by Tim Paauw
We are your typical family of five living in the Midwest region of the U.S.A. For some that know our family well, you may be surprised with my use of the word ‘typical’ in that last sentence. Allow me a chance to explain…
Here is how I view us as a typical family. My wife Laura and I have been married for over 12 years now, both educators at heart. I used to teach fourth grade and am now a Christian school principal. She taught first grade and now takes care of our children from the home front full-time. We have twin 8 year olds (one boy and one girl) and a 4 year old son. Similar to most parents, from our children’s birth we have been praying for their life ahead. We have dreams of their future and we will remain committed to providing them the best we can together. We do typical things like take family hikes. Our kids love jumping on the trampoline and going on the swing-set in our backyard. We have strengths as a family and weaknesses. We are among many who have children diagnosed with some sort of difference. Sounds pretty typical, correct?
Okay, so some things aren’t as typical for our family. Our two boys both have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a diagnosis that is estimated in 1 of every 59 people. ASD has no known cause or cure, but a lot of research is rapidly being done and genetic studies are making big gains in recent years. Our sons are both non-verbal but working hard at expressing themselves and each making progress in their own ways and own time. About 25% of people diagnosed with ASD are non-verbal or minimally verbal (a decade ago it was closer to 50%).
We often hear people say, “Well, at least after your first one you know what to do and have the resources and training!” Those reading this with family or friends with ASD know all too well that “When you’ve met one person with autism… you’ve met one person with autism.” Our boys are SO different from each other that very little transfers from one boy’s situation to the other. However, we are blessed to know our state’s laws on autism and insurance coverage provisions. We are blessed to know how to access therapies and come prepared to share at meetings with those who partner with us in meeting their needs. Those are among a short list of things we anticipate being the same for our boys in this journey.
Every day in our shoes is unique. We never know what people are judging us, but we know we are judged daily in various ways. Someone just has to witness one of those moments when our younger son may have a meltdown in a public setting because of too many lights, sounds, and people to sense the stares and feelings from around the room. Our version of “going out for dinner” often consists of a drive-thru and what we call a “car picnic” because we can still be together as a family and enjoy a restaurant experience to an extent but from the comfort of our car and without the stares of onlookers (“no shoes, no service” actually has an impact on our family from a practical standpoint as both boys prefer to kick their shoes off in any setting without regard or ability to process that expectation).
We get it… people more often than not worry about offending us and aren’t sure what to say around us. People are aware that our boys are different, sometimes paralyzing people from interacting with our family for fear of being under-prepared for the unknown. No offense but you cannot offend us, nor will you break us. I would challenge you to engage with US. Help us feel more normal and welcomed by being among those that befriend our boys fearlessly and ask questions of us in genuine curiosity. I imagine if you take that leap of faith once with a family like ours, you will find a deep satisfaction and gain comfort in doing so with others. Be courageous with us.
Although our family takes “car picnics” for peace and quiet as a family, we also know the importance of stretching our boys and aiming to help them enjoy community and society. We push them even when we are unsure of how things will go. We believe firmly in the value of “inclUSion.” When people bring community together without restrictions of who can be present, we all gain in our empathy skills, friendships will grow, and all will be blessed. Here is how I often explain what Laura and I believe in: “InclUSion is when commUNITY makes everyone feel like they are a part of US. Jesus’ love shines through unity.”
If you read 1 Corinthians 12 in the Bible, you can see a clear picture of what inclusion looks like. It is what I believe to be a biblical blueprint.
If you are still unsure if you believe inclusion is worth it. You might believe there is a better place elsewhere for kids like my boys than in your setting. I’d challenge that notion as ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’ thinking and it is incorrect and a lost opportunity. Just ask any one of our son Nolan’s friends from his class at West Side Christian School or the Children’s Worship hour at Westend CRC on Sunday. Through their smiles and giggles they can tell you what our son likes and doesn’t like, they are true friends. You would see in them the genuine joy that “US” brings to community and how quickly all of the possible unknown fears can fade when love is central. This Is Us.
Looking for more resources, training, or support related to inclUSion for your own school or church? Please consider contacting our friends at the CLC Network.