.
Especially if you are a long-time listener and you have never gotten in touch with us, we would love to hear from you. We would love to know that you are listening. Feel free to call to get a copy of this book and we will get it sent to you.
I want to encourage you to be back with us again tomorrow when we are going to continue our conversation with Dr. Laura Hendrickson. We will get into all the different experimental and sometimes controversial practices that are being used to try to help those who are dealing with autism. I hope you can be here for that part of the conversation tomorrow.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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