Sho and Patreece Baraka: Parenting Autism–and Dealing with Shame
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Parenting their sons’ autism, Sho Baraka and his wife Patreece felt blindsided—including a loss of dreams & sense of failure. But God met them in their shame.
Sho and Patreece Baraka: Parenting Autism–and Dealing with Shame
Sho: Love is not based on performance—and that no matter how well or disappointing our kids perform, if you will, that doesn’t change our affection for our children—because the reality of it is that God looks at us, and we don’t perform well at times, and we don’t do the things that God has taught us to do; but yet, that doesn’t change His affection/His love for us.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife—
Well, I have a confession to make. Often, when we’re in the studio, part of me thinks we’re the coolest couple in the room. Do you ever think that?
Ann: No, I’ve never thought that once in my entire life. [Laughter]
Dave: I’m obviously lying right now. [Laughter] I’ve always wanted to think I’m the coolest. But I’m sitting here today, thinking, “I don’t know if we’ve ever had a cooler couple sitting across from us.”Look, he walked in with his jacket; how do you describe it?
Ann: It’s like a cool smoking jacket.
Sho: It’s crushed velour.
Dave: —crushed velour! [Laughter]
Dave: But I guess he’s not smoking in that jacket. And his wife—
Patreece: I don’t know; he’s kind of smokin’ in his jacket.
Ann: Ooohhh! [Laughter]
Dave: Yes, we might have to end this interview early.
Sho: You better stop; I guess so.
Dave: Who knows what’s going to happen? [Laughter]
Sho: I guess so.
Dave: Anyway, sitting across the table from us, here at FamilyLife Today, is Sho Baraka and his wife, Patreece. We’re excited to have you in Orlando, Florida, on FamilyLife Today.
Sho: Excellent; well, thank you for having us.
Patreece: Thank you.
Dave: We get to talk about a really interesting topic that I’ll let you introduce. Tell us a little bit about your family, because I think that will take us on a journey to where we’re going to go today.
Sho: Yes; Patreece, my lovely wife, and I have been married 19 years. We have three wonderful children: Zoe, who is our oldest; she’s 17. We have a 15-year-old, Zachai, and a 9-year-old, Zimri. Our two boys are on the autism spectrum; and so oftentimes, we get asked to talk about that: “What is that like?—just loving and serving and raising children on the spectrum?”
Raising children in itself, obviously, as you guys know, can be an obstacle, and is a sanctification process in itself, along with marriage. But to raise kids, who are on the autism spectrum, or have some sort of special need, can be a thorn in itself. I think we’ve had some moments of feast, and we’ve had some moments of famine.
Patreece: Yes, absolutely.
Sho: We love the opportunity to have those conversations and talk about it; because one thing that we realize is that, when we were coming through it, we didn’t have a lot of people to pull from. So as much as we can be advocates, as we are stumbling in the dark, trying to figure out our way—hopefully, the things that tripped us up—the couples that come behind us, or the parents/the families that come behind us, won’t have to struggle with some of the same things.
Patreece: Amen; I agree.
Ann: Sho, talk about a little bit of what you do for a living; because I bet a lot of people have heard you.
Sho: Yes; most people may know me, or have heard of me, because I was/or am a performing artist. I started off—my first song I released was probably like 2005, I think, under a label, Reach Records or Clique116, which some people may know—like Lecrae, and Tedashii, and Trip Lee—so I started off with them; so music artist. Been in a couple films.
Dave: —couple films. Now, that I didn’t even know: Patreece, you’re married to a movie star.
Sho: I wouldn’t say a movie star, just a guy who’s been in a couple Christian films.
Dave: Patreece said blockbusters. [Laughter]
Sho: Blockbusters at our house; yes.
And I just wrote a book called He Saw That It Was Good, that was released last year.
Patreece: Your actual nine-to-five—
Sho: Oh, so I work at a church right now. I am, I guess you’d say, creative director at a church.
Dave: You’re going to say that instead of “pastor.” I like that; I like that. [Laughter]
Dave: Because I was going to ask: “Patreece, what’s it like to be married to a pastor?”
Sho: So they treat me like a pastor.
Dave: That means they don’t pay you much? [Laughter]
Sho: Yes; I’m performing all the roles of a pastor, but I’m actually a creative director. You go to our website; it says: “Creative Director.”
Ann: Patreece, how did you guys meet? What’s your story?
Patreece: Oh, I always get stuck with the “How did you guys meet?” story.
Ann: Oh, you do?
Patreece: Mine is more accurate; his is just more entertaining. [Laughter]
Ann: Oh; well, maybe, Sho should—
Patreece: So I’ll let him—
Sho: No, I’ll interject; I’ll interject.
Patreece: Okay; well, yes; we’ll do it that way. We met in college. He was at Tuskegee, and I was at the University of Montebello. We were both involved in Campus Outreach.
Patreece: I was involved on my campus, and he was involved on his campus. I knew his director from going to a summer project a couple years before. When I got there, our mutual friend, Monte, he was like, “Hey, I want you to meet the guy that I was telling you about.” So I walked over, and he introduced us. He [Sho] said, “I heard you did Monte’s album cover.” I said “Yes.” He said, “Well, do you think you can do a picture of me?”
Sho: And then she says, “If I wanted to,” and walked away. [Laughter] I was like, “Okay. What kind of friend do you have? Why is she so rude?”
Dave: That was one of your first—
Patreece: That’s how we met.
Sho: “If I wanted to.”
Patreece: That’s how he received it, but that’s not how I actually said it. I said those words, but I didn’t say it like that. [Laughter]
Ann: We have the same situation.
Dave: You know what—
Ann: When we met, I knew of Dave; but somebody told me he became a Christian. I went up to him and I said, “You became a Christian?” And he says it as—
Dave: Yes, she came up to me, like, [rudely] “YEAH, LIKE YOU’RE A CHRISTIAN!” That’s what she said. [Laughter] “There’s no way you’re a Christian!”
Ann: They were the same words; but no, I did not say—[Laughter]
Patreece: —perceived them differently.
Dave: We all know marriage is all about communication.
Dave: And it isn’t what you say—
Patreece and Dave: —it’s how it’s heard.
Sho: Amen, amen, amen, amen.
Dave: So if that’s how it started, how did it progress?
Patreece: I think the Lord was just forcing the issue, because He kept pushing us together. [Laughter] I hyperextended my right knee, which means it went an entire different direction. I came back to the room, after going to the hospital; and guess who was in charge of making sure I got to where I had to go? Out of everyone on that campus—
Sho: I don’t understand why you’re not thanking the Lord right now. [Laughter] That’s the confusing part of this story.
Patreece: So this guy/this guy, out of 60 people, was the one that was placed in charge of making sure I got to where I had to go the next day—our leadership meeting—because we were both leaders. I was waiting on him, because I could not drive my car because of my knee; and he was late. I had to go find my own ride.
Patreece: So when I found my ride,—
Sho: This is not a shining moment.
Patreece: —I was hobbling down the stairs on my crutches. He goes, “Oh, you’re already outside.” I told him—it was definitely with an attitude this time—I said, “I have my own ride.” [Laughter] And I just walked past him and got in the car with another gentleman. He made sure I got to where I had to go.
That same Saturday, we went and evangelized; and he was over it. I got a chance to see his passion for people when he found out people were not doing what they were supposed to do. He was very angry and frustrated, and I kind of took a step back; and I saw him in a different light. Because evangelism is a weakness for me; so to see someone, who is very passionate about the lives that we could have impacted when people weren’t doing their job, impressed me. So I decided to observe him from a distance, without him knowing that I was interested. I began to understand that there’s a character trait in him that I didn’t see initially that I respect. I remember going out with him, and then that was—
Sho: She saw me braid that whip and run the moneychangers out of the temple; and she was like, “I think I like this young man.” [Laughter]
Ann: But you guys both saw that passion for Jesus in one another, it sounds like.
Sho: Absolutely. I thought she was obnoxious and stuck up; but to her point, I saw the leadership quality in her. She was committed to those young ladies. She was literally washing their feet. I was like, “Who washes people’s feet for real?” Just to see her commitment and her tenacity for those young ladies was so impressive to me.
Dave: So when you get married—and again, I’m sort of jumping forward a little bit—but no kids yet?
Sho: We got married in 2003, and we didn’t have our first child until 2004.
Dave: A lot has happened since then—
Patreece: More than a lot.
Dave: —which, you know, having kids is one thing; having kids with special needs adds a whole another dynamic.
Ann: Well, you had your daughter first.
Patreece: Yes, we had her first; and so we felt like we knew what a developing child looked like, because she did everything she was supposed to do during the time frame she was supposed to do it.
When our son came along, and things were different—like just something different about his mannerisms; the things that he was doing were awkward—and I was like, “Why is he doing that?” We were talking with each other.
Ann: How old was he when you started to notice that?
Patreece: Maybe a year.
Sho: Yes, it was between a year and—
Patreece: Yes, he was flapping a lot,—
Sho: Different kinds of stimulating behaviors, yes.
Patreece: —like doing his ears a lot, and he was constantly just enamored by things that were repetitive. I was like, “What’s happening?”
Ann: What did you feel like, Sho, with that? Did that scare you?
Sho: Yes; it scared me because—one of the things she didn’t communicate is that he began to start walking on his tippy toes, which was awkward—he would respond to his name before; then he stopped responding to his name.
Dave: Oh, he did?
Sho: He did have a couple words that regressed as well, so you’re like, “What in the world is happening?” I will say this, though—years before we got married and, maybe, a year into our marriage—I worked at a residential treatment facility, so I had a little experience working with people on the autism spectrum. I would see certain things that they would do, and then I would see my son do those things. I was like, “But it can’t be!”
Ann: So there was a little denial.
Sho: Oh, absolutely. And then you have the conversations with family members, who are like, “Oh, don’t worry about it. He’ll be alright. Your cousin didn’t speak until he was 35.” [Laughter] You’re like, “Okay. I guess that gives me some hope.”
No, you try to figure out whatever lie you can tell yourself to give you comfort. You just try to live with that; and then you get this disrupting news from the pediatrician, and you have to wrestle and reconcile with that information. It’s like, “Is this really our life?” And then all the insecurities begin to come.
Ann: What do you mean by that?
Patreece: As a mother, my personal struggle was the fact that it was punishment for how I felt when I found out I was pregnant unexpectedly.
Dave: Tell us; what does that mean?
Dave: You felt what?
Sho: We did not plan this child.
Patreece: Yes; he was quite a surprise. I found out I was pregnant with him as I was applying for another job, because I’d just been released from my teaching position. I had been a teacher at a private school for three years, and they started letting staff that they had hired recently go. I had to find another job. He was jobs, school—in between a bunch of things—and I was more stable. He was working, but it was more consistent with me.
It became a distressing moment because, applying for this new job, I had an opportunity to be an art therapist for abused and neglected children at a residential treatment facility. The first step is you’re hired, but you need to pass a drug test; I wasn’t concerned about that. When I went to get my results—saw the results during a tour of the facility—she said, “Oh, congratulations!” I’m like, “What do you mean? I already know I’m going to pass the drug test.” She said, “No, you’re five weeks pregnant!” I was like, “Excuse me?!” She said, “Apparently, you did not know that?” I was like, “No, ma’am; I had no idea I was.”
Patreece: So this is how I found out I was carrying our second child.
Ann: And the timing wasn’t great.
Patreece: It was not great—because financially, we’re trying to figure ourselves out—we have a new child. Zoe may have been ten months at the time when we found out we were pregnant again. It just became a strain, financially, between us, communicating/it was just a lot of things that can happen in a new marriage that was happening all at once. It damaged how we were feeling about each other—between the frustrations and the stress—and trying to move forward.
I had my concerns of working with abused and neglected children; because at the time, I had to take self-defense training. You’re working with traumatized children, and things happen. So now, I’m concerned about my new child; but then, I’m also depressed because I am pregnant, and I don’t really want to be right now. So throughout that process, I struggled with the joy of knowing that I was carrying another life.
Ann: And so you thought, “Is this my punishment?”
Ann: Do you guys think that’s typical?
Shelby: That’s Dave and Ann Wilson with Patreece and Sho Baraka on FamilyLife Today. We’ll hear their response in just a minute.
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Alright; now, back to Dave and Ann’s conversation with Patreece and Sho Baraka, and if it’s common or not for parents of special needs kids to feel like they’re being punished.
Sho: One of the greatest burdens that a lot of—and I’ll say mothers, and I’ll speak for mothers, even though I’m obviously not a woman—but as a husband, I think we recognize that women, oftentimes, carry the shame of bearing children, who have some sort of deficiency, if you will/some sort of special need, because that’s just the way—women are nurturers, and they’re connected to their child in a way that a father isn’t. She’s even communicated that there are ways in which the husband can show empathy, and care, and help them carry that burden. I didn’t do a good job of that in the early years.
I do think there’s a bit of shame that comes with carrying that, because I felt it. So when you add the insecurity that I had, was not necessarily the shame of like [what a mom would think]—man, [mine was] so selfish—like [a mom thinks], “Ooh, the things that this kid is going to have to deal with,”—it was more so: “You’re telling me my boy won’t play sports? You’re telling me that I won’t be able to teach him how to…” “ You mean he won’t ever go to a prom?” “You mean…” I’m thinking about all the things that I want to do or live through my son.
Ann: It’s the death of your dreams.
Sho: Yes, exactly. And I will no longer be able to live out these grand adventures, etcetera, etcetera with this; and so there comes the shame. It’s almost like a double shame: it’s the shame of not being able to do those things, but also a shameful way of thinking about it, like an affliction, if you will. I’ll just call it that in the moment, because it’s not even compassion for the individual; it’s more so the selfishness that you get to live out.
To skip a little bit further, you’re ashamed to take them in public because, depending on the type of behaviors they display, like: “Okay, we’re going to go in the store. I hope they just don’t act a fool; please.”
Patreece: He was a fit thrower.
Dave: You said something that I think a lot of parents might feel when anything goes wrong with their child—whether it be special needs or something tragic happens—I think sometimes, as parents, we do feel like it’s God getting us back through them.
My dad was a womanizing guy, pretty much an alcoholic, left my mom with his girlfriend when I was seven. I had a little brother, five. My mom and I and my little brother moved to Ohio. That’s why we ended up in Ohio, because her parents lived there. She’s [my mom’s] a single mom. My little brother dies of leukemia within three months.
I know my dad carried that, probably his whole life, like: “That’s God’s punishment for my life.” He never said that, but I know he felt it: “That’s how God…”—and it isn’t at all—but you just said something like, “Well, I felt like…” Do you think that’s sort of common?
Patreece: It was absolutely a truth that I believed.
Ann: How did you deal with it then?
Patreece: I think it took a very long time. I don’t think I officially dealt with it until after we had our second son, and that was seven years later. It was a battle every time we were in Emergency Room with Zachai, because he was sickly; he was sick often. He was jaundiced when he was born, and it was just other things. I was like: “It’s what you get. You should have appreciated the gift. You should have appreciated the gift, and now this is the outcome of that.”
I just kind of kept to myself for the most part because I didn’t want anyone to know that I felt that way about my child when I found that I was pregnant, because I was embarrassed. It was difficult for me to say that: “This is my son, Zachai; and he’s autistic because of me,” or “He’s not going to have a normal life because of me.”
Dave: Did you even tell Sho? Did you know?
Patreece: No, I don’t think/I never communicated it.
Sho: But no, she never communicated that, I don’t think, until years and years after.
Patreece: Yes, actually years later.
Sho: But you’re keen to it; you can sense it.
Dave: Yes; did you feel any of that?
Ann: And it eats you away.
Sho: No, honestly, I never felt that.
Patreece: It ate at us and our marriage.
Sho: Yes; I never felt like God was punishing us per se.
Patreece: No, he never felt that; because he never knew my thoughts when I was pregnant.
Patreece: I never told him. I could never tell my husband—I was like: “I don’t want this child that we’re about to have,”—because how can you say that? There was nothing in me that could make that thought okay, so I never communicated that to him. I never wanted him to have the opportunity to feel that, because I felt that this was something I brought on myself.
Ann: Yes, with part of us that we don’t want our spouse to see—and that you just carry guilt and shame—and then you just bury it.
Dave: How did it affect your marriage?
Patreece: We did not like each other for a long time.
Sho: Yes; during that period of time, it was very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very—
Dave: And is this because you have a child with special needs, or is it bigger than that?
Sho: I think it’s compounded; it was compounded.
Patreece: Yes, with that; and then like I said, we were struggling financially; and we were trying to figure things out.
Sho: I think identity as a whole—I mean, we were young—I was like 22, maybe/maybe 23.
Patreece: Yes; I was older than him.
Sho: Somehow she got younger than me as the years passed on. [Laughter] But I think it was just, one, being/I know I was immature. I thank God for His grace every day that He kept me during the early years of our marriage. But I think it’s that: just trying to figure out who you are as an individual. I think trying to work through this being a parent of a kid with special needs.
I will say I think we had adequate marriage counseling.
Sho: And we went to a church that would seem fairly healthy.
I think now, if I could go back, there are much tougher questions that we should have wrestled with. There were things that I should have dealt with: like my sexual past, sexual expectations, communication, anger issues that I never really reconciled with that I think I brought into the marriage.
We knew we were different people from different experiences, and you just pay lip service to that. It was like: “Oh, no; my parents did this,” and “My parents…” “Okay, we won’t be like our parents.”
Dave: —and “We love each other so much.”
Sho: Amen; amen.
Ann: —and “We love Jesus so much.”
Sho: “And we love Jesus; so I mean, we’re going to make it”; right?
Sho: No; you see, on paper, that seems great; but then—Mike Tyson says, “Everybody’s got a plan ‘til you get hit in the mouth,”—[Laughter]—and then we would get hit in the mouth, and you revert to those old ways. And then you retreat, or you lash out, and you forget that the Holy Spirit is in you; and so you make some decisions. I do think there’s a lot of things I think we would tell our young selves.
Dave: I was just going to ask you: “What would you say to a mom, or a dad, or a couple listening right now, who are feeling like you felt, like, ‘Some of the bad things that happened in my life are—
Ann: —-“’my fault.’”
Dave: —“’God’s punishing me.’ It might be they have a son or daughter with special needs; it might be something else. You’ve learned a lot; you’ve matured. What would you say?”
Patreece: I can only tell them what I’m experiencing now—because that’s where I have to live in order to, I guess, mentally survive, knowing that there is a realistic future for my son, and that my son/both of my sons are gifts—to not look at it as some form of punishment but as a different perspective of God, that you would not normally get to see.
Because not everyone has a certain special need. Most people are normal, and we have similar things in common, where you’re like: “Oh, this is…” “This is normal,” “This is normal.” But when you have a child with special needs, they see the world differently; you get to experience a different type of person. We are created in His image; so you can’t look at that child and say, “This is not a part of God.”
Sho: Yes; they’re incomplete in some sort of way.
Sho: But they’re just a different expression of who God is—
Sho: —-a different expression of how to love.
One of the things that I think we’ve learned in this is that it’s taught us a lot about God’s love and how God loves us—is that love is not based on performance—and that no matter how well or disappointing our kids perform, if you will, that doesn’t change our affection for our children. The reality of it is that God looks at us, and we don’t perform well at times, and we don’t do the things that God has taught us to do; but yet, that doesn’t change His affection and His love for us.
So we just try to figure out: “Okay, if they’re not neurotypical, in what ways do they communicate so that we can connect? In what ways do they love differently?”They love without words—I love to communicate this—like they love without words, and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s taught me—you talked about this yesterday—about how it’s taught you how to be compassionate towards people.
Patreece: Oh, absolutely. I’m sure we’ve all had that moment, before we knew someone who had a special needs child, that would judge that parent for letting their child run crazy and scream in the store; it’s like: “Lady, get your child under control.
Dave: Right, right.
Patreece: “That child needs discipline.”
Patreece: You have no clue what that mother is wrestling with—the child—you have no idea. I’ve seen that before, since I’ve had my own children and my own experience of being that mother, that I had to leave baskets, full of groceries, in the store; because my son is flipping out.
I have had a moment, where I’ve gone up to a mother who was having a hard time, and just asking her, “How can I help you? Do you need me to put the groceries on the thing? I’ll even pay for them if you need to be with your child.” Because in the past, I would have judged her. It’s only happened once, but I’d like to think that moment of compassion that I showed her made a difference in her life at that moment, which is probably all she needed was a moment.
Ann: So you’ve learned to give grace,—
Ann: —without judging, which we all need to learn.
Shelby: You’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Patreece and Sho Baraka on FamilyLife Today. Tomorrow, they’ll continue the conversation as Sho and Patreece get honest about when they were genuinely dreading the fact that they were going to have a third kid. What did that mean for their faith? They’ll talk about that tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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