Autism and the Imago Dei

By Jill Olds

I felt the tap on my shoulder.  I closed my eyes briefly, and thought, ‘Here we go again.’  I managed to bring a modicum of a smile to my face and turned around.

“Would he like some crayons? We have activity packs in the back.” a kindly woman asked.

“No, thank you.  But I appreciate the offer,” I replied.

“Maybe if he had some toys?”

“Unfortunately, they wouldn’t help.  I wish they would.  Thank you, though.” I turned back to my two-year-old son Zack, his little body squirming in the pew, his little voice not so little as he sang to himself.

This was not the first time I had had this conversation.  Zack has high-functioning autism and ADHD.  He wouldn’t be diagnosed until a year after this encounter, but he had received nearly twenty hours of therapeutic services that year, so we had a strong sense that a diagnosis of some kind was looming. 

Bringing any child to a traditional worship service is hard.  In many church services, the centuries-old model of passive listening—for a full hour—remains firmly in place, as hard as the wooden pews themselves.  Even the best-behaved of children (and adults for that matter) can find that their minds and spirits wander, especially those whose primary learning style is not an auditory one. 

But children with special needs take “distracted” to a whole new level.  In the words of a friend of mine, having a child with a diagnosis like autism or other developmental delays necessitates “Olympic parenting.”  It requires the highest possible degree of patience, an unbelievably thick skin, and a hyper-awareness of anticipated triggers, the tiniest of which could transform an entire day’s plans and trajectory.  It’s like driving down a poorly tended road at night, scanning for potholes.

Bringing Zack to church was the most challenging hour of my weekly routine.  It meant that he had to sit and be quiet.  Leaving him in the nursery was impossible, unless I stayed with him, which defeated the purpose.  Skipping church altogether wasn’t a good option either: I was a pastor’s spouse (and a pastor myself, taking time off to stay at home), and I deeply believe in the value of raising children within a church community.  And so, week after week, we sat.  And, while most church members were unfailingly kind and helpful, I could never quite find a way to sit with my own anxiety.  My own fidgety guilt mirrored my son’s body.  I couldn’t control my son.  Zack was different; he would never act like the other kids.  The shame I felt was overwhelming.

And the shame went beyond my very public failure to corral my child’s behavior.  In seminary, I had learned about the imago dei, the image of God bestowed upon all of us in a tremendous act of grace.  The imago dei is the core of our being, the source of life, of love, of holiness within each person, and those who are differently-abled and who have special needs are no different.  They carry within them a unique holiness, a different way of seeing and experiencing the world, but those of us who have had limited experience with this community can struggle to see this unique holiness.  Such was the case with me. 

Zack was the first autistic person I had ever really known.  And, ashamed as I was of my inability to calm his behavior, the shame ran much deeper.  It was about my inability to live into what I knew in my bones to be true.  Where was the holy presence in this child of mine?  I loved him dearly.  Fiercely.  And I always would.  But I knew I was struggling to see the divine spark within our relationship as mother and son—just as much as he was struggling to see why he needed to stay quiet and seated on a wooden bench. 

My seminary textbooks couldn’t help me now; I was called to the much harder work of training myself to have eyes to see the holiness in this beloved, flailing, singing little body that God had given me.  

Zack is a work in progress.  Now six years old, he is a thriving first grader.  He is funny, (mostly) kind to his younger brother, and an avid reader.  He is in a mainstream classroom and is doing very well academically, but the long hours of attentiveness take a lot out of him, and sometimes his behavior shows that.  He works incredibly hard just to do what is expected of him.  And for that, I couldn’t be prouder of him.

I too am a work in progress.  We church folks are all called to carry compassion.  We are called to the difficult work of allowing the so-called “other” to manifest their own imago dei and to love them simply for who they have been created to be.  I’d love to be able to share that I’ve now perfected this with Zack, but that would be inauthentic and would not do justice to the work that God still wishes to do within me.  But what I have learned is that this wondering is richly deep and that it will, in the end, help usher in the all-inclusive, radically loving and grace-filled kingdom of God.

A few days ago, Zack came back from a Sunday school class at my husband’s church, paper in hand.  “What’s this, buddy?” I asked.  The paper was about Lent and what new practices they might engage in for the season.  Zack had written about prayer, noting that he could pray for “Everybody exept for bad strandgers” and that he could pray for 100 hours a day.  

Zack has some growth yet to do.  So do I.  But the sense of imago dei, of divine holiness, is there.  And for that, I am deeply grateful.

Jill and Zack

Jill is an ordained minister within the United Church of Christ, and has served both as a church minister and a hospital chaplain.  She is also a mother, wife, avid walker, movie aficionado, and hasn't met a food she doesn't love.  Jill enjoys reading great works of fiction, and among them would be a claim that she spends her spare time doing all sorts of fascinating things!  The reality is that most days are filled with enjoying time with family and friends, and doing the work of furthering God's love in the world.  She wouldn't have it any other way.